Accepted paper:

Speaking Clocks for the Sultan: Understanding Automata in the Early Modern Mediterranean


Stefano Gulizia

Paper short abstract:

This paper studies the automata presented to the Sultan during the Circumcision Festival of 1582 as an example of cross-cultural communication, like in a Plinian inventory of mirabilia and knowledge, and as a peripheral representation in a metropolitan setting.

Paper long abstract:

Jewelled books, automated clocks, and other non-animate objects were presented to the Sultan during the lavish and extended celebrations of the Royal Circumcision Festival of 1582, where they functioned as token of a gift economy and they were subject to a considerable uncertainty—according to Eastern and Western sources alike—with regards to their human-machine boundaries and the projection of the guild system that produced them. These automata raise issues of cross-cultural communication at a time in which the Ottoman court is experiencing an intense social crisis, and can be studied both as a case-study of traveling labor and as a peripheral representation in a metropolitan setting. This paper studies these perplexing objects as the genesis of a difference in a Foucauldian continuum and considers them as a polytemporal hybrid, a 'record' embedded within a colonial Mediterranean space that is endlessly morphing. My effort is to show a relationship between imperial mirabilia and knowledge, as well as an inversion between center and periphery resembling the geopolitical protocols of the Plinian encyclopedia. For this demonstration, my paper reexamines the documentation that surrounded the sixteenth-century festivities of circumcision, paying specific attention to luxury illuminations and arguing for a new realignment of Ottoman and Western sources such as diaries and newsletters by European envoys. Then, as a corollary, I analyze in detail the lion-shaped clock which was given to the fourth vizier Mehmed Pasha and the strange moving table which served as a stage prop on behalf of the guild of the coffee-makers.

panel P12
Global gifts: material culture and diplomatic exchange in the Early Modern world