Saturday, January 1, 2011

Heavy Metal

Recently, a friend sent me a link to a piece on Dark Roasted Blend about early modern and Victorian automata. No medieval automata, alas, but I was interested to see that this photo of Leonardo da Vinci's robot was included, from an exhibit a few years ago in Berlin.

I am not expert in Leonardo's mechanical designs, but I was interested to see that his robot looks like a knight in armor. This is a neat flip of what I've encountered in a number of medieval texts, in which metal knights (usually made of copper or gold) are visually depicted as naked human figures. In one set of examples (none of which I can show, due to copyright restrictions), a knight (Lancelot) wearing armor much like that shown at the left battles copper knights that look like (1) naked men, complete with genitals and pubic hair; (2) wild men, with excessive facial and body hair; and (3) demons, with exaggerated skeletons and bestial facial features.

In these examples (and other that I've come across), the artificial warriors don't need metal cladding--they are metal. But it's an interesting visual switch: The human protagonist has a metal exoskeleton, while the automata appear naked.

I suspect that Leonardo's robot-knight looks that way because it registers as "human" for his audience, just as in the manuscript paintings Lancelot is always identifiable as the person--the hero--despite the fact that his body is completely hidden from view under his armor. It's the nakedness that signifies the non-humanness of the automata. They have no personhood or identity, so they have no shame or need for clothes.

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