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'The fruits, not the roots': Translating Technologies in Early Modern Europe

Courtney Roby

Cornell University

Hero of Alexandria, usually dated to the first century CE, produced treatises on an astonishing range of technical topics, from Euclidean geometry to the design and construction of theatrical automata. His frequently-stated mission as an author was to take the best of what previous authors had done, add innovations of his own, and integrate the old and new into treatises designed for maximum utility.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, for centuries after his lifetime his own work was recopied, translated, excerpted, epitomized, and recombined with new material to create a continuous living tradition under the name of “Hero of Alexandria” in Greek, Latin, and Arabic. The Heronian tradition experienced a renaissance of interest in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when Hero’s works, particularly his Pneumatica, were repeatedly translated into Latin and several vernacular languages. The proliferation of new translations and editions fostered a concomitant process of technological translation: the new works began to incorporate novel mechanical designs into their pages, re-enacting the transformative collection of past work Hero himself was known for and infusing him into new technological and cultural environments.

New contexts for designing and deploying artifacts inspired by Hero’s work were accompanied in this period by profound changes in the technologies of book production and image-making. The images in versions of Hero’s Pneumatica produced by Federico Commandino, Alessandro Giorgi, and Bernardino Baldi emphasize clear display of the internal workings and the letter labels that link them to the text, whereas Giovan Battista Aleotti’s visual tradition highlight their external decorative elements, rendering the pneumatic wonders more as delightful spectacles than stages for physical investigations. A German translator working under the pseudonym “Agathus Cario” created a hybridized version of the text, juxtaposing a translation of Hero’s work featuring woodcut images with his own collection of extensions to Hero’s designs illustrated with engravings.

These complex shifts and reversions are, of course, the product of interactions between many practical factors including the economics and geography of publishing in the 16th and 17th centuries, the competition between proliferating image-making techniques, and the need for figures like Aleotti and Alessandro Giorgi to present themselves as novel contributors to an increasingly crowded marketplace of translated Greek technical works, including authors like Archimedes and Pappus alongside Hero. My approach thus represents an opportunity to consider how the contested relative merits of scientific theory and technical practice were rebalanced for these classical authors in an early modern context. Alessandro Giorgi defended Hero’s focus on practical mechanics as embodying “the fruits of the trees” of geometry and philosophy, rather than their roots or trunk: the sweetest part of the plant.

In this paper, Hero’s works will serve as a hub from which to explore early modern strategies for adapting ancient Greek scientific and technical texts into new languages and new disciplinary settings. I will refract “translation” to include not only linguistic translations, but also the challenges of translating scientific models from the eclectic context of their Greek authors into a new and sometimes hostile philosophical environment, the textual techniques used to usher their work into a new system of courtly patronage, and the opportunities for creative change offered by the visual technologies of the printed book.

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Translation and Transmission: Mediating Classical Texts in the Early Modern World

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