Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum

Jacques Besson, 1578

The author of Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum is Jacques Besson (ca 1530 – 1573). He was a pastor of the Reformed Church and a mechanical engineer and mathematician. He was born around 1530 in Colombières, a village in the French Dauphiné situated today in the Italian territory, at the time subject to the proselytizing of the Calvinist reform. In 1557 he moved to Switzerland. In this country he built two "water machines" (one pump and one fountain) for the city of Lausanne and taught mathematics at Geneva, where he devoted himself to teaching mathematics.

Following the time spent in Switzerland, Besson went to in France. First to Rouen, then Paris and, finally, Orleans. It was in the latter city that he completed the writing of the Theatrum, in 1569. The first edition dates back to 1571-72, a period in which Orleans was torn by religious struggles as power was alternately under the control of Catholics and Protestants in conflict with each other. An amplified edition, in French, dates from 1578 (about five years after Besson's death), was edited and translated by the philosopher and mathematician François Beroald (Paris, 1558 – Tours, 1626) and published in Lyon.

The Theatrum (which belongs to the genre "theatre of machines") enjoyed some influence at the European level. In the thirty-five years following the first publication, seven other editions were printed in five different languages: French, Italian, Latin, German and Spanish. It is, in fact, a treatise that can now be defined as a classic of Renaissance technology and mechanics, which does not neglect the theoretical component of the disciplines of physics and mathematics. It stands out among the literature of this period for its technical inventions (mechanical and hydraulic devices) but also due to the quality of engravings it includes. It is structured as follows: there are two prefaces by F. Beroald, then a short text of 17 pages where, for each mechanical device, it is put forward the enunciation of the invention (propositio) and then the related explanation (declaratio). It concludes with 60 illustrations by an unknown author, but probably outlined from work by Besson and edited by Beroald. The proposed representations illustrate machines of various kinds, including hydraulic machines that allow the extraction of water from wells.

The first edition of Besson's treatise translated into Italian was printed in Lyon in 1582 by Barthélemy Vincent (ca 1530 – ca 1590), entitled Il theatro de gl’instrumenti et machine di M. Iacopo Bessoni, mathematico de’ nostri tempi eccellentissimo. The translator was Giulio Paschali (1527-1601), an Italian poet who moved to Switzerland. Moreover, the mechanical inventions of Besson did not take too long to spread in the Iberian territory. A first edition of the Theatrum in Spanish appeared in 1602 (Teatro de los Instrumentos y Figuras Mathematicas y Mecanicas). This copy arrived in Spain through Horacio Cardon, an inhabitant of Lyon with relationships with the Jesuits, at a time when Spain and Portugal were under the same crown.

Therefore, some copies are also available in some Portuguese libraries such as the National Library of Portugal (BNP), the library of the Royal Palace and the Municipal Library of Porto. This stands as an evidence that in the Iberian Peninsula and in Portugal specifically, the content of the treatise was not ignored.

Editions & Translators

  • In 1596 another French edition. This is a work that is based on the edition of 1594 by Jacques Chouët, but with a dedication to François de Bonne de Lesdiguières (1543 – 1626).


[1] BATTISON E. A., Stone-Cutting and Polishing Lathe, by Jacques Besson, in Technology and Culture, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966, vol. 7, n. 2, pp. 202-205.

[2] CAPROTTI E., Introduction, in Theatrum instrumentorum et machinarum, Luigi Maestri Tipografo, Milano 1980.

[3] KELLER A., The Missing Years of Jacques Besson, Inventor of Machines, Teacher of Mathematics, Distiller of Oils, and Huguenot Pastor, in Technology and Culture, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, vol. 14, n. 1, pp. 28-39.

[4] RAVIER B., Voir et concevoir: les théâtres de machines (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles), Doctorat en histoire moderne, Université Paris-1 Panthéon-Sorbonne 2013.