Juanelo Turriano, unknown 16th C. innovator (I)

El Greco is not Toledo’s only adopted son worthy of an entry in the history books. Juanelo Turriano was a remarkable character who merits wider fame.


Financial Legal Counsel for the General Directorate of Administration and Finance 


El Greco is not Toledo’s only adopted son worthy of an entry in the history books. Juanelo Turriano was a remarkable character who merits wider fame. He was born Gianello Torriani in Cremona, and the uncertain date of his birth—between 1501 and 1511—would come to signify a distinct feature of his biography: his tendency to move through mist and legend. 

Juanelo—as he was known in Spain—was a true Renaissance man. A clockmaker, mathematician, and astronomer (three very similar things at the time), he was also an architect who made a name for himself in engineering, with so many prodigious accomplishments that some claim only two things separated him from securing the eternal glory of Leonardo da Vinci: his aversion to leaving written records of his work and his unsociable nature, which made him disinclined to exchange correspondence or encourage chroniclers to perpetuate his memory.   

His failure to master Latin, a single fact some attribute to a lack of academic training, only makes the breadth of his scientific acumen more astonishing. It has been speculated that his father owned a mill, whose gears inspired in him a passion to understand nature in all of its magnitude.     

At the time, clock making and design was the epitome of cutting-edge technology, and Juanelo excelled to such an extent in the field that he was summoned to Toledo by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and appointed Court Clock Master. Some sources suggest that he worked as an architect on the Yuste Palace and thus, directly or indirectly, caused the death of the monarch by designing the pond that would harbour the malaria ultimately responsible for the monarch’s death. 

There are volumes of literature that compile what is well known and little known about Juanelo Turriano, so I will content myself with citing two of what I consider to be his most significant inventions. 

The first is the Artificio de Juanelo, a masterful work of engineering that used the power of the Tagus River to lift water from its depths to the Alcázar de Toledo, a height of about 100 meters. One tends to let fantasy fly and imagine an ascending chain of people forced to haul water on their backs or on the backs of pack animals to the city day after day. 



Juanelo never drew up the plans or described its operation, so we do not know how the machine worked, but different 3D renderings—generally based on water wheels and revolving belts with pitchers to transport the water—have been developed.

In 1565, Juanelo signed a contract with the city of Toledo to design, build, and maintain this mill in exchange for a perpetual income for the pumped water. The first device, apparently capable of pumping around 16,000-17,000 litres of water a day, was delivered in 1569. Still, there are times when success, after courteously responding to our warm welcome, will dissemble only to reveal its sinister side.  


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