by Brooke Chilvers
It’s likely my fascination with “automata,” or automatons, dates back to a New York City childhood where winter wonderlands were encased in the windows of Bloomingdale’s and Saks Fifth Avenue at Christmas. Reindeer pedaled the air in the snow and Santa’s workers pounded away, until someone pulled the plug.
In fact, mechanical toys date back to the third century BC Han dynasty. Visitors to Europe have long been thrilled with town clocks that move animatronic figures, such as the 15th century Prague Astrological Clock, installed in 1410, and the oldest of its kind still in operation. Its figures represent Vanity, Greed, Usury, and Lust, with the redeeming Twelve Apostles appearing every hour, although its bell is rung by Death in the form of a skeleton.
Among history’s most spectacular robotic works of art are the three 15th century table-top mechanical galleons created by Renaissance German clockmaker and goldsmith, Hans Schlottheim (1545–1625), who lived and worked in Augsburg, where he installed the first public clock, became Meister craftsman, then head of his guild; in 1586, he was allowed to work in Prague for three years, and finally in Dresden (1589–1593).
Today, these musical clockwork warships, all built between 1585 and 1590, are in Vienna’s Fine Art Museum, London’s British Museum, and the Musée de la Renaissance in Écouen, 20 miles north of Paris. The last two, both likely built in Prague, resemble each other most; and both originated in the same Dresden Kunstkammer, or “cabinet of curiosities,” indicating they were likely commissioned either by Augustus, Elector of Saxony (1526–1586), or his son Christian I (1560–1591), unless they were given to the court as gifts. The Vienna ship was built for the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II (1552–1612), a grandson of Emperor Charles V who, in addition to his excellent taste in art, loved globes, scientific instruments, and telescopes.
The word automate in French means a machine or object that is capable of imitating the movement of human or animal bodies—from dogs barking to laundresses washing clothes—by mechanical, hydraulic, or pneumatic means, as well as electric or electronic. The galleons, like Écouen’s La Nef de Charles Quint (The Galleon of Charles V), acquired in 1857 from a private collector, were conceived as centerpieces, or surtout de table, meant to surprise, awe, and delight banquet guests as the self-propelled warship moved down the length of the table, playing robust music and firing cannons.
Despite both the double-headed eagle on its flags, and the columns flanking the emperor being a clear reference to Charles V’s (1500-1558) personal emblem of the Pillars of Hercules, it’s not entirely sure the figure is him—the Renaissance’s most powerful ruler, embodying Habsburg power at its height. Not only did the Holy Roman Emperor’s mighty maritime force conquer Ottoman Tunis in 1535, he could finance such campaigns with his New World victories over the Inca and Aztec empires, including Francisco Pizarro’s extraction of a two-million gold-ducat ransom for the kidnapped Inca king, Atahualpa, who nonetheless was executed.
The Charles Quint warship, carrying 41 figures, measures 70 cm (27.5 inches) in length and is one meter (39.3 inches) tall. Each of its three masts, with furled sails and topped with a metal pennant, is manned by a painted wooden figure, not gilt-brass like all the others. Along with the 10 trumpeters, a drummer, and a cymbal player, an organ makes music to extoll the emperor’s virtues and accompany him into battle. Operated by various spring-driven clockwork mechanisms, sailors tug ropes, another works the rudder, while still others observe the three heralds and eight Prince Electors, distinguished by their ermine collars and hats, forever paying tribute with their perpetual procession around the Emperor, enthroned on the quarterdeck of the stern, who acknowledges each one with a turn of his head and the lowering of his scepter.
The ship’s gilt-brass hull is embossed with waves and sea monsters to its “submerged” height. In addition to the portholes are openings for 10 cannons, plus the wheel-lock cannon coming out of the dragon-shaped bowsprit.
Unfortunately, not all of the seven different mechanisms that direct the ship’s clock, figures, and music are working. The mechanism that triggers the musicians to raise their trumpets, strike the drum and clap the cymbals, interacts with another that moves the Electors in their ceremonial parade around the throne. The clock’s mechanism causes the two sailors in the crow’s nests on the main mast to strike the tiny bells every hour and quarter hour. Another clockwork motor sets the four wheels into action, which causes the rudder to move, and the foremast and mizzenmast to “turn in the wind.”
In an era where time was mostly kept by the ringing of church bells or following the sun’s path, the ship’s enameled clock is surprisingly small. This is due to the fashion, in watchmakers’ workshops in Augsburg and Nürnberg during the rise of mechanically counted time, to achieve ever smaller mechanisms and the smallest possible clocks.
The tradition of centerpiece ships for highly staged royal dinners dates back to the Middle Ages. While entertainment, a galleon advancing to the rhythm of waves, its hidden bellows pumping out fanfares, and its cannons firing nearly a dozen times, are strong reminders of the audacity of exploration, warfare, and conquest.
You can watch the Écouen galleon and its mechanisms in action on: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1s9zb2
After a 10-year restoration, the Vienna warship can now be seen on YouTube; search: “Kunstkammer Wien: der Schiffsautomat”
Although Lyon allowed the doors to shut on its Musée des Automates in 2022 (you can still get an inkling on YouTube: “La magie des automates lyonnais”), other automata museums exist in Paris, La Rochelle, and in Falaise, which Brooke just visited. Also the birthplace of William the Conqueror, Falaise’s castle, churches, cheeses, and Calvados make it a good stop in Normandy.