Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Visit to Schloss Hellbrunn

I recently had the good fortune to visit Schloss Hellbrunn, outside Salzburg. The palace has one of the oldest and most extensive collections of automata and trick fountains still in evidence (and still working). It was completely enchanting and also very illuminating.

Schloss Hellbrunn was built in the early 17th century, at the command of Archbishop Markus Sittikus. It was intended to be a "summer palace"--a place for the great and good of Salzburg to spend a summer afternoon, before returning to their homes in the city. The archbishop's guests would dine al fresco in the Roman Theater, surrounded by fountains and statues. The basin in the middle of the table keeps the wine chilled. And the table and seats have hidden water jets that would soak the guests (but not the archbishop). Remember, court etiquette dictates that one cannot rise from the table unless the highest-ranking person does so first. So the archbishop would stay dry and seated, while his guests had to master their surprise and discomfort...and remain seated, no matter what.
The Royal Table in the Roman Theater.
Guests could (and can) stroll into the palace grottoes, beginning with the Neptune Grotto. A statue of Neptune dominates the space, and the walls and ceiling are covered in a sort of marine mosaic, with tiny shells forming the tesserae.

A close up of the decoration in the Neptune Grotto.
At the foot of the Neptune statue, the Germaul rolls his eyes and sticks out his tongue at the visitors. This was Archbishop Sittikus' response to his critics.

Upon leaving the Neptune Grotto and the charming Germaul, you have the chance to get sprayed with water...again. And, after escaping from the grotto and standing safely outside...this happens:
Don't look up!

In fact, one of the most interesting aspects of the Wasserspiele is how they force spectators into different spaces, in the hope of escaping the water, and, of course, it just ends up being yet another opportunity for a shower. The sense of not knowing what is coming next definitely keeps people (including me) off-balance. Some of the fountains are simply lovely, like these turtles, and pose no threat to the enchanted onlooker.

Delight, amazement, uncertainty, and suspicion mingle with one another; these emotions are punctuated by bursts of Schadenfreude when an unsuspecting person gets thoroughly soaked. (For example, during my tour, the brave souls who sat at the Royal Table spent the next hour looking like they'd wet their pants.)

Along the way are small tableaux quasi-vivants, illustrating scenes of artisanal labor and Classical myth. (Blogger won't let me upload the video, so this still shot will have to do.)
This is a scene of a couple grinding scissors.
 After many other stops along the way, the final attraction is the Crown Grotto (completed after Sittikus' death in 1618). The golden crown shoots up to the ceiling, driven by a jet of water. Eventually, it comes back down, representing (I think) the rise and fall of earthly power. 
The crown falls back down. The spectators are amazed!

All of the Wasserspiele are hydraulic-powered. While much of the plumbing is now PVC (there are still some copper and lead pipes), the original pipes were made of wood.
This might be the most amazing aspect of my entire visit.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Check Out BBC Doc "Mechanical Marvels: Clockwork Dreams"

BBC Four just aired a cracking documentary on automata, written and presented by historian of science Simon Schaffer. It's really good, and you should watch it. It covers early clockwork machinery, jacquemarts (bell-ringers) and clockwork automata, minaturization, revolution, fraud, and the replacement of human workers with machines. I particularly liked the section on Schloss Hellbrunn (which I shall be visiting later this summer) and the way that the "Mechanical Theatre" depicts the nobility's idea of a utopian society, complete with perfectly regular laborers. Schaeffer makes some interesting connections to the fact that horological and artistic innovation rested mainly on low-paid, low-status artisanal workers; these artisanal workers ended up displacing themselves when captains of industry built machines, using the same principles as elaborate, richly decorated luxury automata, to replace human labor. 

Schaffer's expertise as a scholar is in early modern science, and he concentrates in the documentary on the automata of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I have a few small emendations to offer to Schaffer's narrative. Although it's true that the regularity of clockwork machinery became used as a metaphor to understand the human body in the early modern period, early modern automata were not the first to mimic natural forms. The ancient Greeks, especially in the Alexandrian School (3rd-1st centuries BCE) designed fabulous automata (driven by pneumatics and hydraulics, rather than the verge-and-foliot escapement and falling weight drive of the early modern period) in the forms of animals and people. And Arabic engineers, in the ninth and thirteenth centuries, wrote detailed treatises on how to build programmable, musical fountains; mechanical servants; and elaborate clocks. It's also interesting to note that in the Middle Ages, descriptions of automata in narrative texts often describe them as perfect servants and as enforcers of different kinds of behavior. 

Still, the documentary is a treat, and if you're interested in automata, horology, or the history of technology, you should see it.