Automata have often enchanted us, always puzzled us. The clockwork robot, the automaton, has a mystery borne of time: it is ingenious, but also borrows the mystique of being an ancient object run in a time-honoured way.
But they can unsettle one too. Especially the human ones. They have never lived, and yet they move like living things. There is movement but the absence of a heartbeat; eyes which flicker and blink, hands which reach and grasp yet have no tendons or muscles.
It was one of the iconic films of the 1980s ‘Big” which used the automaton to enchanting – and rather chilling effect:
You can watch the whole scene here: http://klipd.com/watch/big/your-wish-is-granted-scene
And the other day as I moved through a famous London Museum, I got that ‘Big’ feeling all over again. Though this time, the subject was no automaton: just a shell which glared and threatened, and glowered. And I’ll wager he, too, does not need a plug and electricity to move, should he so choose.
This creature, though, is well over 500 years old.
His name is Antigius, and he was born in a town in Lombardy at the foot of the Alps. He was made to hold something much older than half a millennium: a man’s skull, the remains of the saint-bishop himself, about whom we know very little. It is thought those remains had been housed in a monastery in Brescia, of which this saint was once bishop, since 900AD.
No-one knows who made this creature who presides icily over Mediaeval and Renaissance room 10 at the Victoria and Albert Museum. His beginnings are shrouded in mystery. He is a thing of beauty, sure: but a thing of unease in equal measure.