Renaissance Robotics: Leonardo da Vinci’s Lost Knight and Enlivened Materiality

Renaissance Robotics: Leonardo da Vinci’s Lost Knight and Enlivened Materiality

By Anne Pasek

Shift: Graduate Journal of Visual and Material Culture, Vol.7 (2014)

Model of Leonardo's robot with inner workings, as displayed in Berlin. Photo by Erik Möller
Model of Leonardo’s robot with inner workings, as displayed in Berlin. Photo by Erik Möller

Abstract: René Descartes posits a curious anxiety his Second Meditation—that an otherwise convincing form might conceal a post-human robotic entity. Machinic and animalian bodies, in his dualistic perspective, were seen to exist on a lesser order than the soul of man. Yet, as Descartes himself seems to wonder, the maintenance of this divide is a fraught endeavor when automata can mimic human shape and movement. The question of animate materiality is curiously echoed in the earlier writings of Leonardo da Vinci. These fellow thinkers and tinkerers agreed on the analogous principles between bodies and machines, yet they are at odds as to the implications of these beliefs. What da Vinci’s anatomical studies, robotic prototypes and treatises on art suggest is the far more radical possibility of material bodies and souls, conjoined in sensation and movement. In this flat ecology of bodies, machines and spirit, Leonardo’s robots suggest a radical alternative to our Cartesian inheritance.

Except: Leonardo’s contributions to this somewhat occluded field of early automata are fragmentary. Rather than an outlying curiosity, however, automata represent a logical subject of pursuit for this prototypical Renaissance man. Sketches of mechanical and kinesiological principles abound in Leonardo’s codices and inform his technological and artistic outputs in equal measure. Notes and anecdotes from his time suggest that several automated devices, from a moving lion to a bell-ringing hydraulic clock figurine, were planned and partially executed by the artist and inventor. Perhaps the most spectacular of these drafted robots lies in the designs for a  mechanical, articulated human in the Codex Atlanticus. Speculatively reconstituted by contemporary roboticist Mark Elling Rosheim with the assistance of Leonardo scholar Carlo Pedretti, “Leonardo’s Robotic Knight” has only recently become a physical and conceptual object of study. Described by Pedretti as “the first 15 articulated humanoid robot in the history of Western Civilization,” it thus presents a fitting interlocutor through which to address the Cartesian anxiety about the human body and its mechanization.

The device, existing today only as fragmentary designs and modern recreations, is suspected to have been realized in 1495 under the patronage of Ludovico Sforza, then duke of Milan. Based on multiple sketches of gearing and pulleys, the fully realized knight is expected to have been able to independently sit up and open and close both its arms and helmet visor. While it features 17 three degrees of freedom in the articulation of its legs and four degrees of freedom in the articulation of its arms and wrists, these components were all designed to move in unison.

The knight, when activated, would spring upright while simultaneously closing its arms in a lateral, pectoral embrace. An analogue programmer made of a worm gear and rotating drum cam in its chest carefully controlled its movements and powered its arms, while the legs derived their force from an external crank and cable arrangement. Cloaked in a suit of armor, the robot’s mechanical nature was likely concealed, creating a surprising encounter between Sforza’s guests and this unknown entity. Perhaps banging a drum, revealing a gruesome face, or grabbing an unsuspecting passerby into a shocking embrace, Leonardo’s robotic knight 18 might be seen to embody the humanist fear of an inhuman android seeking to menace its creators.

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