What is mechanical philology

The term “mechanical philology” has for the past few decades been used to refer to that field of research within the history of technology which deals with the study and reconstruction of real and virtual models of machines and technologies described in past documents or archaeological finds. Mechanical philology was born as a sector of multidisciplinary research which unites the traditional competences of historians with the avant-garde competences of technicians. Together these figures consult and interpret the sources of the history of technology, with the aim of understanding and explaining the machines and the technical processes of the past.

The technical design of the Renaissance

In referring to the designs of the Renaissance machines, it has been pointed out that they are essentially “portraits” – devoid of design value in the modern sense of the term. As a consequence they should be seen as operation diagrams and not as executive designs. Although they are important vehicles of technical information, their translation into functioning models requires interpretation and integration with all those details that make up the construction phase and without which the machine could not possibly works.

These drawings constitute a visual summary of the essential parts of a design whose quantitative co-ordinates, although vague and incomplete, still depended exclusively on verbal language. This is true for example of: Guido da Vigevano’s war machines, Mariano di Iacopo’s  (il Taccola) and Francesco di Giorgio’s  machines; Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings and Vannoccio Biringuccio’s and Giorgio Agricola’s metallurgic equipment.

In many of these cases the drawings, despite being portraits, were not realized to stay on paper but, together with the quantitative information expressed verbally, had to convey the idea of the technological device and offer the executioner the principal indications for the construction of the machine. The reconstruction of the virtual models of these machines, apart from the test of their functioning capacities cinematically, is also a sounding board for testing the efficacy of the communication, graphic and linguistic strategies, via which technical knowledge is conveyed.