Giovanni Fontana (engineer)

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Giovanni Fontana, also known as Johannes de Fontana[1] (ca. 1395 – ca. 1455) was a fifteenth-century Italian physician and engineer. He was born in Venice in the 1390s and attended the University of Padua, where he received his degree in arts in 1418 and his degree in medicine in 1421.[2] University records list him as "Master John, son of Michael de la Fontana".[3] His most famous promoter at the university was the scholastic Paul of Venice. He tells us that the Doge of Venice sent him to Brescia to deliver a message to the condottiere Francesco Carmagnola. He was also employed as the municipal physician by the city of Udine.


Illustration from Bellicorum instrumentorum liber, Venice c. 1420 - 1430

Fontana composed treatises on a diverse array of topics, including measurement of heights or depths by falling stones. We have early works of his on water-clocks (with wheels), sand-clocks and measurement. Fontana studied trigonometric measurements, mentioned in De trigono balistario, and through his own designed instrument, also explained in a larger treatise, however, apparently lost. He wrote a treatise on perspective, and showed it to the painter Jacopo Bellini. Grafton notes "Modern scholars often note that early engineers did not supply formal working drawings of their devices, but represented them in real time, functioning, in a way that did not give away their secrets but could appeal to patrons. Fontana, however, makes a superb exception to this rule. ... He drew not only male and female devils inspiring terror in real time by their fearsome appendages, but also the underlying mechanisms, which he laid out with the abstracting brilliance of a fifteenth-century Giacometti or Max Ernst. ... Fontana insisted that he was no magus. When witnesses at Padua exclaimed that a torpedo he had designed must run by diabolic power, he refuted them with contempt: the device was purely mechanical, as befitted a maker who was also a master of both medieval Archimedean statics and optics and of Renaissance engineering craft."[4]

Bellicorum instrumentorum liber[edit]

Fontana composed one of the earliest Renaissance technological treatises, Bellicorum instrumentorum liber. His machine book contains siege engines and fantastic inventions such as a magic lantern and a rocket-propelled bird, fish, and rabbit.[5] Fontana also built a 4-wheeled "bike" with rope connected by gears. It is not technically a bike, but 400 years after 1418, Baron Von Drais built a two-wheeled bike that has a cord connected to the back wheel, so when you pull it you come to a halt.

Sparavigna 2013 notes, "He illustrates the designs of musical instruments such as mechanical organs (Puerilia) and masks, keys and locks, warships, double mirrors, stoves and surgical instruments. The code contains a part dedicated to hydraulic projects, public fountains, systems of water distribution, experiments with siphons, and also alembics and alchemical vessels for two or more liquids. According to [10,6], this manuscript shows that Fontana aimed to investigate a series of devices from ancient books of mathematicians and naturalists such as Archimedes, Heron, Philo, and even Ovid and Pliny the Elder, and the Arab writers, mainly from Al-Kindi, to his contemporary artists and craftsmen."[4]

Secretum de thesauro experimentorum ymaginationis hominum[edit]

In the book Secretum de thesauro experimentorum ymaginationis hominum (Secret of the treasure-room of experiments in man's imagination), written ca. 1430, Fontana described mnemonic machines, written in his cypher.[6] At least Bellicorum instrumentorum liber and this book used a cryptographic system, described as a simple, rational cipher, based on signs without letters or numbers.[7] It has been suggested that some illustrations slightly resemble Voynich illustrations.[8] During this time he also met with the Count of Carmagnola.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Johannes de Fontana: Bellicorum instrumentorum liber cum figuris. Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Germany).
  2. ^ Clagett, Marshall. "The Life and Works of Giovanni Fontana." Annali dell'Istituto e museo di storia della scienza di Firenze 1 (1976): 5-28.
  3. ^ Zonta, Gaspare. Acta Graduum Academicorum Gymnasii Patavini: I. ab anno 1406 ad annum 1450. 2nd ed. Fonti per la Storia dell'Università di Padova. 2nd ed. Vol. 1. 5 vols. Padova: Antenore, 1969.
  4. ^ a b c A.C. Sparavigna (2013). "Giovanni de la Fontana, engineer and magician" (PDF). Cornell University Library.
  5. ^ Battisti, Eugenio, and Giuseppa Saccaro Battisti. Le Macchine Cifrate Di Giovanni Fontana: Con La Riproduzione Del Cod. Icon. 242 Della Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Di Monaco Di Baviera E La Decrittazione Di Esso E Del Cod. Lat. Nouv. Acq. 635 Della Bibliothèque Nationale Di Parigi. Milano: Arcadia, 1984.
  6. ^ Lina Bolzoni (2001). The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of the Printing Press. University of Toronto Press. p. 102. ISBN 9780802043306. Secretum de Thesauro.
  7. ^ Pamela O. Long (2001). Openness, Secrecy, Authorship: Technical Arts and the Culture of Knowledge from Antiquity to the Renaissance. JHU Press. ISBN 9780801866067.
  8. ^ Philip Neal. "The enciphered manuscripts of Giovanni Fontana".

External links[edit]