Automatons have to be the weirdest objects I have yet to encounter in a museum. During my trip to Italy last spring I spent my last day in Milan walking the city and visiting every alley and ruin on my “To See” list. While waiting to see The Last Supper and the Brera Gallery I raced through the Castello Sforza, an incredible medieval castle not far from Milan’s cake-like cathedral. Inside was a varied collection of paintings, furniture, and sculpture including Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta. What intrigued me most was a frightening sculpture of what was clearly the devil but with gears and a crank. In all my wandering I had never seen a sculpture of the devil before except for the famous statue in Buen Retiro, a delightful park in Madrid, Spain. What I later learned about the piece shocked me.
During the Medieval Age automatons, sculptures with gears that could move with the help of a crank, were created by carpenters to depict different beings including Christ and the devil. They were common and used by churches for services and especially during religious plays to spur the spirit of fear or adoration into the people. Jessica Riskin of Stanford is the author of a fascinating article about these machines entitled ” Machines in the Garden” where she wrote that the ones depicting Satan would move their eyes and tongue and could even spit smoke. The ones of Christ were supposed to move up and down as if he were floating. The few that survived the ages were collected by the wealthy and placed into Curiosity Cabinets , also known as Wunderkammers, along with mummies and three-headed cats.
The automaton in Milan is from the Wunderkammer of Ludovico Settala, an Italian physician and writer, and is even more interesting as its abdomen is actually made from a former Christ on the cross. Apparently the irony wasn’t lost on its creator.