From the sundial to the Apple Watch, via Renaissance automaton clocks

A GILDED bronze sculpture presents Bacchus as a chubby, mischievous and determined baby. The god of wine’s curls are ringed with grape-heavy vines, he holds a bottle—not meant for milk—and straddles a wine barrel with a silver clock face. On the hour, the tyke opens his mouth and lifts his bottle to it. This automaton clock, a princely treasure and princely toy, was made in Augsburg, south Germany around 1615. It would have been kept in a Kunstkammer, a room dedicated to the display of the very latest and best in scientific discoveries and works of art. As an example of both, it is dazzling evidence of the revolution in timekeeping then underway.

For millennia sundials, water clocks, hour glasses and ringing bells marked divisions in the day. Centuries of experimentation led to the weight-driven clock of the Middle Ages. Then, in the late 15th century during Europe’s Renaissance, the first spring-driven timekeeper was invented. Efforts to miniaturise the clockworks followed, and soon succeeded with the result that the portable, mechanical clock became a reality. It was a tremendous technological breakthrough; people could know the hour whether on land or sea, indoors or out, day or night, whatever the weather. For the first time, it was possible for many people to tell time as we think of it: in discrete hours, minutes and seconds. It soon followed that individuals could both use and be governed by time; punctuality, for example, became a practical possibility. D.S. Landes, in his eye-opening book “Revolution in Time”, calls the invention of the mechanical clock “one of the great inventions in the history of mankind”. Small, portable mechanisms that told time 24 hours a day gave rise to “a civilisation attentive to the passage of time, hence to productivity and performance.” 

Engineers began to experiment with the new technology. From Hero of Alexandria in antiquity to the Al­-Jazari in the Middle Ages, imaginative engineers crafted large, three-dimensional creatures with moving parts to mystify and entertain. In the Renaissance, designers of automatons created miniature creatures based on nature and myth, and used them to embellish portable clocks. Naturally, these designs were very rare and very expensive. 

“A Mechanical Bestiary: Automaton Clocks of the Renaissance” at Galerie J. Kugel in Paris is a splendid, unprecedented offering of 29 examples by a variety of master craftsmen then gathered in south Germany, all in working order and all for sale. (Prices start at €100,000 and rise into seven figures.) Baby Bacchus is among them. So too is a far larger, more elaborate clock with a very different version of the god of wine. Here Bacchus is a big bellied, veteran imbiber. Seated on an ornate chariot topped by cupid and drawn by two elephants, he isaccompanied by howling dogs and dancing bears which, like him, go into action when the hour strikes. 

Some may dismiss these opulent beauties as historical curiosities. Others, however, see them as exceptional artworks and embodiments of the creative exuberance that occurred as timekeeping was revolutionised. Interest in them is lively and international. At the Kugel gallery, connoisseurs started buying these wonders on the morning of the exhibition preview. One of the gallery’s most endearing offerings is a gilded, short muzzled, floppy eared dog with a clock face between its front paws. His big black eyes move back and forth in time with the tick­tocking: on the hour his mouth opens as he wags his tail. It was one of three Renaissance automaton clocks in Christie’s 2009 Paris sale of Yves Saint Laurent’s collection, famed as a reflection of the designer’s exquisite taste. Elsewhere, auction houses report that modern-day princes from America to China bid when rare survivals appear. In 2014, a spectacular Renaissance automaton clock in the form of a unicorn achieved £722,500 ($965,000) at Sotheby’s in London. This week at Frieze Masters, Kunstkammer specialist Georg Laue is offering a late 17th century gilded bronze example that formerly belonged to the King of Sweden. A figure looks up at a globe; on the hour the monkey at his feet spins and a little dog jumps. The price is €160,000 ($179,966). 

Automaton clocks continued to be produced after the Renaissance but it was then, when the excitement about the invention of portable clocks was at its height, that they reached their artistic peak. Afterwards, the desire to push the boundaries of what portable timekeepers could do turned to greater miniaturisation and precision. (The Renaissance models do not all strike the hour in unison.) The desire to include “complications”—horologists’ jargon for additional features—carries on in today’s smartphones, wearable computers and robotic pets. They are not as enchanting as a golden unicorn that opens its mouth at the chiming of twelve, but they do cost a lot less.

“A Mechanical Bestiary: Automaton Clocks of the Renaissance” is showing at the Galerie J. Kugel until November 5th 2016


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