HomeTechA Portrait’s Peek at Renaissance Technology

A Portrait’s Peek at Renaissance Technology


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Titian’s portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga (c. 1536-37) presents a sober matron who had capably managed state affairs while her husband,

Francesco Maria della Rovere,

Duke of Urbino, was away on military campaigns. The portrait received immediate praise from Titian’s friend, influential poet and author

Pietro Aretino,

who wrote a sonnet praising the skill of the painter’s brush in capturing Eleonora’s impeccable character. Present-day art historians consider Eleonora’s luxurious trappings as symbols of her status and virtue. The sumptuous costume of heavy black brocade with golden bows reflects the colors of the crest of her husband’s ruling family. The jewel-clasped muff of sable or marten fur was a fashion accessory among the very elite. The little chestnut-and-white spaniel connotes Eleonora’s loyalty or fidelity. Behind the spaniel sits a “newfangled table clock” that art historian

Erwin Panofsky

claimed, in a 1969 book, was “extremely rare in other portraits of the Renaissance.” For Panofsky, the clock held “the double connotation of temperance and transience.” It reflected Eleonora’s steady and moderate nature much as a clock measures time in modest increments, and, as a memento mori, it cautioned that time is unstoppable and death is certain.

‘Portrait of Eleonora Gonzaga’ (c. 1536-37), by Titian


Uffizi Gallery

But the innovative portable spring-driven table clock, which became more widely available in the 16th century, had greater significance than that. It conveyed a sense of value associated with possessing the latest technology, something easy for us to relate to today. For those who possessed such a device, timekeeping—previously accessible through a sundial, public clock tower or church bell—became personal and portable.

It is no coincidence that Eleonora’s is the first of seven known Titian portraits to feature a clock of similar design. Titian hobnobbed with a social circle fascinated by advances in mechanics and timekeeping. His patrons commissioned spring-driven clocks from leading clockmakers whom they recommended to others in their network. For example, Eleonora’s brother introduced a clockmaker to Titian’s most important patron, Emperor Charles V, who had amassed the era’s greatest collection of clocks and who assembled and synchronized clocks himself.

Albrecht Dürer,

well-known to Titian, also enjoyed the patronage of Charles V and published works on efficient shapes for gear teeth, essential to clock production. There is even correspondence suggesting that Titian procured a clock for Eleonora’s husband.

These clock-loving patrons would have recognized the table clock in Eleonora’s portrait as evidence of a new devotion to technology that arose from a changing notion of the virtue of temperance. Thanks to the rediscovery of Aristotelian ethics and their emphasis on moderation, temperance, which had long been considered the lowliest of the seven virtues, gained in stature. In medieval and early Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, temperance and the other virtues were portrayed as women, each accompanied by accessories that symbolized her particular virtue. Temperance was increasingly associated with measure and moderation and was depicted with the most advanced technologies of the day, including rotating windmills, eyeglasses, and water-driven and weight-driven clocks—symbols of steadiness and industriousness. By the mid-15th century, temperance personified was featured in devotional documents surrounded by timekeeping devices including a small spring-driven mechanical clock with a fusee (a metal cone with a spiral groove to stabilize the spring as it unwound), the breakthrough innovation that enabled small clock production. Titian extends that imagery in his portrait of Eleonora, with the presence of the table clock indicating not just his sitter’s terrestrial wealth but her cosmic virtue.

Eleonora almost certainly owned more elaborate spring-driven clocks than the one in this portrait. The painting’s more pedestrian timepiece, like many produced in Augsburg at the time, contained fewer gears than higher-end clocks and was more easily manufactured for a growing market of wealthy merchants. It is emblematic of a nascent tech industry and increased international trade. Despite Italy’s early lead in clock production, a technological enterprise based on new manufacturing techniques including some design standardization, more flexible division of labor, and parts assembly was increasingly centered in what is now Germany. That such clocks were “foreign” may have enhanced their prestige among Italian elites.

Interestingly, compared with weight-driven public clocktowers, early spring-driven clocks were not accurate timekeepers. They lost on average five minutes over a 12-hour period. Worse, the speed of the clocks varied over a 12-hour spring wind-down period—running up to 45 minutes ahead during the first three hours and then up to 45 minutes behind during the last three hours. The clocks were temperature sensitive; if the temperatures spiked—say, up to 90 degrees Fahrenheit on a summer day—the clock could lose as much as 30 minutes. Personal, portable timekeeping devices remained inaccurate until the arrival of the chronometer two centuries later.

Despite these drawbacks, the spring-driven clock was the newest and most fascinating gadget of its era. Possessing such a clock increased one’s status far beyond the immediate utility of the device. In his portrait, Titian gracefully captures the simultaneously secular and sacred cachet of that special object.

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