By the time the Nung Shu was published in 1313, the Chinese had been spinning yarns for a thousand years, using all sorts of materials. Silk was the finest and most valuable; scrapings of hides were the heaviest and cheapest. Needham produces diagrams of an array of hand-powered and water-powered spinning machines with single and multiple looms.1

China had been exporting silk to Italy for a millennium by the time Taccola and Franceso di Giorgio appeared. In 115 B.C., Mithridates II of Persia made a commercial treaty with the Han emperor Wu Ti. In the next century, Julius Caesar possessed silk curtains.2By the reign of Augustus, wealthy people were buried in Chinese silk.3

In return for fine silk, Chinese merchants sought gold, silver, coral, and glass. Chinese regarded high-quality glassware as a great luxury and were prepared to pay accordingly. During the Tang dynasty, monks smuggled silkworms from China to the West. Pictures of quilling machines, which wind silk thread onto bobbins, can be seen in the stained-glass windows of the Chartres cathedral, dating between 1240 and 1245. A clear illustration of the Chinese model is shown in The Genius of China.4

By the time Zheng He’s fleet visited in 1434, Europeans had silkworms and knew how to wind silk thread and to make silk cloth, but in small quantities. The illustrations and descriptions in the Nung Shu showed how the whole Chinese process—production of silk thread, the dyeing and weaving of fine silk cloth, winding the silk threads onto bobbins—could be coupled with water power to expand production enormously.


Inventions such as Chinese water-powered threshers and mills facilitated the mass production of silk and rice.

Figures tell the story: In 1418, Venetian merchants paid tax on a mere three hundred pounds of silk. In 1441, the Florentine government passed a law requiring farmers to plant between 5 and 50 mulberry trees per hectare, depending on the yield from their farms.5 Tens of thousands of mulberry trees were planted in northern Italy between 1465 and 1474. This period coincided with (or was one of the reasons for) a reversal of Venetian foreign policy. After the death of Doge Mocenigo in 1424, Venice under Francesco Foscari decided to become a land power in northern Italy. Verona, Vicenza, and the Po wetlands came into the Pax Venetica and the northern Po area was planted with thousands upon thousands of mulberry trees as well as rice (described in chapter 18).


The daily chores of a Chinese housewife.

The first Italian hydraulic silk mill, in Verona, is described in 1456. It is a Chinese machine. John Hobson in The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation summarizes the spread of Italian silk-weaving machines to northern Europe: “The invention of the silk filatures (reeling machines) had been made in China in 1090. The Chinese machines comprised a treadle operated silk-reeling frame with a ramping board and a roller system. The Italian model resembled the Chinese right down to the smallest detail such as the lever joined to the crank. And significantly the Italian machines more or less replicated the Chinese right down to the eighteenth century.”6 As Hobson points out, the great British mills set up by John Lombe were copies of “Chinese”-designed silk mills in Italy. Lombe’s machines became the blueprint for the British cotton industry, whose products later swamped the world.

The combination of abundant mulberry leaves and mechanical reeling and weaving machines led to soaring silk production in Florence and Venice. The Italian mulberry was much more prolific than the Chinese. Florence manufacturing switched from wool to silk. Sericulture spread from Tuscany first to the Po Valley and then to the “terra firma” north of Venice. Alberti wrote there were “so many mulberry trees to feed the worms from which the silk is obtained that it is a marvellous thing.” Estimated production of raw silk in the Verona district rose from 20,000 light pounds in 1530 to 150,000 in 1608. Vicenza produced 60,000 light pounds in 1504 and double that amount by 1608. As printing got under way in Venice, publications in clear and simple language explained how best to tend mulberry trees and feed and care for silkworms. Titles such as Il vermicella dalla seta (The little silkworm) were remarkably similar to fourteenth-century Chinese books on sericulture.

The development of sericulture led to more and better spinning machines. In the 1450s, Vicenza had eight shops of spinners. The number rose to ten in 1507, thirty-three in 1543, and over one hundred by 1596. Silk production in Verona underwent a similar expansion, rising from eight silk spinners in the 1420s to twelve in 1456, when Verona’s first hydraulic mill, on the Adige, was commissioned (Mola, 237). After that, the industry exploded; there were fifty spinners’ shops in 1543, seventy in 1549, and eighty-eight in 1559.

The raw silk and silk thread produced in the terra firma encouraged a new breed of entrepreneurs to buy silk. Many were financed by the Medicis. The Venetian government took a close interest in regulating the silk industry in its territory, issuing patents, which increased after the 1440s. In 1474, Venice published a general law of patents:

The decision has been made that, by the authority of this council, any person in this city who makes any new and ingenious contrivance, not made here before in our domains, shall, as soon as it is perfected so that it can be used and exercised, give notice of the same to the office of our Provveditori di Commune, it being forbidden up to ten years for any other person in any territory and place or ours to make a contrivance without the content and license of the author…. But our government will be free, at its complete discretion, to take and use for its needs any of the said contrivances and instruments, with this condition, however, that no one other than the inventors shall operate them.7

By these means, first Venice and Florence, then the whole of Italy came to dominate the raw-silk market of Europe—much as eastern Asia dominates the global market today.


Florence’s silk-based economic boom required more workers, and more workers required more food. As Braudel has pointed out, the yield from rice fields is some several times that of wheat.8

Rice had been known in the Mediterranean world since the Roman era, but it was used only for medicinal purposes. The first known reference to rice being grown in northern Italy is a letter of September 27, 1475, from the ruler of Milan, Galeazzo Sforza, to the duke of Ferrara concerning twelve sacks of Asian (Oryza Sativa) rice grown in the Po Valley.

Rice is the basic food of southern China. The Nung Shu included much advice from Wang Chen about wet rice cultivation, including how to husband and control water supplies from the great rivers that carry melted snow from the Mongolian plateau eastward to the sea.

Cultivators of rice build surface tanks and reservoirs to store water, and dykes and sluices to stop its flow (when necessary)…. The land is divided into small patches, and after ploughing and harrowing, water is let into the fields and the seeds sown. When the plants grow five or six inches tall, they are planted out. All farmers south of the river [Yangtze] now use this method. When the plants attain a height of seven or eight inches, the ground is hoed, and after hoeing the water is let go from the fields, so as to dry them. Then when the plants begin to flower and seed, water is again let in.


Chinese irrigation design.

The Nung Shu illustrates all manner of techniques for the vital task of regulating water supply to the rice fields—many types of bucket and chain pumps, locks and sluices, dams and conduit channels. Buckets, pallets, and chain pumps are a theme,9 as are bamboo “water palisades,” which acted as weirs.

As described in the previous chapter, Taccola and Francesco di Giorgio drew an array of pumps as well as dams and sluice gates.10 The chain pumps first shown in the drawings of Taccola are still in use today in northeastern Italy, where the local people call them “Tartar” pumps. Since Taccola and Francesco’s drawings of chain and bucket pumps were shown in chapter 16, in this chapter only piston pumps will be described.

Sheldon Shapiro in his article “The Origin of the Suction Pump” notes:

Not until the early fifteenth century does the first evidence of the valved piston appear. It turns up in a drawing (Fig. 4) by the Siennese engineer, Mariano Jacopo Taccola [in Munich Ms. 1435] whose still unpublished notebooks are of the greatest importance for the history of technology. In this drawing dating from about 1433, the valve in the piston is clear. Therefore, although a text and other details are lacking this drawing represents the first suction pump on record; it is unintelligible in any other terms.

The first detailed drawings of suction pumps date from the period 1475–1480; Francesco di Giorgio Martini in the last book of his Trattato di Architettura written about 1475 shows several suction pumps. In the most mechanically perfect pump the distance from the sump to the chamber seems only a foot or two, instead of the 32 feet possible, thus showing an imperfect understanding of the nature of this new type of pump.11


A Chinese chain pump used for irrigation purposes.

Clearly Franceso did not know how it worked; he must have copied a drawing.

As Needham points out, suction pumps in China are first described in the Wu Ching Tsung Yao (Collection of the most important military techniques, published in 1044). Here Needham describes the process:

For syringes (chi thung) one uses long pieces of (hollow) bamboo; opening a hole in the bottom (septum) and wrapping silk floss round a piston-rod (shui kan) inside (to form the piston). Then from the hole water may be shot forth…. In the 11th century…the military encyclopaedia just mentioned gives us elsewhere a very remarkable account of a flamethrower for naphtha which constituted a liquid piston pump of ingenious design.12

Di Giorgio’s piston pump is shown in the copy of his Trattato di architettura owned by Leonardo da Vinci, which is now in the Laurenzian Library in Florence. Leonardo improved upon di Giorgio’s drawings.

In many ways, the Po resembles a smaller version of the Yangtze. Both rivers carry melting snows from the mountains eastward to the sea. Both suffer from flash floods and are controlled by a network of canals, locks, sluices, and dams. The waters of both are used to form extensive rice fields. The exact date when the Po was first utilized for rice is not known. Clearly it predated the 1475 letter, but by how much? I suggest it was after 1435, when Taccola’s first drawings of pumps appear, and probably after 1438, when his drawings of lock and sluice gates first appear.

The combination of booming silk production in Florence and Venice and adequate food for the silk workers enabled “an extraordinary increase in silk production” between 1441 and 1461.13 By the 1480s silk had become “the main source of employment” for Florentine workers. The rise in silk production was mirrored by the rise in the Medici family’s wealth, which was largely a product of financing the export of fine silk cloth. Florence had acquired the port of Pisa in 1405 and Leghorn in 1421 and could thereafter export her cloths to northern Europe.

The Florentine Renaissance was fueled by wealth, especially that of the Medicis. The family was in exile when Pope Eugenius IV moved the pontificate from Rome to Florence in 1434, interceded with the opponents of the Medicis, and enabled the family to return to Florence. The Medicis once again became papal bankers and soon controlled Florence. As the future Pope Pius II said, “Political questions are settled at his [Cosimo’s] house. The man he chooses holds office…. He it is who decides peace and war and controls the laws…. he is king in everything but name.”14

Christopher Hibbert, in The House of Medici; Its Rise and Fall, writes of Cosimo de’ Medici: “Foreign rulers were advised to communicate with him personally and not to waste their time by approaching anyone else in Florence when any important decision was required. As the Florentine historian, Francesco Guicciardini, observed, ‘He had a reputation such as probably no private citizen has ever enjoyed from the fall of Rome to our own day.’”15

Cosimo was at the heart of western Christendom. When popes visited Florence, they stayed in Medici palaces, enjoyed Medici hospitality, accepted Medici loans, and, in return, granted highly valuable concessions. For example, in 1460 huge deposits of alum, an essential ingredient in fulling cloth, were found near Civitavecchia in the Papal States. In 1466 the Medicis signed an agreement with the papacy giving them and their partners the sole right to mine alum and sell it abroad.

Hibbert wrote, “the French historian, Philippe de Commines, described the bank…as the greatest commercial house that had ever been anywhere. ‘The Medici name gave their servants and agents so much credit,’ Commines wrote, ‘that what I have seen in Flanders and England almost passes belief.’”16

By the 1450s, Florence had silk and food. The Medicis had derived unprecedented riches from the silk trade and had used their wealth to fund astronomers, mathematicians, engineers, sculptors, artists, explorers, cartographers, historians, librarians, archaeologists, and geographers. The Renaissance was in full flood—thanks in part to Chinese inventions and plants—use of machines powered by wind and water, Chinese rice, mulberry trees, and silkworms.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!