Instead of an e-reader, picture your favorite books on a portable Ferris wheel, a lazy susan of knowledge and imagination turned on its side. Supplement your jogging habit with a treadmill that literally mills, converting caloric expenditure into bread flour. Or flip another page to find: bandsaws and bellows powered by rivers; ecological cofferdams; and a fountain that uses hydrostatic pressure to sing the songs of birds, beckoning nightingales to preen beneath its spouting showers.
If this sounds like an Arcadian vision of the future, it is a future from the past. Agostino Ramelli’s 1588 Le diverse et artificiose machine (Diverse and artificial machines) features these devices (and about two hundred others) in an intricately illustrated volume. Published in Paris as a bilingual edition dedicated to King Henri III, the French and Italian tome has as much in common with literary texts as mechanical manuals. Ramelli’s designs gain their value not from practicality and efficiency (few were ever built), but from “classical gravitas”, visual imitations of the antiquity that Renaissance scholars and artists were busy rediscovering and, in turn, inventing.