ISBN: HB: 9781606068397

Getty Publications

August 2023

256 pp.

25,4x20,3 cm

74 colour illus., 67 black&white illus.



Miracles and Machines

A Sixteenth-Century Automaton and Its Legend

This volume tells the singular story of an uncanny object at the cusp of art and science: a 450-year-old automaton known as "the monk". The walking, gesticulating figure of a friar, in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, is among the earliest extant ancestors of the self-propelled robot. According to lore from the court of Philip II of Spain, the monk represents a portrait of Diego de Alcala, a humble Franciscan lay brother whose holy corpse was said to be agent to the miraculous cure of Spain's crown prince as he lay dying in 1562. In tracking the origins of the monk and its legend, the authors visited archives, libraries, and museums across the United States and Europe, probing the paradox of a mechanical object performing an apparently spiritual act. They identified seven kindred automata from the same period, which, they argue, form a paradigmatic class of walking "prime movers", unprecedented in their combination of visual and functional realism. While most of the literature on automata focuses on the Enlightenment, this enthralling narrative journeys back to the late Renaissance, when clockwork machinery was entirely new, foretelling the evolution of artificial life to come.

About the author

Elizabeth King, a sculptor and writer, is professor emerita of sculpture and extended media at Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Richmond.

W. David Todd is emeritus conservator of timekeeping at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.