October 8, 2018

Here's Something Cool: Mechanical Nef

        This amazing renaissance creation definitely gets some sort of fantasy cred, despite being 100% historically for real.  On the hour the model galleon bursts into life, with three heralds and seven or eight prince electors parading past the emperor on the deck, while ten trumpets, a drum, and a timpani play music, and various sailors move among the ropes and ring bells in the crows nest.  It even trundles across the table and fires a cannon with a puff of smoke.  You can see a video showing the elaborate golden decor, the clockwork, and the  various movements, here.  (The narration is in French, but there’s not much narration anyway.  Mostly it’s just the ship doing its thing.)
         It’s credited to one Hans Schlottheim (Germany, 1544/1547-1625 or-6), who was originally a travelling watchmaker who went on to work in the courts of Bavaria, Prague, and Saxony.  He may have devised the clockwork, with additional goldsmiths and artisans helping with the decor.  This nef may have been in the collection of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, or perhaps the Elector of Saxony.  This particular nef is one of three similar ones, of which historian Lisa Jardine observes “The rich,… the aristocracy, everybody wanted to own a bit of technology - something with cogs and wheels and winding bits… It immediately fascinates everyone that you can wind something up and it goes without your touching it.  Clockwork is magic in the sixteenth century.”  And really, even knowing that it’s all mechanical, it’s hard not to think some wizardry must have been involved just to figure out how to put it all
together and make it work.  The clockwork was cutting edge, and so was the subject: this sort of ship was on the verge of conquering the Earth, the renaissance equivalent of the space shuttle.  Note, too, the wonderful pegasus and sea monsters wreathing the ship at the water line.  Marvelous stuff!
        Here’s another of Schlottheim’s automata, a belltower from about 1580.  And here is another video, showing the working of another of his galleons.  These magical clockwork toys were made as dinner table decorations that would most definitely have impressed the guests at banquets.  It certainly makes a centerpiece of flowers seem ordinary!  (Although flowers, too, have their magic, not to be underestimated.)

[Pictures: Nef of Charles Quint, by Hand Sclottheim, c 1580 (Image from Artsy);
Glockenturmautomat (Bell tower automata) by Schlottheim, c 1580 (Image from Kunst Historisches Museum Wien).]
Quotation from Jardine in A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor, 2010.

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