If the name Juanelo Turriano doesn’t ring a bell, it is because history is not usually fair with geniuses in general. Not even with those who were valued by powerful kings, as is the case.
But let’s go to the heart of the matter, see if we unravel some mystery. All this comes from a Street in the old Toledo that is dedicated to the Hombre de Palo (Stick Man), and the thing is that behind that name, almost always, appears a dark past that brings together the reality and the fantasy.
History assures us that both Philip II and his father Charles were very interested in magic and occultism. In those times one thing didn’t go against the other, and both Habsburgs, like those during the Renaissance era, were also fascinated by mechanical devices and precision instruments. And that’s how Giovanni Torriani, renamed Juanelo Turriano, ended up in the service of Emperor Charles V as the royal watchmaker.
Juanelo built two astronomical clocks for the Monarch, and they were so accurate that impressed at the time, but that was only one of the many talents of the Italian man. He also participated in the elaboration of the Gregorian calendar, designed the bells of El Escorial, invented flying machines and, once established in Toledo, was capable of creating a system to supply water to the city, saving the significant difference in level between the city and the River Tagus.
Of such artefact, which was also marvelled in its time, nothing remains today; and nothing was paid to poor Juanelo for making it work. So, even he had impressed Charles V and his son Philip, the man began to experience severe economic problems. Legend says, or history… who knows, that then he built an automaton robot. A wooden man with specific mechanisms that, according to some versions, allowed him to walk roughly and even bend forward when someone gave him some change.
This wooden man (Hombre de Palo) would have served, more than anything else, to ask the Toledo people for some help that would ease the sorrows of the poorly paid wise man.
It seems that Juanelo’s family received, a long time later, a pension in payment for the hydraulic invention that brought the water to Toledo. But it is clear that Turriano’s amazing ability as a watchmaker, mathematician, engineer and inventor of the most disparate things, did not bring him even a tiny part of the fame he deserved. Maybe he lacked to paint a Mona Lisa or invent the Internet.
But sometimes it seems that life gives back what you give… or what you do not provide. It turns out that the ponds which Juanelo designed to make the retirement place of Charles V in Yuste more pleasant, were those that, indirectly, caused the death of the Emperor. The stagnant waters of the ponds multiplied the mosquitoes, and the bugs ended up biting the Habsburg man causing him the fevers that killed him. One of those caprices of history!