The Ramellian Bookwheel

in Erudition and the Republic of Letters
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Agostino Ramelli’s theatre of machines of 1588 includes a design for a bookwheel, a machine rotating on a horizontal axle which would hold a number of large books open simultaneously in such a way that a reader could bring each into view in turn. Since the 1990s, the Ramellian bookwheel has become an icon of early modern techniques of reading. This paper gives an account of Ramelli’s design and its fortuna; surveys the history of rotating reading machines before Ramelli (all of which pivoted on vertical axles); gives an account of all the known bookwheels constructed on Ramellian and similar principles from the early seventeenth century to the end of the eighteenth century; and argues that these machines appear to have been used as catalogue stands or displayed as prestige objects in great libraries rather than to have aided the reading of learned individuals.

The Ramellian Bookwheel

in Erudition and the Republic of Letters




Bert S. Hall‘A Revolving Bookcase of Agostino Ramelli’Technology and Culture 11 (1970) 389–400 at 399 n 24.


 See Coron and Oudry‘Roue à livres’79.


Coron and Oudry‘Roue à livres’78–79.


Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine‘“Studied for Action”: How Gabriel Harvey Read his Livy’Past and Present 129 (1990) 30–78 at 48.


Grafton et al.New Worlds Ancient Texts117.


Grafton et al.New Worlds Ancient Texts119.


HobsonGreat Libraries207.


Hall‘Revolving Bookcase’191–192; for the extant example see Jacqueline Boccador Le mobilier français du moyen age a la Renaissance (Saint-Just-en-Chaussée 1988) 68 illustrating a writing-desk identified as in the Collection Bresset with a reference to a similar and contemporaneous piece in the Musée des Arts décoratifs in Paris.


 See Jean-François Genest‘Le mobilier des bibliothèques d’après les inventaires médiévaux’ in Vocabulaire du livre et de l’écriture au moyen âgeed. Olga Weijers (Turnhout 1989) 136–154 at 150 ‘unum discum ad legendum et unam rotam ad tenendum libros’.


W. Wattenbach‘Regesten der auf der Großherzoglichen Universitäts-Bibliothek zu Heidelberg verwahrten Urkunden-Sammlung’Zeitschrift für die Geschichte des Oberrheins 24 (1872) 151–224 at 197; Genest ‘Mobilier’ 150 n 103.


Documents of 1433 and 1465respectively in Genest ‘Mobilier’ 150. The phrase ruota de libri does not always refer to a mechanical bookwheel: in the Italian translation of the prologue of Antonio de Guevara’s Relox de principes as Aureo libro di Marco Aurelio (Venice 1560; first edition 1553) sig. *3v ‘stare intorno a vna ruota de libri’ translates ‘de estar uno rodeado de libros’ in other words ‘to be surrounded by books’.


Theodor E. Mommsen‘Petrarch and the Decoration of the Sala Virorum Illustrium in Padua’Art Bulletin 34 (1952) 95–116illustrations 3–5 (after 102) show a monk in his cell with a rotating table in front of him (fresco from the church of the Abbey of Viboldone 1363–1365) and Petrarch in a similar setting but with a desk in front of him and the rotating table to its side (fresco earlier than 1400 in the Sala Virorum Illustrium Padua and image based on the fresco in Darmstadt Universität- und Landesbibliothek ms 101 executed c1400 probably in Padua).




L. Fumi‘L’inventario dei beni di Giovanni di Magnavia, vescovo di Orvieto e vicario di Roma [continued]’Studi e documenti di storia e diritto 16 (1895) 35–56 at 39 ‘Item in camera in qua dormiebat Vicarius Episcopi … unum studium de rota’.


 Quoted in R. Breugelmans‘In het teken van de Phoenix: De Bibliotheca Thysiana te Leiden’De Boekenwereld: Tijdschrift voor Boek en Prent 2 (1985–1986) 38–45 at 43 ‘Lessenaers drayende int ronde opperwerts ende nederwaerts als een rat van een wagen daerop ses boecken in folio connen werden gebruyckt sonder van de plaetse daermen staedt ofte sit te vergaen ende dat alleen met het draeyen van het voors. instrument sonder dat oock de boecken met nederdraeyen van lessenaer connen vallen wesende de lyste daerop deselve rusten soo gemaeckt dat deselve haer volcht naer het opgaen ende nedergaen van de selve boecken.’ I am grateful to Cor Knops of Knops Boekrestauratie Munstergeleen who first drew this article to my attention.


Breugelmans‘In het teken van de Phoenix’43; for the wages (the same in 1600 and 1650 so presumably not much different in 1630) see Leon Voet The Golden Compasses (Amsterdam 1969–1972) 2:443.


Maria von Katte‘Herzog August und die Kataloge seiner Bibliothek’Wolfenbütteler Beiträge 1 (1972) 168–199 at 174; eadem ‘Die Bibliotheca Augusta—Gestalt und Ursprung’ in Sammler Fürst Gelehrter: Herzog August zu Braunschweig und Lüneburg 1579–1666 eds. Paul Raabe and Eckhard Schinkel (Wolfenbüttel 1979) 287–294 at 292; Martin Boghardt ‘Das Wolfenbütteler Bücherrad’ Museum (April 1978) 58–60.




UffenbachReisen2.179 ‘so Ramelli beschreibet’.


UffenbachReisen3.576; Bibliotheca Uffenbachiana vol. 1 (Frankfurt 1735) sig. ):(4v ‘Pulpitum noviter inventum & mechanice elaboratum continens sex scriptorias Cistas in quibus libri omnes uno tantummodo momento vertuntur’.


 For it see Hanebutt-BenzKunst des Lesens89.


 See De Schepper‘Boekenrad’150–151. I am grateful to Sylvia Van Peteghem and Hendrik Defoort of the Universiteitsbibliotheek Gent for information about this bookwheel. An early reference is George St. George A Pedestrian’s Saunter in Belgium in the Summer of 1835 (London 1837) 273 ‘The public library of Ghent is well worth a visit … A curiously constructed reading-desk a monument of ancient ingenuity will repay a close examination.’


Bauer’s words‘mit einem künstlichen Räderwerk’ are quoted in Wellner ‘Katalogmaschine’156; Novalis’ description is in his Schriften vol. 4 Tagebücher Briefwechsel Zeitgenössische Zeugnisse ed. Richard Samuel et al. (Stuttgart etc. 1998) 18–19 esp. 19 ‘Auf der hiesigen Bibliothek sind zwey solche Maschinen’ (discussed Wellner ‘Katalogmaschine’ 157–158); Garlieb Merkel’s notice is in his Darstellungen und Charakteristiken aus meinem Leben (Leipzig 1839–1840) 2.198–199 describing a journey undertaken during his time at Weimar i.e. between 1797 and 1799. I owe the latter reference to Beat Gugger ‘Bücher-Lese-Maschinen’ in Alphabet!: eine enzyklopädische Installation Jubiläumsausstellung der Schweizerischen Landesbibliothek 30. Juni–29. Oktober 1995 ed. Rätus Luck (Bern 1995) n. pag. a scan of which was kindly communicated to me by Birgit Libiszewski.


Beck‘Rota’293; Hanebutt-Benz Kunst des Lesens 90.


Théophile Gautier‘Vente du mobilier de M. Victor Hugo’L’Artiste ser. 5 vol. 8 (1852) 159–160 refers at 159 to a room in Hugo’s apartment before the sale ‘dont la plus grande singularité consistait en un lutrin mobile tournant comme une roue et destiné à porter des in-folio sur ses palettes; une vieille bible ouverte et posée sur ses rayons faisait comprendre l’usage et l’utilité de ce meuble de bénédictin’. Zygmunt Pusłowski could not have attended the sale of 1852 himself but may either have bought the bookwheel from the purchaser at that sale or inherited it as he did other objects from his aunt Julia Drucka-Lubecka Pusłowska who died in 1888 in Paris (I owe this point to Beata Frontczak).


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