Taccola, Mariano Di Jacomo

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(b. Siena, Italy, 4 February 1381; d. Siena, 1453/1458)


The nickname Taccola, meaning “crow” and referring to a talent for woodcarving, was inherited by Mariano from his father, a winegrower. Taccola’s first profession was that of sculptor, and he contributed to the carving of the choir of Siena cathedral in 1408. He was active in civic life from at least 1413 and partially qualified as a notary in 1417. From 1424 to 1431 he was chamberlain of the Casa della Sapienza, a residence for scholars at Siena.

By 1427 Taccola seems to have become intensely interested in mechanical technology, a field to which he devoted most of his time for the rest of his life. His earliest dated sketches of machines are from 1427, when he also conducted practical tests of four of his inventions. The trials included a project for erecting a bridge over the Tiber at Rome and one for harborworks at Genoa.

The visit to Siena in 1432–1433 of the future emperor Sigismund brought Taccola a patron for his mechanical inventions. He was appointed one of Sigismund’s nobiles familiares (1432) and dedicated an elegant book of drawings of machines and exotic animals to him. In this manuscript (Florence copy) Taccola offered to accompany Sigismund to Hungary to fight the Turks; and it seems that he did so, for in a later manuscript (New York copy) he remarks that he personally fought against the Turks. Certainly by 1435 Taccola had returned to Siena, where he spent the rest of his life working as a sculptor and finishing his “De machinis libridecem” in 1449. He died sometime between 1453 and 1458.

With Brunelleschi and Giovanni Fontana, Taccola was a founder of the Italian school of Renaissance engineers. Although this school was initially influenced by the preceding generation of German engineers (notably Konrad Kyeser), its main inspiration may well have been the Brunelleschian renaissance of architecture. The members accepted the belief of ancient writers that mechanics was a part of architecture because the architect needed a knowledge of the machines necessary to raise building materials and similar devices. Taccola remarks in his notebook (Munich 197) that he discussed engineering matters with Brunelleschi at Siena.

The literacy of the architect-engineers of the Italian Renaissance school has been greatly underrated. Taccola was not simply a craftsman; he had trained as a notary and had been in close contact with scholars during his years at the Casa della Sapienza. Moreover, passages in his writings and in those of other engineers reveal a knowledge of the natural philosophy taught in the universities.

During the Renaissance mechanical technology was of considerable interest for scholars, including Cardinal Bessarion and the university professor Mariano Sozini. Taccola claims to have shown some of his designs to Sozini; and his acclamation as the “Sienese Archimedes” may well have originated among his humanist friends.

Taccola greatly influenced the Italian engineers of the Renaissance. Many of his designs were subsequently incorporated into the works of Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Roberto Valturio, through whom they reached a wider audience. The originality of Taccola’s designs is, however, a difficult question. Certainly many devices and processes made their first recorded appearance in his works. At one time or another he has been credited with the invention of the explosive undermining of city walls, the suction pump, underwater breathing apparatus, the box-caisson method for building bridges, water mains and sluice gates, and vertically axled windmills and water mills. Some of these are now known to have been included in earlier treatises; others may have been set down by Taccola after he had seen them in operation. It may be said that Taccola’s importance lies in his encyclopedic account of contemporary machine practice rather than in any original invention.

Two ideas of great later significance did, however, make their first known appearance in Taccola’s manuscripts: the chain transmission system and the compound crank with connecting rod. By the latter, rotary motion could be converted to reciprocal motion, a technical concept that has been considered crucial for the postmedieval development of Western technology.


I. Original Works. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, MS Lat. 197, a notebook containing drawings and texts (14272013;1441), is to be published at Wiesbaden. Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale, Florence, MS Palat. 766, is bks. 3 (143–1432)and 4, dedicated to Sigismund, of a treatise entitled “De ingeneis” the missing books have been reconstructed by Prager and Scaglia (see below). The MS has been edited by James H. Beck. Liber tertius de ingeneis ac edifitüs non usitatis (Milan.1969).

A second MS at Munich, MS Lat. 28800, comprises Taccola’s main treatise, “De machinis libri decem”; (1449), formerly known as Codex Wilczek I. Codex Wilczek II, a fifteenth-century copy, is now at the New York Public Library, Spencer Collection, MS 136. It has been edited by G. Scaglia as De machinis. The Engineering Treatise of 1449, 2 vols. (Wiesbaden-New York, 1971). A splendidly illustrated plagiary by Paolo Santini is at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, MS Lat. 7239. Later copies of excerpts from Taccola’s works are at the Biblioteca Marciana, Venice, MS Lat. VIII 40 (2941) and the Biblioteca Nazionale, Florence, MS Palat. 767. Many drawings from the Venice MS are reproduced in G. Canestrini, Arte militare meccanica (Milan, [1946?]). At least three autograph MSS seem to have disappeared.

The MSS are described in P. L. Rose,“The Taccola Manuscripts”, in Physis, 10 (1968), 3372013;346. A guide to earlier bibliography is Lynn Thorndike, “Marianus Jacobus Taccola”, in Archives internationales d’histoire des sciences. 8 (1955), 7–26.

II. Secondary Literature. For biographical data see James H. Beck, “The Historical ‘Taccola’ and Emperor Sigismund in Siena”, in Art Bulletin, 50 (1968).3092013;320. See also Frank D. Prager and Giustina Scaglia, Mariano Taccola and his Book De ingeneis(Cambridge,Mass. . 1972), and Frank D. Prager . “A Manuscript of Taccola, Quoting Brunelleschi, on Problems of Inventors and Builders”, in Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 112 (1968), 131 – 149, which also reproduces and transcribes the relevant folios from Munich MS Lat. 197. On Taccola’s significance, see Bertrand Gille, The Renaissance Engineers (Cambridge, Mass.-London, 1966), 81 – 87: and Lynn White, Jr.,Medieval Technology and Social Change (Oxford, 1962), 86, 113.

Paul Lawrence Rose