About the book

Sculptor Elizabeth King and clockmaker W. David Todd take a close look at a sixteenth-century clockwork automaton popularly known as “the monk” in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. The diminutive figure, a friar in Franciscan tunic whose body conceals a drive mechanism of hand-forged iron, performs for spectators on any tabletop, without a mediating plinth or stage. The main-spring can be wound ahead of time, and a hidden stop-work lever holds the coil fast until the cue is given. The monk walks and turns along a non-repeating path, striking his chest with one hand, raising and flourishing a small wooden cross with the other. His head and his eyes pivot to gaze at the cross, then the onlookers, then the cross. His mouth opens and closes as in speech. From time to time he brings the cross to his lips and kisses it. His forward momentum and uninterrupted repetition give his campaign its force.

One of the best-preserved of surviving automata that predate and anticipate the famous mechanical androids of the Enlightenment, this small figure offers a revealing early chapter in the history of artificial life. But the monk must not be confined to a study of technology alone. Art, religion, natural science, medicine, folklore and popular culture all play a part in the performance of this charismatic object from the past.

Acquired by the museum in 1977, the automaton arrived with a story. Legend holds that the figure is a votive representation of Diego de Alcalá, a Franciscan lay brother whose holy corpse was agent to the miraculous cure of young Prince Don Carlos, heir to the Spanish throne, who lay near death from a head wound in 1562. The prince’s father, Philip II of Spain, repeatedly petitioned Rome to recognize the miracle, and Pope Sixtus V made Diego a saint in 1588. Juanelo Turriano, royal clockmaker to Emperor Charles V, and then to his son King Philip, must have fashioned the automaton, the story goes, to reenact the cure and the petition with state-of-the-art technology. Prince, cure, and saint: this much is history. The wizardry of Turriano, known for his automata, was celebrated in a 1575 biography. More mysterious are the documents connecting the monk automaton to the drama in the Spanish court. Out of the tumult of history, the automaton stands before us today. In good working order after 450 years, it comes to life in animated defiance of the wounds of time.

This monograph narrates the search for the sources of the legend and the origins of the monk. We examine a set of intersecting histories, sites, and witnesses, for the monk until now has evaded classification. As a prototype, this early figure represents a dawning synthesis of sculpture and mechanism in one object. The carved-wood head, hands, and feet display, in miniature, the virtuoso polychrome sculptural tradition at its height in early modern Europe. A dissection of the concealed iron clockwork locates its fabrication in the early years of the golden age of clockmaking in the same period. How were these separate worlds combined in the fabrication of a moving sculpture? The question can't be broached without acknowledging the monk's character as a Catholic icon. Against the backdrop of Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe, who indeed commissioned the monk, and for whom was the performance intended? Have other such walking automata survived to the present? The paradox of a rational object performing a mystical act: what can it reveal of the birth of the machine in the Age of Faith?

Seen today, the monk in performance brings us face to face with our own ambivalent relationship to artificial life: the human/machine interface, the mind/body riddle, the illusion of agency, the history and psychology of belief, and our passionate arguments about what a robot can and cannot do. 

Automaton Friar, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution Credits
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