Juanelo Turriano

Let him that would move the world, first move himself.—Socrates
Katatsuburi soro-soro nobore fuji no yama—Issa

Juanelo Turriano, ca. 1565-1570, Museo de Santa Cruz (Toledo)
Juanelo Turriano, ca. 1565-1570, Museo de Santa Cruz (Toledo)

The first android in the Western World, a completely mechanical figure which simulated a living human or animal, operating with an apparently responsive action, is believed to have been constructed in 1525 by Hans Bullmann (?-1535) of Nuremberg, Germany. Bullmann actually reportedly produced a number of extremely ingenious figures of men and women that moved and played musical instruments, for which Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman emperor, summoned him to Vienna, for whom Bullmann produced a variety of novelties before returning to Nuremberg. Bullmann was an ingenuous master locksmith and mechanic, who is known also to be the first to set up a true astronomical clock and to invent the letter lock. Unfortunately, neither a working mechanism nor a description of his devices survived to the present time.

At least one automation of his contemporary however—the Italian/Spanish inventor and clockmaker Juanelo Turriano (1501-1585), namely the so-called Lute Player Lady automaton, created in the middle 1550s, did survive to the present and now is displayed in the Kunstkammer of Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

The height of the Lute Player automaton (see the lower image) is 44 cm. Though no longer able to actually function, it is said to move with small tripping steps, strumming the lute with its right hand, and turning its head from right to left. It can advance in a straight line, or follow the path of a circle.

Gianello Torriano's lute (mandolin) player
Gianello Torriano’s lute (mandolin) player

Ambrosio de Morales, a court annalist to King Philip II, professor at the University of Alcalá de Henares, and close friend of Turriano, wrote the following passage in his great history of the antiquities of Spain:
Juanelo as a diversion also wanted to create anew the ancient statues which moved and, on that account, were called automata by the Greeks. He made a lady more than one tercia (28 cm) high who was placed on a table, dances all over it to the sound of a drum which she meanwhile beats herself, and goes around in circles, returning to where she started from. Though it is a toy and fit for mirth, it is nevertheless great proof of his high intelligence.

The Italian Jesuit and historian Famiano Strada (1572—1649) also mentioned Turriano’s devices in his De Bello Belgico (1632), including small men on horses that staged battles and moved and blew trumpets, and birds that flew about the room as if alive. Strada mentioned also that these devices scared the monks and prior of the abbey where his patron Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, was staying, making them suspect that Turriano was a wizard 🙂

Charles V called Turriano to Spain in 1529, and there he was appointed as a Court Clock Master and later as Matemático Mayor. When the infirm Charles V abdicated his throne in 1555 and retired to the monastery at San Yuste, Turriano accompanied him and devoted himself to averting the Emperor’s moods of depression by creating little automata for his diversion. Tradition relates that Turriano’s little figures often appeared on the dinner table after the Emperor’s meal in the form of armed soldiers who marched about, rode horseback, beat drums, blew trumpets, and engaged in battle with lances. At another time Turriano is said to have released little birds carved of wood which flew about the room, out of the windows, and returned, to the great disapproval of the Father Superior, who considered them to be works of the devil. It is believed also that he created a wooden robot that could fetch the Emperor’s daily bread from the store.

Gianello Torriano's Clockwork Prayer
Gianello Torriano’s Clockwork Prayer

It seems the most famous invention of Turriano, the Lute (mandolin) Playing Lady automaton was built namely for Charles V between 1555 and 1558 when Charles V died. It was extremely lifelike in its motions for its time automaton. Besides the music playing, the automaton could walk and tilt her head.

In the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, there is a sixteenth-century automaton of a monk (see the nearby image), which some historians believe was made by Turriano around 1560 (while others attributed it to Hans Bullmann).

The so-called Clockwork Prayer was made of wood and iron, 39 cm in height. Driven by a key-wound spring, the monk walks in a square (turns approximately every 50 cm), striking his chest with his right arm, raising and lowering a small wooden cross and rosary in his left hand, turning and nodding his head, rolling his eyes, and mouthing silent obsequies. Every once in a while, he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. Amazingly, after some four and a half centuries, the automaton remains in good working order. A legend is told that King Philip II, praying at the bedside of a dying son of his own (Don Carlos), promised a miracle for a miracle, if his child is spared. And when Don Carlos did indeed recover, Philip kept his bargain by having Turriano construct a miniature penitent homunculus.

Biography of Juanelo Turriano

Juanelo Turriano (Gianello Torriano) (1501-1585)
Juanelo Turriano (Janello Torriani) (ca. 1500-1585)

The hero of our story was known as Juanelo Turriano in Spain and as Janello (Gianello) Torriani (Torriano) in Italy, but he was born Giovanni Torresani (or della Torre) in the town of Cremona, Lombardy, Italy, around 1500. Janello was from a humble family, and his father Gherardo Torresani (?-1536) was a small landowner and rented a mill on the Po River. Still a child, Janello had as a mentor Giorgio Fondulo (1473-1535), a physicist, doctor, mathematician, astrologer, and philosopher, who exerted a fundamental influence on his formation. Antonio Campi (1524-1587), a countryman of Turriano, wrote in 1585: Of all the craftsmen our city had, none has given to it more honor than Gianello Torriano, a man of low origins, but gifted by God with such a sublime ingeniousness that he astonished the world, and everybody reckoned him to be a miracle of Nature because, even though he has always been illiterate, he was able to talk about astrology and about the other mathematical arts so profoundly and on such a strong basis, that he seemed to have always attended to nothing but that. He learned astrology before reading, his teacher being Giorgio Fondulo, a doctor in medicine, philosopher, and excellent mathematician, who, recognizing his supernatural genius, loved Torriani very deeply.

When he grew up, Janello entered as an apprentice a watchmaking workshop, where he learned the trade, and became very skilled in clockwork and mechanics from his teen years. In the late 1520s Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, sent word to major cities that he needed a skilled clockmaker who could repair the Astrarium in Padua, built in the 14th century by Giovanni de’ Dondi. Turriano was hired for the job, and upon inspection he came to the conclusion that the clock was rusted and worn beyond repair. He then decided that he was going to build a similar clock, and it took him 20 years to design the clock of 1800 wheels, and then three and half more years to make it all by hand.

In the late 1530s, Turriano is listed as “magister” in the construction records for Cremona Cathedral, which mention his work on two clocks, one on the bell tower and the other on the doors to a christening font.

After entering the service of Charles V, Turriano not only managed the court workshop, in which he built and supported clocks and instruments but also wrote technical treatises for the Crown, partake in astronomical observations with academicians, surveyed other people’s work, and drafted projects. When Charles V died in 1558, Turriano entered the service of his son Philip II (although he had already a life-long pension of 100 gold escudos, granted by the Emperor in 1552), where he further distinguished himself with works of hydraulic and civil engineering. It seems however that Emperor Philip II did not have his predecessor’s love for automatons, so Turriano found other ways to work.

Artificio de Juanelo in Toledo
Artificio de Juanelo in Toledo

One of his final projects was a massive water delivery system in Toledo, the so-called Artificio de Juanelo, which was to carry 12000 liters of water a day from the River Tagus to a height of almost 100 meters, to supply the city and its castle (Alcázar). The contract was signed in 1563 by Juanelo, the city and a representative of the king. The works began in 1565 and the water reached the top of the hill in 1569. Not only the amount promised but something more, a total of about 18000 liters per day, which was more than what was agreed. Juanelo built a second Artificio that finished in 1581, and it worked for some 60 years.

Turriano was a friend of the Italian polymath Girolamo Cardano (1501-1576) and made instruments upon his order, and of the humanist, bishop, and poet Marco Girolamo Vida (1480-1566). Cardano described him as “a man of great ingenuity in anything that concerns machines”. There is an interesting text by Vida from 1550, who compared Turriano to the ancient Roman God Vulcan “with his face, hair, and beard covered and smeared with abundant ash and disgusting soot, with his thick and enormous hands and fingers always full of rust, unkempt, poorly and extravagantly dressed… However, lest anyone should imagine that some excellent master in mathematics has prepared for him the calculations of the orbits, of the motions of the stars and has solved it all for him before because he understands nothing about these things, but is only skilled in craftmanship, let him know that he invents them all and fabricates them by himself with no help of any kind, using his own talent, his own research, his own fancy. He is both inventor and executor at once…”.

Turriano married Antonia de Segiella in 1530 at Cremona. The next year, in 1531, was born their daughter, Barbara Medea. Then, they had a son. Around 1539 the family moved to Milan, where their son died in the middle 1540s. In 1650 Turriano was elected head of Milan’s ironsmith guild. He remained in Milan (except for his stays at court in Germany and Netherlands) until early 1556 when he joined the retinue of Charles V who abdicated the throne in 1555 and retired to the monastery at San Yuste. After the death of Charles V in 1558, Turriano lived mainly in Toledo.

Turriano was attributed also with the invention of history’s first known gear-cutting machine and with a significant role in the calculation of the calendar reform of Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. He was also known for Cristalino and Microcosmo, magnificent astronomical clocks, and two splendid planetariums.

Juanelo Turriano made his will on 11 June and died at Toledo two days later, on 13 June 1585. He was buried there, a few meters above the place where the Artifice stood, in the now-defunct Convento del Carmen. Some sources say that he died in misery, after not having received payment for his work in Toledo.