14 August 2018
A costume fit for a centaur
Among the many intricate designs compiled in the 15th-century sketchbook of an unknown Italian engineer (Add MS 34113), a centaur costume has an irresistible appeal. It is amusing to think that someone devoted their technical and artistic skills to designing something so wonderfully impractical. Yet, while we may smile wryly at it today, the centaur costume reflects a Renaissance passion for artistic creativity, scientific enquiry and classical antiquity.
Design for a centaur costume (Siena?, 2nd half of the 15th century): Add MS 34113, f. 176v
The design for the centaur costume consists of a replica of the back and hindquarters of a horse that fastens around the wearer’s waist. Inside, an articulated structure with straps attaching to the wearer’s legs is intended to make the rear legs of the horse ‘walk’ with him. The man wearing the costume holds a rod that apparently connects to the internal structure, perhaps designed to help him manipulate the rear legs. Platform shoes imitating the appearance of hooves complete the look. We sense that the design lacks enough joints and linkages to work in practice, but it demonstrates experimentation with the challenge of mechanically transmitting movement.
Leonardo da Vinci’s designs for diving apparatus (Italy, 1st quarter of the 16th century): Arundel MS 263, f. 24v
The manuscript occupies an important place in 15th-century developments in mechanical engineering. Some of its designs for hoists seem to be indebted to Filippo Brunelleschi (1377–1446), the engineer who famously solved the challenge of building the colossal dome of Florence Cathedral. Others seem to have roused the interest of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), whose designs for diving equipment and parachutes appear to be improved versions of those contained here. The manuscript reveals a culture in which engineers were compiling textbooks, sharing mechanical designs and modifying each other’s ideas in a more systematic and scholarly way than ever before.
Design for diving equipment: Add MS 34113, f. 180v
Like Brunelleschi and Leonardo, the creator of this manuscript was an accomplished engineer as well as an artist. The manuscript’s elegant drawing style reveals a draftsman versed in quattrocento artistic developments. In the centaur design, the technical challenge of replicating movement is linked inextricably to the artistic challenge of representing a creature both naturalistically and gracefully. Such aesthetic and practical skills were necessary in an age when creative individuals were commissioned to produce everything that their elite patrons required — from paintings and sculptures, to props and banners for festivities, to works of engineering and architecture.
Dante and Vergil encounter centaurs in the Inferno (Siena?, 1st half of the 15th century): Yates Thompson MS 36, f. 21v
The theoretical approach that transformed the arts and sciences in this period was informed by an enthusiasm for classical learning. As a fantastical creature from classical mythology, the centaur fits easily into this context. In art and literature, centaurs symbolise the bestial and irrational side of Antique culture, characterised as wild and dangerous. For example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the centaurs that patrol the first ring of the circle of violence represent the psychology of madness, with their physical duality reflecting a split mind (Inferno, Canto 12). In Botticelli’s painting Pallas and the Centaur (c. 1482), the woman subduing the centaur is an allegory for the triumph of rationality over chaos.
Botticelli, Pallas and the Centaur (Uffizi Gallery, Florence)
These elements of sophisticated engineering, artistic achievement and classical imagery all came together in the spectacle of public entertainments, which provide the most likely motivation for the design of the articulated centaur costume. The most celebrated artists and engineers of the age were employed to construct awe-inspiring devices for such events. The biographer and art historian Giorgio Vasari (1511–1574) tells us that, for the 1439 Annunciation festival at the Church of San Felice in Florence, Brunelleschi created a mechanical paradise that was ‘truly marvellous and demonstrated the talent and skill of the man who invented it, for on high a Heaven full of living and moving figures could be seen, as well as countless lights, flashing on and off like lightning’.
From the mid-15th century, the entertainments at tournaments and pageants began to incorporate classical imagery, sometimes including centaurs. For example, at a tournament held in 1481, centaurs, the Cyclops, Ganymede, Vulcan, Neptune, Hercules, Mars and Jupiter rode through Treviso on triumphal cars. During his stay in Trent in January 1549, King Philip II of Spain was entertained by a mock battle with pyrotechnics between an army of men bearing the badge of Hercules and an army of centaurs, giants and ‘Turks’. It is tempting to suppose that the centaur costume was intended as a theatrical device for just such an event.
The constellation Centaurus (Rome, c. 1480): Egerton MS 1050, f. 41v
Despite its apparent eccentricity, the design for a centaur costume is a fitting testament to the ideals of its age, in which science, art, classicism and entertainment were inseparably connected.
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