At a late age, Thomas Francini, the engineer responsible for many of the grand fountains at Versailles and infamous for his will to control, married the sixteen-year-old daughter of the Compte de Frontenac, a pristine child whom he dressed in taffy-colored velvets and ribbons and paraded through the Villa di Pratolino near Florence. Francini bought his young wife what she pleased from torch-lit shops, and what she could not find, he invented for her, producing a variety of curious wind-ups. She possessed a clock in the shape of an oversized parakeet with pearl eyes and jade plumage, set to trill at the lunch and dinner hour. There was also a small silver man that cried like a newborn until held, at which point he would grow intensely warm to the touch. Finally, the pinnacle of her collection, a miniature Madonna that swung open to reveal a trinity—the fierce and stoic God and fiery dove of the Holy Ghost ready to be birthed alongside the infant Christ.
When asked about her husband, the child bride, called Florette, said it was as if the Lord had sent his kindest angel to care for her and keep her heart in a treasury box, safe from all those who would harm it. She could never be bruised or pierced with the great inventor at her side. But soon she learned that even Francini could not stop time and the persistence of disease. Plague blossoms spread on the skin of her throat, and he was reduced to sitting at her bedside, wiping sores with swabs until the organic machinery of Florette’s heart and lungs had stilled. He declared he would not marry again and wore a musical locket around his neck that held the child’s portrait and played strains of “Come, Heavy Sleep” at intervals timed to match those that sounded inside Florette’s own mechanical coffin. Soon after the girl’s funeral, Francini purchased a portion of land and announced he would construct his final great invention there, a monument to sorrow for everyone to see—the automatic garden at Saint-Germaine-en-Laye.
The writings of Clodio Sévat, Vicar Emeritus and servant to the Dauphin, give us a brief glimpse of Francini’s garden and echo the general anxiety of seventeenth century French and Italian aristocracy concerning that place: “Though it has been nearly a month since my pilgrimage to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye, I still cannot wipe the yellow-stained eyes of Thomas Francini’s metal men and beasts from my memory, nor can I forget the sight of Francini himself stalking through his field of glass flowers like some devil, dragging what appeared to be a common garden hoe behind. Does Francini believe that God’s good works should be made again, and that he, however noble an engineer, can improve upon them? And what soul motivates these new creatures? He assures us it is mere water and steam, but, dear reader, I tell you it is more than that.”
Gladly, not all travelers were as brief as the Vicar Emeritus, lest the automatic garden, which burned to the ground nearly a year after its opening, might have been lost entirely to time. “Maestro Francini’s water- and steam-powered automata,” wrote the Duchess of Langres in her private journal after a trip to the garden, “are of a new and unexpected breed. I was warned by my companion that these false creatures might disturb me with their preternatural resemblances to life, but I instead found myself intrigued. Their ability to exude what appeared as emotion was startling, yes, but not frightening. Never in my life did I think I would see a tiger ravaged by sadness crouching in the underbrush and looking at me with amber glass eyes, or Poseidon himself, crying tears into the very ocean that he rules—tears that were then swallowed by a thick and toothy monster who lives in the ocean’s depths. I was moved to call for an interview with Maestro Francini, wishing to enquire about the labyrinthine secrets of his inventions. And yet despite my status and the fact that I had attended the funeral of his bride, Florette, I was rebuked by what appeared to be a page in a red tunic who told me that the Master was frail and no longer tolerated audiences. It was only after the page’s retreat into a forest of metallic pines that my companion, characteristically droll, asked whether or not I’d caught the sun glinting oddly off the young man’s skin or whether I’d seen the glassiness in his eyes.
“I drew my wrap closer and begged my friend to assure me he was not implying that the page had been some advanced version of Francini’s moving statuary. He replied with a laugh, saying he’d only been trying to give me chills, but by the time I’d reached the garden’s third terrace, I did not need such humor to provide tremors. It was there that I saw what I can only describe as a ‘dragon’ rising from a stone basin, only to be slain by a lifelike knight in white armor who descended from the columned ceiling on a golden rope. The dragon’s blood was as red and real as my own, yet it spread across the flagstones in delicate calligraphy as if sketched by an artist’s hand. I was forced to ask my friend to find a bench on which I could gather my wits. ‘We shouldn’t have come here, Duchess,’ he said, but I replied that I was glad we’d come, despite the effect. Francini’s automatic garden showed me that a certain sickness—a questioning of one’s world—could serve as a kind of enlightenment.”
Like the automatic garden, the answer to whether the death of Francini’s wife, Florette, had truly given rise to his monument of sorrow is largely lost to history. Francini’s motivation for his final invention was a topic of debate in fashionable circles, and many argued that there was more to the inventor’s grief than the death of poor, simple Florette. Gossip about such details was often named as the cause of the inventor’s self-imposed exile to Saint-Germaine-en-Laye and his distancing himself from the aristocracy. It was not Florette who’d shamed him, after all, but the prior object of his passions who had made for a near public embarrassment and perhaps even venial sin.
Antonio Cornazzano had been a danseur and general actor of the Florentine stage who’d met the great engineer during the period when Francini was commissioned to build a revolving set for La Ballet de La Deliverance de Renaud. Francini, who could then still be called a young man, adored the danseur, and that affection was apparently reciprocated. The two were often seen huddled in dimly-lit taverns of Florence over a candle and a serving of black ale, discussing topics in such hushed voices that no one else could hear. Despite the apparent gravity of these discussions, Francini and Cornazzano sometimes burst into hearty laughter, and tavern patrons reported an unnatural magnetism between the two men. There were even rumors of sorcery, though André Félibien, court historian to Louis XIV, dismisses such conjecture as peasant talk. “Simply stated,” he writes, “Thomas Francini and Antonio Cornazzano behaved as artists will, and though such behavior seems, at times, against nature, we must learn to accept and make do if the theater is to persist.”
Francini’s revolving stage set for the ballet was said to be a marvel—a replica of the city of Florence itself. And the ninety-two dancers and singers employed to move through the mock streets, bedrooms and common houses did so in an exhaustive display of “city-life” which also encompassed a spiritual dimension, as the upper parts of the central stage contained sets for the unmovable Empyrean of the Heaven. Masked angels and demons pulled silken ropes connected to doorways that affected the lives of the human dancers. Cornazzano acted as choreographer for the production and worked closely with Francini to create what many called a “threatening sense of fantasy.”
The emotion between dark-featured Francini and agile Cornazzano developed a volatile irrepressibility. They could not contain themselves even when they worked with the dancers, and were often seen erupting into laughter and pulling each other out into the alley behind the theater to calm themselves with sobering talk. It was only when they lurched back to Francini’s rented villa one night after drinking and were set upon by a band of Florentine locals and dashed to the flagstones that the two men became more cautious.
When precisely they decided to begin living inside of Francini’s revolving set for the ballet, we do not know, but a number of sources document that Francini, who’d already made his fortune at Versailles, started stocking the taverns and shops of the set with actual goods and even hired out-of-work ballerinas to act as barmaids and shop keeps. He and Cornazzano lived privately on the stage, setting up house each night after the performance ended, enjoying that false city as they had previously enjoyed the actual streets of Florence. There were taverns in which the two could drink black ale by candlelight without the interruption of noisy patrons, and there was a library filled with fake books. Actual texts proved unnecessary because Francini could recite portions of Le Morte Darthur as well as Gargantua and Pantegruel by heart. At times, the two men climbed into the Heavenly domain, lit the wicks of the stars, and floated through the Empyrean on Francini’s cleverly concealed wooden pallets.
A ballerina managed to steal a letter that Francini had left for Cornazzano on a pillow in one of the small apartments. The letter ended with a line that became popular in Florence as fashionable blasphemy: “I do not love God, my darling, ’Tonio. For what is God when there is you?” Cornazzano’s response to those words remains in ellipsis. The content of the young man’s heart is largely unknown. It is only years later that we hear from him in his own words. By then, he had married and seen the birth of three children with his wife, Marie, and together they owned a small theater in Charleville. Cornazzano wrote his thoughts in a sturdy leather diary which he then concealed in one of the walls of his home. In recent times, the diary has surfaced, and while it provides an uncomfortable end to the story of the two men, it gives evocative details of the automatic garden itself, which Cornazzano was invited to visit by the great inventor a month before fire consumed it.
Cornazzano begins the journal with intimations of the falling out between Francini and him years before.
They’d apparently abandoned their home in the revolving set long before the Ballet de Renaud had closed. “It has been years,” he writes in his careful yet unschooled hand, “and I wonder if I am being overly cautious or cruel by suggesting that we meet at the garden itself rather than at Francini’s home. I do not want to recall our privacies or the invented world we shared. It wasn’t merely the stage—our fake city. We invented places in our minds, as well, that we could slip off to even in a crowd. I remember what Thomas said to me—that two men living together is in itself a kind of invention, a household of dream furniture and shadow servants. Is it wrong that I do not want to even come close to this dream again? How would I explain such a thing to my dear Marie or to my children, the eldest of whom is almost the age of Thomas’s own bizarre deceased bride. By coming to the automatic garden, I hope to appease him, so that his letters will stop. I admit I am nervous to see what he calls his ‘great defiance,’ his palace against the day.”
Cornazzano writes that he was greeted at the garden’s columned gate by a page draped in a cloak dyed the color of saffron and told that Master Francini was unwell and sent his apologies for not being able to join Cornazzano on the tour. This came as quite a surprise to Cornazzano who’d believed the entire reason for this trip was so that Francini could see him again and perhaps persuade him that this place was like the other fantasy in which they’d lived—a new set for a fresh and dangerous ballet.
He attempted to beg off, saying that he was a busy man with a theater to run and did not have time to walk the garden if Francini could not be bothered to escort him, but the page became insistent, grabbing Cornazzano’s arm and pulling him into the garden toward the forest of the gods. “Please, Monsieur. Master will be miserable if you don’t at least give me some word of praise for his inventions.” Finally Cornazzano conceded to take a short walk through the place, writing, “The page’s hand was cold—not like a dead man, but like one who has never lived. I feared disagreement, so I allowed myself to be led.” The walk turned into a game of mad circling through the garden’s multiple levels and in the dim light of a forest path, the page disappeared, and Cornazzano was left alone with Francini’s glowering mechanicals.
He became intrigued by a bed of glass chrysanthemums—a flower of the orient, rarely seen in France. The stem of the mechanical chrysanthemum was made of green copper with sharp-edged leaves protruding, and the petals of the flower itself were crafted from thin pieces of stained glass. Inside the stem was what appeared to be a small flame of the sort one finds in lanterns which was given oxygen at regular intervals, causing the chrysanthemum to pulse with a light that suggested the process of blooming. The brightening of the flower was subtle, nearly imperceptible, and Cornazzano writes that even after studying the chrysanthemum for a few minutes, he was hard-pressed to say whether it was growing brighter or dimmer. The light seemed to exist somewhere inside of his own body, in fact, a warmth in his core. “The mechanical chrysanthemum causes a momentary dizziness with its warmth,” he adds, “a sensation that is not altogether unpleasant.”
So entranced, Cornazzano did not recognize the approach of the figure in black, and when he caught his first glimpse of it standing at the stony edge of the garden path, he did not fully comprehend what he saw. He attests instead to being startled as one can be startled by an unexpected mirror hanging at the end of a gallery. The figure that stood in the grass and watched him was not an obvious automaton. Unlike the moving statue of Poseidon who wept into his miniature ocean, or the huntress, Diana, who drew her bowstring in the dark forest, this figure, had a versatile range of movement. It was able to crouch, then stand, and then to caper there at the edge of the path, as if begging for Cornazzano’s approach.
Our chronicler likens the figure to one of the dancing fauns in the garden’s Doric gallery, but man-sized and wearing a garment that looked like a merchant’s robe with a wide lace ruff around its neck. The collar was crenulated and gave the appearance that the automaton’s head, bearing its pale and almost luminous face, was displayed on a black plate. Its mouth was open in what could not be called a smile, and so surprising was the creature that Cornazzano did not at first recognize it as a replica of himself. “Would any man know himself clothed in such odd garments,” he writes, “and set to caper and leer like a demon?”
The automaton turned from the path, and its fluidity of movement made Cornazzano momentarily believe the thing must be an actor in heavy makeup or mask, merely pretending to be a machine. But there were subtle inhumanities to its gestures that soon convinced him otherwise. Just as one could never mistake the mechanical chrysanthemum for a real flower, neither could one think this object was a man.
The creature fled across the garden, black boots flickering over the grass, and was it any wonder that Cornazzano left the safety of the path to chase his double, hungry for a better look? The automaton darted playfully beneath an evening sky as dark as iron. It ran through a swamp of reeds that hummed sad flute-song, and then across a plain of grass which rippled, though there was no breeze in the air.
Cornazzano watched as his replica slipped into one of the many grottoes that were too smooth for nature. No longer the agile danseur he’d once been, he found himself winded at the entrance to the cave and stopped, considering whether he should continue following the creature. His blond hair lay wet against his forehead. His gut heaved. He knew he should walk away—leave Francini to his madness. But still some part of him wanted to doubt what his eyes had recorded. It was not possible that Francini had built his own Cornazzano to live in his garden of gods.
Cornazzano writes, I crept into the cave and found the creature no longer dancing but crouched near one wall, huddled in its tunic as if for warmth. Seeing the details of my own face—or rather the details of how I had once been, a young and foolish boy—gave rise to an intense and surprising anger. I wondered if Francini was making a mockery of me, or worse, if perhaps he used this metal man for some type of pleasure. And I found myself gripping the thing’s pallid face, feeling the contours of its chin and cheeks. I pulled at its nose which was made of some soft metal, pushed at its eyes until the bulbs of glass cracked beneath my thumbs. The automaton did not struggle. It allowed its destruction. Perhaps that is even why it led me to the cave. And when I reached into the creature’s mouth, trying to find some tongue to pull out, I heard behind me the scuff of a leather boot on the sandy cave floor.
I turned to see Francini himself—hair shot with silver, eyes set deep in his skull, standing and watching in the fading light. This was not my laughing friend from Florence with bright eyes and wine-stained lips. This was a poor copy—an old man—ruined and sad.
“What have you done?” he asked in a soft voice.
By then I had managed to rip the automaton’s lower jaw from its head, and I tossed it at Francini’s feet. “That question,” I said, “would be better put to you, maestro.”
“I thought you would like him, ’Tonio,” Francini whispered. He bent to pick up the jaw from the cave floor, and as I formulated some rebuke, feeling the old dangers and passions rushing back into the causeways of my heart, I realized something was wrong. Francini’s fingers were around the jaw bone, but he did not grasp it, nor did he attempt to straighten himself. He had grown intensely still in his awkward, bent position, and it was only then that I realized—this was not Francini. It was not even alive.
Such horror I felt. I could not move my arms or legs, could not look at this false Francini with limp gray hair hanging against its brow. I wondered if my old friend even still existed. I wanted to cry out for him. I wanted Francini to reveal himself in flesh and blood, but I held my tongue. How I escaped the automatic garden, I do not know. It seems to me that the gods called to me as I ran—begged me not to leave at first and then mocked me for my foolishness. And even as I sit composing these lines at my own wooden table in my home where I can hear the sound of my good wife speaking to my children in the upper rooms, I wonder if am I still in that garden, lying on the cave floor, broken into my separate parts.
Adam McOmber, “The Automatic Garden” from This New & Poisonous Air. Copyright © 2011 by Adam McOmber. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of BOA Editions, Ltd., www.boaeditions.org.