Johannes Fontana’s Drawing for a Castellus Umbrarum, Udine or Padua, c. 1415–20

Mediaevalia 35 (1):255-277 (2014)
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A finished sketch for a light-and-shadow projection device by the Paduan mechanical artisan Johannes de Fontana (c.1395–1455), in his manuscript book of drawings now known as Liber Bellicorum Instrumentorum, depicts a machine for communicating ideas or information through spectacle. The manuscript is fairly well known, and this sketch is just one of many interesting images worthy of study in its 70 leaves. A couple dozen manuscripts of the mechanical arts from this period survive, the best-studied of which fall into the “Sienese school” and the “German school.” Fontana falls outside these, for he had far less influence than the Sienese. His work also is too early, it seems, to count in narratives directed toward the flowering of technological illustration in the sixteenth century. Of his images of subjects other than hydraulic and military machines only one deep study has been made, concerning two of the automata, although the present sketch has lately attracted a glance or two. Historians of technology pay scant attention to the first half of the fifteenth century, five decades that seem merely to repeat medieval knowledge and have the disadvantage to their prestige of falling “before Leonardo.” Whether one views Fontana as an engineer or as a science fiction illustrator, a great deal in the manuscript has not been given its due. The brief normative account in the literature so far on Fontana focuses on politics and warfare. My account in the case of his castellus image in this paper emphasizes issues of imagery, communication, subjectivity, moral feeling, spiritual life, and personhood. This account runs along two lines. For the first, I will suggest some untried ideas for approaching this image. In part this is in pursuit of what Jonathan Sawday calls the imaginative history of machines and mechanisms, though more largely it concerns contributing to a broad-range history of communication and persuasion. If we look at the image from our standpoint in aworld accustomed to the reproduction of images, we readily see in it an early step toward our present control of the display and diffusion of images. Fontana’s castle of shadows(castellus umbrarum), based on a worldwide transfer of technical knowledge about imagery in antiquity (and even in pre-history), presents some of the continuing questions driving thereproduction of imagery and the dispersal of information. As a practical matter, a sense ofproximity to Fontana and his time, as opposed to a sense of untranslatable distance, helps to broaden the historiography. My second line of thought is to oppose my account of Fontana’s’s castellus to an interpretation, and to the thinking behind it, that has started to appear on the borders of disciplinary history. This other interpretation reflects an increasingly influential approach to the history of technology and cultural theory that employs a growing and powerful line of philosophical thought. In 2003 Philippe Codognet, a philosopher of technology, published an essay in which he described Fontana’s castle of shadows as a specimen of the pre-historyof virtual reality devices. His reference of the castle of shadows is a bit casual, perhaps accidental in feeling; but it has begun to stimulate interest in Fontana’s striking idea and hasgiven it a bit of renown. Codognet’s view (along with his reproduction of the image) has been picked up by thinkers who are concerned with post-humanistic ideas derived from philosophical work in which the distinction between human persons and objects is deflated in such a way that both persons and objects are correctly characterized by attributes commonly divided into subjective and objective. What’s more, they are characterized by attributes that, under this view, are incorrectly distinguished from one another as the human, the organic, and the inorganic. The ontology supporting this approach denies the privileged epistemological relationship of humans to the world. This school of thought is object-oriented ontology, also known in a more radical form as speculative realism. Its potential influence on historiography is great, and part of it is and will be valuable. Its current actual influence is centered on medieval cultural studies and on the history of technology.
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