Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
October 24, 2018
Jessica Keating Animating Empire: Automata, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Early Modern World University Park: Penn State University Press, 2018. 184 pp.; 37 color ills.; 23 b/w ills. Cloth $69.95 (9780271080024)

Presented in Paris in 1739, Jacques de Vaucanson’s fabricated duck, one of the most renowned examples of an automaton, could not only flap its wings and move its beak but also eat and excrete. Later discovered to have been pre-stuffed with fake waste, it indulged the Enlightenment desire for engineered imitations that modeled the inner workings of living forms. Voltaire declared that the shitting bird was the only reminder of the glory of France.

The history of automata in the early modern period often accentuates the writings of René Descartes and sets forth how anatomists, theologians, and social theorists sought mechanistic models to explain the human body, the cosmos of God, and the structure of government. To describe the service that the automaton-as-metaphor has paid in the history of scientific and political thought is to commit what Horst Bredekamp has characterized as a tendency to see “visual experience as a preliminary step toward linguistic form and not as a medium in which language is embedded, both historically and anthropologically.” Bredekamp’s demand is for the “lessons of visual association” to “precede language systems” (The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine: The Kunstkammer and the Evolution of Nature, Art, and Technology, 1995, 110–13). Jessica Keating’s remarkable book responds to this call. Prioritizing examples over abstractions, Animating Empire is an outstanding piece of scholarship for its richness in riveting detail, the care with which it makes thematic links across chapters while attending to the distinctions provided by specific examples, and its rigorous execution of a contextualizing approach that is unswayed by a preestablished narrative, one that has eagerly classified automata as “mimetic,” that is, imitative of the body’s movements.

Keating’s book sets automata produced in German-speaking workshops in the context of gift-giving ceremonies that took place at courts across the Holy Roman Empire between the years 1550 and 1625. After an introductory first chapter, over the remaining five chapters Keating focuses on particular examples, persuasively demonstrating that the force of an automaton as a proffered gift is that it could serve as a visualized form of political or religious argumentation. Chapter 2 focuses on two nefs (metalwork table ornaments in the shape of a ship) produced by the book’s most prominently featured clockmaker, Hans Schlottheim of Augsburg. The ships stage the coronation of Charles V and show him at the center of a procession of electors whose circumambulation around the enthroned sovereign affirms the idea of imperial rule as constant and fixed. Both nefs were commissioned by Rudolf II, likely as acts of legitimization of the Austrian line of the Habsburgs as though he (and not Philip II, Charles V’s heir) had inherited the line of succession unfraught. Chapter 3 argues that when, on New Year’s Day of 1589, Sophie of Brandenburg, a devout Lutheran, delivered to her husband, the covert Calvinist Christian I, a “Christmas crib” automaton depicting the Adoration of the Magi, she was advancing an argument for his conversion by showing him in the role of the first king at the gift-giving epiphany. Focusing on an éntrenne (a gift exchanged on New Year’s Day), no longer extant (it was formerly housed in the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon in Dresden and destroyed in World War II), this chapter is the boldest and the best read in the book because it demonstrates how, in the context of a court ruled by representatives of both the Protestant and Catholic faiths, a woman could commission a wind-up version of her husband and show him to himself, not as a recipient, a role he so often (and even in the moment of this exchange) played at court, but as giver. Coercing his conversion, the mechanical device turns his religious and ethical position around: on the mechanical stage the king pivots to bow to Christ. Chapter 4 describes an example of “Verkehrte Welt” imagery popular in counter-reformation circles. An ape at a lectern repeatedly and without utterance beats his stick in mock ministry, turning the Protestant belief in the efficacy of the word into a senseless simian gesture. In chapter 5, three examples of Turkish officials portrayed in ceremonial procession serve as examples of the tributary gifts delivered along with the annual fees the Habsburgs paid to the sultan, as mandated by the terms of a truce that lasted from 1547 to 1593. In chapter 6, a Diana on her stag, sent to India, appears in a Mughal painting of 1620, where it is shown in the hand of Emperor Jahangir’s falconer, whose clutch conceals its wheels, rendering it inert.

Throughout the book, Keating builds evidence for her emphasis on automata-as-argument by comparing her case studies with other kinds of objects. Sophie of Brandenburg’s gift of the Christmas crib is considered alongside the Lüneburger Spiegel, which she later gave to her son, Christian II. Both the wind-up royal entourage and the mirror allowed a ruler to see himself. The discussion of the latter object presents a valuable consideration of how a commission that may have originally been intended for a town council could be repurposed when purchased by a ruler with deep pockets, as Keating proposes here (throughout the book the author ventures in just the right dose a healthy combination of speculation and skepticism where circumstances of patronage are uncertain). In contrasting various automata celebrating Ottoman ceremonial processions with multi-block woodcuts, such as a 1533 example by Pieter Coecke van Aelst, Keating exposes how the elongation of narrative across multiple sheets is the print’s poor compensation for what the mechanical device captures: movement and the passage of time.

Across the chapters, it is the precision of Keating’s analyses, her attentiveness to the recurrence of motifs but also to their different meanings in given states that makes persuasive her emphasis on how context informs meaning. And tracking the transmutations of a motif’s meaning seems fitting for the Janus-faced term “automaton,” which can describe both the stunning potential of an animated machine and the vapidity of a person incapable of independent thought. When the anti-Lutheran ape strikes the lectern again and again, repetition vilifies; but when the kings in Sophie of Brandenburg’s gift to her husband repeat their offering within a single cycle, the recurrence does not deaden the act but enforces the perpetual need to deliver one’s faith to Christ.

As it tracks the transfer of elaborately produced machines, Keating’s book avoids reperforming well-established theories of gift giving, such as the Maussian notion of social debt. She emphasizes the automaton’s tendency to malfunction or its sometimes lackluster receipt. The Ottomans neglected the gifts of their tributaries or melted them down to repurpose the metal. The lack of awe on the part of the Turks as described here reverses a narrative, told by Elly Truitt and others, about the wonder that Western clockmakers and sovereigns enjoyed as they learned about exotic, movable-part machines from the Islamic east (Medieval Robots: Mechanism, Magic, Nature, and Art, 2015). To describe objects that have undergone transcultural passage, such as the appearance of automata and other gifts from Western sovereigns in the paintings of the Mughal court, Keating calls for a substitution of the term “hybridity” (derived from the writings of Homi K. Bhabha) with the term “metamorphosis.” While the former implies that opposing identities have been joined, the latter is preferable in Keating’s opinion because it allows for identities to oscillate without becoming fixed. Attending to the nuances of language here further advances Keating’s apparent desire to dislodge object histories from analogies to biological models. “Hybridity” implies an uncomfortable association with breeding. “Metamorphosis,” while still conjuring changes to the body, may be a more suitable term for the recontextualization of traveling, crafted things because it has at its root the Greek word for “form.”

Animating Empire stands to play a significant role in rethinking the different ways that “mobility” registers in the visual and material culture of the early modern world. The bulk of recent scholarship on this issue has focused on the ways in which Renaissance artists understood the movements of the human body or on the circulation of artistic styles, motifs, and goods. Keating proposes an alternative model to the association of the automaton with the former and attends carefully to recharacterizing the latter. But, more importantly, she demonstrates that what the automaton put on display and presented for wind-up performances were not imitations of nature but restagings of artifice. Automata animated statecraft, ritual, and mythology (concerns, we may be reminded, which shaped the period’s characterization by Jacob Burckhardt, Johan Huizinga, and Aby Warburg, respectively). Animating Empire will interest readers in the history of politics, science, and philosophy. But it will be an especially important book to those with a deep understanding of the history of art because it describes a form of craftsmanship that encoded motions for cultural elements that were already, in certain ways, mechanically stiff.

Shira Brisman
Assistant Professor, History of Art, University of Pennsylvania