La Conoscenza del Fare

First of all all credit should go to Andrea Bernardoni for having made available for scholars the first organic monographic study on Vannoccio Biringuccio. The author applies intelligence and measure to the not so simple task of reconstructing cultural identity, clarifying its objectives and the debts owed to the scholarly tradition, professional knowledge, and application practices.

The task's difficulty lies in the incomplete documentation, and not marginal uncertainties regarding the biographical vicissitudes of the Sienese. The author derives great benefit from the move away from the long tradition of studies that evoked Biringuccio - especially in order to proclaim the most illustrious forerunner of the transformation of alchemy into modern chemistry. In an appreciably balanced manner Bernardoni emphasizes Renaissance alchemy presenting - alongside the chimeras of the transmutation of base metals into gold (which we cannot forget still contributed to refining the experimental practices) - a solid and mature operational component, especially in metallurgy, which had been boosted by the progressive growth of firearms in the first decades of the sixteenth century. Not coincidentally, this is precisely the scenario of reference priority of Biringuccio's professional work stimulated by the ambition to become an "author", giving the prints an organic treaty in which there is the balanced integration of important aspects of theoretical knowledge regarding the structure of matter (derived from tradition, but mixed in original), and a wide and complex variety of experimental evidence and handling practices of minerals.

It should be noted that the original character of Chapter III, in which Bernardoni convincingly reconstructs the integration pursued by Biringuccio between the doctrinal characteristics of Aristotle's natural philosophy and the concepts and principles characteristic of the corpuscolarism tradition.

Bernardoni's work is also recommended for the innovative nature of his approach to the illustration of technical devices, with particular attention to the field of metallurgy and pneumatics. Bernardoni concentrates his steady gaze on the problem of the value attributed by Biringuccio to the visual depiction of the machines used for foundry activities, especially those aimed at the cast of artilleries.

The originality and quality of the translation into a visual form of mechanical devices in the only printed work by Biringuccio is appropriately emphasized by Bernardoni. He analyzes with acumen the sixty-eight woodcuts accompanying the Pirotechnia, underlining the importance, and insisting on the relationship, between Biringuccio's iconographic production - realized to illustrate the design and the functioning of machines,and also to aid operators who found it difficult to understand the simple text description - and those of a famous contemporary author, George Agricola, whose texts owe much to the imposing and evocative iconographic program. The illustrations executed, realized by the doctor and humanist Agricola, offer a large catalogue of solutions and tools used in techniques for working metal since ancient times. A catalogue which, in the typical spirit of the humanists, also responded to the need to disambiguate the terms used to describe obsolete machines and mechanisms from the classics.

Bernardoni appropriately underlines how Pirotechnia represents the development of a technical, cultural renovation process started at the beginning of the fifteenth century and gradually consolidated through the innovative experiences of individuals from the technical world, such as Francesco di Giorgio (Vannoccio like Francesco was from Siena), and Leonardo da Vinci: a process of cultural and professional legitimation of the practitioners from isolation and intellectual and social marginalization in relation to the scholarly world, in particular by the protagonists of philosophical reflection on nature, its principles and methods.

The ambition to emulate the learned culture, simulating perfect knowledge and complete mastery of the ancient sources, is present in Biringuccio, who proudly underlined how theoretical knowledge represented a resource applied strictly to the practical knowledge of the processes of the transformation of the material, and the ability to effectively visualize, through drawing, devices and machines needed for the work of the craftsmen.

In this scenario of reassessment of the techniques and of the craftsmen, the project pursued by Biringuccio presented innovative characteristics also due to the fact that the Pirotechnia was published through prints: a powerful communication channel (the work enjoyed enormous and lasting success, not only in Italian) which did not have access neither to the extraordinary illustrations, nor the substantial technical texts of the previous generation; just think of Francesco di Giorgio and Leonardo.

Even if they do not find space in this volume, is it necessary to emphasize in conclusion the originality and quality of the commitment of the author in digital modeling in 3D engravings of machines commented by Biringuccio in his treatise. The hope is that this key component of the work carried out by Bernardoni in a doctoral thesis - from which this volume comes - will soon be made available, since it represents an important resource not only for scholars but also for those who do not have the technical knowledge required to understand the structure and functioning of such complex devices. For the iconography technique of the early modern age, digital modeling is a powerful and innovative tool for analysis and communication. One might say that it opens important new perspectives for the promising season of the philology of ancient machines.


Paolo Galluzzi
Director of the Institute and Museum of the history of Science of Florence (Museo Galilelo)