Note — Mar 07, 2021

When Engineers Were Humanists

Jessica Riskin reviewing Paolo Galluzzi’s The Italian Renaissance of Machines, which looks at various humanists of the period. Here the word refers to those who “sought a cultural rebirth by going back to the philosophical, literary, and historical writings of ancient Greece and Rome.” Galluzzi considers their work through the perspective of “machine design” (contraptions and devices).

The topic and perspective are worth thinking on because they reflect a transdisciplinary / generalist / polymathic kind of searching and inventing, which I always find interesting in and of itself but also in comparison to too many of today’s titans focusing on engineering as the one thing to know and yield, blinded to the value of other fields and of history.

In case, like me, these names draw you in instantly, the piece includes mentions of Florence, Siena, Venice, Constantinople, de’ Medici, da Vinci, Taccola (starting now), and Galileo.

They assumed that their various endeavors came together in a single, whole, human enterprise, just as the Renaissance cosmos was all interlinked, microcosm and macrocosm, by a web of common symbolism and meaning. Accordingly, Taccola and his fellow humanists of machines treated the design of machines as integral to an all-embracing philosophical and artistic undertaking. […]

Vitruvius explains that architecture requires vast learning, encompassing every subject: drawing, geometry, optics, history, philosophy, music, medicine, law, and astronomy. This might seem daunting, but Vitruvius assures Augustus that it’s feasible because “all studies have a common bond of union and intercourse with one another.” […]

In the Arsenale setting of Galileo’s last work, we glimpse a post-humanist sort of engineering: directed, specialized, imperial rather than cosmological in ambition, deliberately detached from humanistic concerns. […]

the Industrial Revolution, that tsunami of post-humanist engineering, left in its wake a changed world in which engineers addressed discrete problems rather than cosmic questions, and did so without reference to ancient and abiding historical, literary, or philosophical themes.