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Technology/Engineering


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Classic Technological Compendium

BESSON, Jacques. Theatrum instrumentorum et Machinarum. Lyon, Barthelemy Vincent, 1578.

Folio [28.5 x 43 cm], (12) ff., the last blank, 60 numbered engraved plates. Half bound in early blind-stamped pigskin and ruled, green-stained manuscript leaf over pasteboards, covers extensively tooled with floral rolls, stamped with unidentifiable crest on cornerpieces, raised bands on spine. Upper cornerpiece on front cover lacking, covers stained and rubbed, edges of back cover chipped. Blank upper corners of title replaced, trace of stamps and ownership inscription removed from title; repairs to blank upper margins of the first few leaves, repaired tear across pl. 9, tear in gutter of pls. 20 & 23 repaired (no loss of image), small tears in pls. 27, 44 & 58 expertly patched. Light waterstaining and fingersoiling throughout. An untrimmed copy in a contemporary binding. Apart from the defects listed above, generally very good.

$9,500

Early edition, with Latin commentary, of the most influential illustrated technological compendium of the Renaissance, "the first independent work on machinery published" - Zeitlinger. In 1569 King Charles IX appointed Besson master of the King's engines, and gave him exclusive rights to publish his designs; he quickly produced this lavishly illustrated showcase of his mechanical inventions, setting a contemporary standard for technological publications in the process.

The work contains the first printed descriptions of such inventions as the screw-cutting lathe and the water turbine the latter considered a great advance in the exploitation of water power and describes also other kinds of engine, ships, waterwheels, furnaces, musical clocks and drawing instruments. A number of these inventions are thought by Usher to have been derived by Besson from the unpublished notebooks of Leonardo, then in the possession of the Milanese Francesco Melzi. As well as being a landmark of early technology, the Theatrum is also considered one of the most beautifully illustrated books of the Renaissance. The splendid series of engravings are for the most part the work of Androuet Du Cerceau, except for nos. 17, 35, and 51, which were executed by Ren-oyvin.

Mathematician, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, Besson lived an erratic life, moving between his native Grenoble, Zurich, Geneva and Paris, and failing to win the most frequent sinecures of the technologically inclined, a university chair or army engineer, he was unusually dependent upon publication as a source of income and measure of professional standing. Although the Theatrum is his most famous and influential title, he wrote a number of other instrument books and is properly credited with introducing Copernicus into France.

The Theatrum first appeared in Orleans in 1569 [Mortimer 56]. In 1578 Barthelemy Vincent produced three variant editions: the present Latin edition, a bilingual French and Latin and a particularly rare tirage with the text only in French. Mortimer numbers this Latin edition third, tentatively assigning priority to the bilingual edition. While the Orleans edition was published hurriedly with only brief Latin captions to identify the plates, the Vincent editions include more detailed descriptions of the instruments and machines provided by Fran's B'alde de Verville (who later revised the French Hypnerotomachie).

* Mortimer I.58; Usher, History of Mechanical Invention, 223, 361, 383; Wolf, History of Science & Tech., 537-38.

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