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Greta Samuel © Culture Trip
Greta Samuel © Culture Trip
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10 Fascinating Inventions From the Italian Renaissance

Picture of Helen Armitage
Updated: 13 April 2018
Although it is best known for its cultural and artistic advancements, the Italian Renaissance was also a period of significant scientific progress too. We take a look at some of the era’s most interesting inventions, from Leonardo da Vinci’s parachute to Galileo’s precursor to the modern thermometer.

Barometer

Inspired by Galileo Galilei’s writings, Rome-born physicist and mathematician Evangelista Torricelli is credited with inventing the first working barometer in 1643 after noting—via an experiment involving a huge 35-foot glass tube—the effects of changes in air pressure on water levels. Although his initial experiments were rather clunky, Torricelli found that by using a liquid heavier than water (notably, mercury), a much shorter tube could be used to measure atmospheric pressure. While Torricelli’s invention today is commonplace, his advancements were apparently concerning at the time to his fellow citizens, and during his initial experiments, rumors circulated about his possible involvement in witchcraft.

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Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip

Parachute

Though French scientist and inventor Louis-Sébastien Lenormand may be credited with designing the world’s first practical parachute in the late 18th century, legendary Renaissance artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci actually drew up designs for a parachute some 200 years earlier. Though his design was never realized during his lifetime and many skeptics doubted its practical viability, in 2000, British skydiver Adrian Nicholas successfully tested a prototype based on the artist’s drawings, proving retroactively that Da Vinci had indeed designed the world’s first working parachute. Said the late Nicholas (who sadly died in an unrelated accident) of the experiment, “It took one of the greatest minds who ever lived to design it, but it took 500 years to find a man with a brain small enough to actually go and fly it.”

Thermoscope

Rather than a specific invention aligned with a specific inventor, the thermoscope—a kind of precursor to the modern thermometer that, instead of accurately measuring temperature, detected changes in temperature—was more of a development helped along by the experiments and designs of various brilliant Renaissance era minds. However, it was Galileo Galilei’s late 16th-century thermoscope designs—based on a water-filled glass flask attached to a vertical pipe containing a glass ball that would rise and fall as it changed in temperature—that became well known, although the mercury-based designs that came to be the modern thermometer were not developed until the early 18th century by German physicist Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit.

Italic typeface

The slanting italic typeface was a joint invention between early 16th-century Venetian printer-publisher Aldus Manutius and his punch-cutter Francesco Griffo, and was first used in 1500 on an illustrated title page of an edition of Catherine of Siena’s letters published by Manutius’ printing company, Aldine Press. Though today italics are used to emphasize certain words, Manutius’ original aim of its design was two-fold: firstly, to save space in the Aldine Press’ typically small books and thus save on paper costs, and secondly, to mimic a popular handwriting style—cancelleresca, a cursive script favored by the learned and wealthy—that would appeal to a desirable market.

Robotic knight

While a 15th-century robot might be beyond belief, Leonardo da Vinci designed what was possibly the world’s first precursor to the modern robot way back in 1495. Referred to as his “robotic knight,” the design—thought to have been first exhibited at a celebration held by the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza—consisted of a suit of armor rigged with gears and wheel and attached to a complicated pulley system that allowed for movement of the knight. In 2002, American roboticist Mark Rosheim—the author of Leonardo’s Lost Robots and a designer for NASA robots—successfully built a working prototype robotic knight based on Leonardo’s designs.

Violin

As with many inventions, the violin was more of a work in progress than a single, stand-alone invention: indeed, its predecessors—the vielle, rebec and lira da braccio among them—were all instrumental (pardon the pun) in its development. The exact inventor of the violin is therefore difficult to pin down, though most scholars agree that northern Italian luthier Andrea Amati was the first maker of the violin as we largely know it today. A beautiful design crafted from spruce, maple and ebony by Andrea Amati in around 1560, the ex ‘Kurtz’ violin, is housed today at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Anemometer

In 1450 Genoa-born Leon Battista Alberti—a multidisciplinary Renaissance man whose work encompassed literature, architecture (the façade for Florence’s beautiful Palazzo Rucellai was just one of his architectural commissions), philosophy, and cryptography, to name but a few—designed a wind speed measuring device called the anemometer. A simple, mechanical design consisting of a disk placed perpendicular to the wind that indicated wind force according to the inclined angle of the disk, Battista Alberti’s prototype was later improved upon by both Leonardo da Vinci and 17th-century English scientist Robert Hooke.

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Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip

Armored car

We may very well have Leonardo da Vinci to thank for inspiring the modern tank; during the 1480s, he drew up designs for an armored car. He assured Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, that it would be a “safe and assailable” machine on the battlefield. Oddly for the usually meticulous Leonardo, his design featured a serious flaw—the machine’s cranks were placed in opposite directions, effectively rendering it immobile. Scholars have suggested that Leonardo, a pacifist at heart, may have included the flaw deliberately to prevent his design from ever being practically used in warfare, or simply to protect his invention from plagiarism.

The condom

Though various forms of condom-like contraception had been used prior to the Italian Renaissance (scholars have pointed out use of condoms crafted from animal organs in both Ancient Rome and late 14th-century China), most concede that it was physician and anatomist Gabriele Falloppio that came up with the design for a more modern condom. In a book titled De Morbo Gallico (or “The French Disease,” the Renaissance era term for syphilis) published two years after his death, Falloppio described a chemical soaked piece of linen placed over the glans of the penis and secured with a ribbon that he tested on 1,100 men and found to be successful in the protection against syphilis.

Scuba diving gear

While living in Venice, Leonardo da Vinci devised a crafty invention intended to protect the City of Water from seaborne attacks—a Renaissance era precursor to modern scuba diving gear. His designs featured a diving suit made from leather, a protective facemask equipped with goggles, and breathing tubes attached to a bell-shaped floating device providing access to air that would allow users to sabotage enemy ships from below the water. Although the first commercially successful scuba gear, designed by Frenchmen Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Emile Gagnan, didn’t appear until the early 1940s, diver Jacquie Cozens successfully tested a prototype she built based on Leonardo’s designs in shallow waters in 2003.

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Greta Samuel / | © Culture Trip