It Roars and Breathes Fire! Dragons and Sixteenth-Century Recipes of Wonder

By Madison Clyburn


It roars and breaths fire! A dragon from Raffaello Gualterotti’s Feste nelle nozze de don Francesco Medici (Florence, 1579). More information below.

Dragons were not unusual in early modern Europe, at least as depictions of art and material culture.  In architectural embellishments, domestic goods, military regalia, and recipe books, dragons were frequently depicted in a wide variety of works.  In the Italian polymath Giambattista della Porta’s  Magia Naturalis of 1658 (fig. 1), for example, one could find a recipe to  make “The flying Dragon.” The finished product is a mechanical kite of sorts, which is “witty and not to be despised…[by] ingennous Men, and Artificers.”[1] By following the instructions and considering the role of the dragon in Western myths and legends and its endurance in early modern European spectacle, the recipe offers insight into the science of flight and the wonder of technological entertainment that were not untypical in the period. 

Figure 1 – Giambattista della Porta’s “The flying Dragon,” in Magia Naturalis. Full text available via the Internet Archive.

Della Porta’s recipe to make a flying dragon, included in the chapter “Some Mechanical Experiments,” begins with general instructions on how to assemble the dragon’s interior framework with small pieces of reeds and cords. For the tail—multiple cords are attached to the frame, with scraps of paper tied to each piece. Next, apply thin paper or linen over the body. What follows are tips on how to make it fly: one must position the dragon askew rather than directly into the wind and only allow the dragon to sail when the wind is equal and uniform. It is crucial to strike the perfect balance between gentleness and force when releasing the dragon from a tower or some other high place since the wind that cuts through the snaking pattern of houses can disrupt the dragon’s flight.

Figure 2 – Full page of John Bates, “How to make flying Dragons” in The mysteryes of nature, and art (London: [T. Harper for R. Mab and are to be sold by John Jackson and Francis Church], 1634), 79. Image credit: Wellcome Collection.

John Bates’ Mysteryes of Nature and Art (1634) and the German naturalist Athanasius Kircher’s Physiologia Kircheriana Experimentalis (1680) also include similar recipes (fig.  2). These recipes for flying dragons are part of a broader “how-to” culture that experimented with natural magic. Further, they occupy a space within the fashionable books of secrets genre and can be read alongside receipts for soaps and cleanliness, plague, and fertility.

The dragon is a mythical creature whose role in folklore differs in cultures worldwide. Western customs designate dragons as large, scaly, winged, horned, fire-breathing reptilian creatures. Greco-Roman and Christian sources spurred its popularity in medieval and early modern culture. Several Greek epics detail battles between heroes and dragon-like creatures, like Cadmus and the Ismenian dragon, Apollo and the Python, and Hercules and the Lernaean Hydra. In Christian tradition, malevolent dragons represent Satan and the impending apocalypse, for out from the heavens came an “enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads” (Rev. 12.3). Paintings, manuscript illuminations, woodcuts, and sculptures often depict legends such as St. George and the dragon, St. Martha the Dragon-Slayer, and St. Elizabeth the Wonderworker and Dragon-Slayer.

The European dragon’s formidable appearance lent to its participation in military, diplomatic, and matrimonial spectacles. The medieval draco standard, possibly introduced to the Roman military in the second century AD and carried by cavalry, is composed of a hollow dragon’s head attached to a lance and a body of silk. The concept of the militarized dragon persisted well into the fifteenth century; De Re Militari (1472), a military treatise and the second illustrated book printed in Italy, depicts a large and foreboding portable dragon-shaped war machine (fig. 3) with a ladder and multiple canons built into the body.

Figure 3 – Roberto Valturio (author), Matteo de’ Pasti (artist), and Johannes ex Verona (publisher), “A portable dragon-shaped war machine,” in De Re Militari (Verona, 1472), folios 167v-168r. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1926 (26.71.4). Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The military arena was not the only place to find mechanized bellowing, fire-breathing dragons. In 1520, Henry VIII and François I met in a historic moment in what became known as The Field of Cloth of Gold. This grand 18-day meeting featured a flying dragon similar to the one in della Porta’s recipe. The dragon, pictured in the top-left of the painting The Field of Cloth of Gold (1545) in the Royal Collection Trust, was a kite created by stretching canvas over wooden hoops.

Dragons also often played a part in nuptial festivities, especially as wedding processions became more extravagant during the Renaissance period. Wealthy families hosted multi-day celebrations: the Medici weddings of the sixteenth century are of particular note for their spectacular pyrotechnics and mythologized dramas. For instance, the 1579 wedding of Duke Francesco de’ Medici and Bianca Cappello featured a battle between the god Apollo, an evil sorceress, and a five-headed mechanical dragon (fig. 4). The fight between Apollo and the Python was repeated in the 1589 wedding of Grand Duke Ferdinando I de’ Medici and Christine de Lorraine.[2]

Figure 4 – Raffaello Gualterotti (author) and Stamperia Giunti (printer), “The Maga and the Dragon,” in Feste nelle nozze de don Francesco Medici gran duca di Toscana; et della … sig. Bianca Cappello (Florence, 1579). Etching, 4 3/4 x 8 5/8 in. (12.2 x 21.8 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1931 (31.34). Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

But back to della Porta’s recipe: like many recipes in Natural Magick, “The flying Dragon” prompts opportunities for creativity based on personal preference. For example, to make the dragon more dramatic, della Porta suggests you place a lantern inside the body to make it shine like a comet. You can insert a roll of gunpowder to make it roar and breathe fire. An alternative is to bind a cat or puppy to the reed structure and listen to its cries as it soars through the sky. Although the last option is less than appealing to me, the wonder that these mechanical dragons inspired demonstrates the role of recipes in producing technological entertainment.

[1] Giambattista della Porta, Natural magick (London: Printed for Thomas Young, and Samuel Speed, and are to be sold at the three Pigeons, and at the Angel in St. Paul’s Church-yard, 1658), 409.

[2] Philip Steadman, Renaissance Fun: The Machines Behind the Scenes (London: UCL Press, 2021), 87-88.




Cite this blog post
RA Kashanipour (2023, March 2). It Roars and Breathes Fire! Dragons and Sixteenth-Century Recipes of Wonder. The Recipes Project. Retrieved May 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/tdd9

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