There is substantial evidence that an illustration of a blast furnace in the Nung Shu was copied by Taccola and Alberti and built in northern Italy. As a result, for the first time Europeans had the capacity to produce sufficient quantities of high-quality iron and steel to make reliable modern firearms.1

One of the first descriptions of an Italian steel-making furnace comes from the Florentine architect Antonio di Piero Averlino, who was called “Filarete.”2 Filarete was born in Florence around 1400. His major work was Ospedale Maggiore, a treatise on the reorganization of hospitals and sanitary engineering. Fearing that his readers might find this tome a little too heavy, he provided a series of diversions for relief. One such diversion is his account of a visit to a hammer mill and smelter in Ferriere.3 Dr. John Spencer4, chairman of the Allen Memorial Art Museum, asserts that

the technique of smelting iron in the fifteenth century as described by Filarete does not differ markedly from the standard method of extraction that obtains from his own day until the eighteenth century. In barest outline he informs us that the ore was first improved by roasting it with lime, perhaps in an attempt to reduce the high sulphur content, which he notes at various points in the process. The resulting product was ground, sifted and prepared for the charge…clear layers of charcoal were alternated in the [smelter] stack with layers of ore-lime mixture. The air blast necessary for efficient reduction was provided by an ingenious arrangement of bellows blowing alternatively through a common tuyère…. When the molten pig iron had cooled it was melted again and carried to a finery where it was shaped.

Filarete’s description of the smelter raises several significant points and poses several problems. His description of the hammer mill at Grotta Ferrata records one of the earliest instances of fining which was already, apparently, well developed. The bellows seem to be quite unique and again a very early example of a sophisticated innovation….5


The harnessing of water power could raise and drop these triangulated tilt hammers with great force.


An illustration of a water-powered smithy bellows, forge and hammermill at Grottaferrata near Rome.

This smelter was not the only Chinese contribution to making iron and steel in northern Italy in the 1450s. Theodore A. Wertime, author of The Coming of the Age of Steel, explored this “oriental influence” in his paper “Asian Influences on European Metallurgy”:


The ingenious water-powered bellows enabled higher temperatures to facilitate iron smelting.


Taccola’s similar water-powered bellows are found in his Codex Latinus Monacensis, Munich.

There is no question that Filarete, a trained observer, found here [at Ferriere] an unusual furnace assemblage. But what it was we shall never precisely know, although one suspects oriental influence from the technological context of Filarete’s impressions….

Needham is quite right in speaking of the “clustering” of technology, particularly at such moments of technical invention and interchange as the tenth to fifteenth centuries A.D. As noted in The Coming of the Age of Steel—with quite conservative interpretations—fifteenth century Italy exhibited an unusual number of metallurgical traits associated with non-European techniques of making cast iron:

1. The employment of the molten bath of cast iron for carburising wrought iron to steel, identified by Needham as an early Chinese process, which in Europe came to be known as the “Brescian” or “Bergamasque” process6

2. The early and continued casting of cooking ware and cannons of iron;

3. The Cannechio, a distinctive inverted conical shape in European blast furnaces, with antecedents more probably Chinese than Persian;

4. The granulation of new cast iron for shot or for making iron suitable for fining, not unlike north Persian traditions;

5. Iron filings as an ingredient in fire works, reflecting the heritage of “Chinese fire.”…

In Italy the evidences of clustering are impressive and force one to ponder most deeply on the course by which societies came to reshape both their mechanisms and their techniques to new purposes….

…Filarete may indeed have seen the last vestiges of a large and varied cluster of practices in the Asian manner, associated with the new product “cast iron.”7

The Medicis financed technical improvements in hardening steel. Suzanne Butters, in “The Triumph of Vulcan: Sculptors’ Tools, Porphyry, and the Prince in Ducal Florence,” describes a Medici stoneworker, Tadda, experimenting with procedures for tempering steel in order to make chisels hard enough to cut porphyry—the hardest material then used in art.8 Having devised cast iron and steel of sufficient hardness and strength to enable them to make firearms, the Florentines next needed better gunpowder.

Gunpowder, muskets, and cannons were all Chinese inventions. Gunpowder was first made in the Tang dynasty and improved in the Song.9 Its main ingredients were sulphur, saltpeter, and charcoal. The Chinese term huo yao means “the drug that fires.” (Chinese alchemists had originally thought that sulphur and saltpeter were drugs and that gunpowder could treat skin infections.) In their search for an elixir, the alchemists had found that sulphur was flammable. They mixed it with saltpeter to control its volatility by causing partial combustion, a process called “controlling sulphur.”10 They found that by adding charcoal to the saltpeter-sulphur mix, they could cause an explosion. Armorers then worked on the proportions to obtain the most explosive mixture.


The Wei Yuan Cannon and a similar mountable mobile cannon.


Drawings of cannon balls and petards featured in the Sienese engineers’ treatises on warfare.

The development of gunpowder in China went hand in hand with the development of firearms. During the Northern Song (A.D. 960–1127), Emperor Zhanzon (also known as Chao Heng) set up China’s first arms factory, employing some forty thousand workers. Three different types of gunpowder were perfected: one for cannon, another for fireballs, and another for poisoned smoke bombs.11 The ratio of saltpeter to sulfur and charcoal varied for each type. Perhaps the most famous weapon developed during the Northern Song was the fire gun, the precursor of modern firearms. The Yuan emperors deployed these weapons in the thirteenth century in central Asia.

China had invented flamethrowers by A.D. 975. Here is a description of a battle on the Yangtze presented by Shih Hsu Pai in his book Talks at Fisherman’s Rock:

Chu Lung-Pin as Admiral was attacked by the Sung emperor’s forces in strength. Chu was in command of a large warship more than ten decks high, with flags flying and drums beating. The imperial ships were smaller but they came down the river attacking fiercely, and the arrows flew so fast that the ships under Admiral Chu were like porcupines. Chu hardly knew what to do. So he quickly projected petrol from flame-throwers to destroy the enemy. The Sung forces could not have withstood this, but all of a sudden a north wind sprang up and swept the smoke and flames over the sky towards his own ships and men. As many as 150,000 soldiers and sailors caught in this are overwhelmed, whereupon Chu, being overcome with grief, flung himself into the flames and died.12

Excavations of Kublai Khan’s fleet, which was wrecked in 1281 by a kamikaze wind off Takashima, Japan, have revealed that the fleet was armed with exploding mortar bombs. The Chinese used this weapon against the Mongols in 1232 in the siege of the northern capital, Kaifeng. Chinese history tells us:

Among the weapons of the defenders there was the heaven-shaking thunder crash bomb. It consisted of gunpowder put into an iron container; then when the fuse was lit and the projectile shot off there was a great explosion the noise whereof was like thunder, audible for more than a hundred li [about forty miles] and the vegetation was scorched and blasted by the heat over an area of more than half a mou [many acres]. When hit, even iron armour was quite pierced through.13

Rockets and gunpowder missiles had been known since 1264. In his thirteenth-century book Customs and Institutions of the Old Capital, Chou describes gunpowder weapons. “Some of these were like wheels and revolving things, others like comets and others again shooting along the surface of the water.”14

Gunpowder was used in celebrations, as well, though not always with the intended results. Here is Robert Temple’s account of the empress’s retirement party at the Imperial Palace in 1264. “A display of fireworks was given in the courtyard. One of these, of the ‘ground rat’ type went straight to the steps of the throne of the Emperor’s Mother, and gave her quite a fright. She stood up in anger, gathered her skirts around her, and stopped the feast.”15

By Zheng He’s era, China had acquired centuries of experience in producing all manner of gunpowder weapons. Zheng He’s fleets were armed with rockets that sent sprays of burning paper and gunpowder to set fire to the enemies’ sails; grenades soaked in poison; mortars packed with chemicals and human excrement; shells filled with iron bolts to scythe men to pieces; archers with flaming arrows; sea mines to protect his ships; flamethrowers to incinerate the opposition; and rocket batteries to terrify them. Heaven help their enemies!16

Europeans could hardly have failed to notice this terrifying armory when they met Zheng He’s fleets, whether in Calicut, Cairo, Alexandria, Venice, or The Hague.

The first European books on gunpowder weapons were published in about 1440, one by an anonymous Hussite engineer, the second by the Venetian Giovanni Fontana, and the third by our old friend Mariano di Jacopo ditto Taccola.

Fontana described and illustrated many machines, which he called “innovations of impiety no less than genius.” He marveled that so much explosive force could be generated by such a weak powder.17 Ex quibus est orrida machina quam bombardam appellamus ad dirvendam omnem fortem dvrittiem etiam marmoream turrem non minus impietatis quam ingenii fuisse existimo qui primo adinvenerit tantam vim habeat a pusillo pulvere.”18

By the time Fontana’s book was published, some gunpowder weapons had already been used in Italy, including rockets at the battle of Chioggia in 1380. It could have been mere coincidence that his book appeared shortly after Zheng He’s visit to Venice. However, Fontana’s Liber de omnibus rebus naturalibus throws out a number of other clues.

First, he exhibited knowledge of America forty years before Columbus “discovered” it. Describing the Atlantic, he wrote, “Et ab eius occasu finitur pro parte etiam terra incognita” (In the west the Atlantic is bordered by an unknown land).19

Second, he knew of Australia two centuries before Tasman. Fontana wrote that “recent cosmographs and especially those who owe their information to true experience and distant travel and diligent navigation have found beyond the equinoctial circle to the south (south of 23o20' S) a notable habitable region not covered by water and many famous islands.”20

Third, he exhibited a solid knowledge of the Indian Ocean forty years before Vasco da Gama’s exploration of the area. Taking the evidence as a whole—that Zheng He’s gunners would have used all the machines described in Fontana’s book and would have carried many of them aboard, that Fontana’s book was published in Venice shortly after Zheng He’s squadron reached Venice, and that Fontana knew of America, the Indian Ocean, and Australia, all at that time unknown to Europeans, it seems to me reasonable to assume that Fontana gained his knowledge of many gunpowder weapons from Zheng He’s gunners.

Taccola provides corroborative evidence. He introduced Europe to a Chinese innovation from the early 1400s—a derivation of arsenic to improve the power of gunpowder. As Needham writes:

München Codex 197 is a composite work, the notebook of a military engineer writing in German, the Anonymous Hussite, and that of an Italian, probably Marianus Jacobus Taccola, writing in Latin; it contains dates such as + 1427, + 1438 and + 1441. It gives gunpowder formulae and describes guns with accompanying illustrations. A curious feature, very Chinese (cf. pp. 114, 361), is the addition of arsenic sulphides to the powder; this dates from fire-lance days but probably had the effect of making it more brisant, hence it could have been useful in bombs and grenades. The + 15th century Paris MS, supposedly before + 1453, De Re Militari, perhaps by Paolo Santini, shows a gun on a carriage with a shield at the front, mortars shooting incendiary “bombs” almost vertically to nearby targets, a bombard with a tail (cebotane or tiller), and with a mounted man holding a small gun with a burning match.21

Florentines now had steel and gunpowder to enable them to make bombards and cannons, which Francesco di Giorgio quickly put to good use.

Francesco di Giorgio

In the 1430s and 1440s, the gunpowder weapons drawn by Fontana and Taccola had not yet been “invented.” However, that changed over the next forty years, as we know from the records of Francesco di Giorgio regarding the siege of Castellina in August 1478. The Pazzis, backed by Pope Sixtus V, had initiated an armed uprising against the Medicis in Florence. The north of Italy was soon ablaze. Southerners seized their chance and marched on Tuscany. Francesco was appointed to defend the Tuscan cities.22

Here is Weller’s description of the Neapolitan siege of Colle val d’Elsa, a hill town near Florence:


This terrifying prototype “dragon torpedo” would have smashed and sunk enemy boats without mercy.


This European dragon kite does not seem so frightening!

Duke Federigo had with him for siege purposes five bombards with most terrifying names, such as “Cruel,” “Desperate,” “Victory,” “Ruin” and “No nonsense Here” and which, without doubt, were beautifully decorated, as was the fashion with the Italian cannon at this time: they discharged great balls of stone weighing 370–380 pounds, and their own weight was considerable, the tubes, when nine feet long weighed some 14,000 pounds and the tail 11,000, so that it required more than one hundred pairs of buffaloes to drag them into position

The art of casting these early cannons in two portions, the tube and the tail, was pursued in Siena; and though they might not have had much effect on the result of a modern battle, at this time they were a formidable novelty. Francesco di Giorgio in the siege of Castellina (Aug 14–18, 1478) planted a battery of these Sienese and Papal bombards.23


The Chinese may not have invented trebuchets, but they were certainly in widespread use by the fourteenth century.


Di Giorgio’s detailed treatise on machines of war included many trebuchets.

Francesco’s cannons are illustrated in the Institute and Museum of the History of Science, Florence.24 Below them is a print of the “thousand ball thunder cannon,” 1300–1350.25 Taccola’s and di Giorgio’s drawings are accompanied by the weapons that were fired—exploding missiles and powder kegs.

The Chinese had dozens of illustrations of exploding missiles and powder kegs in the Huo Lung Chung published circa 1421; and in the Wu Ching Tsung Yao, a Sung dynasty manual originally of 1044 updated in 1412. The “bamboo fire kite” and “iron beaked firebird,” incendiary projectors and “thunderclap bomb” from the Wu Ching Tsung Yao, and the bone-burning and bruising fire-oil magic bomb from the Huo Lung Chung are shown beside di Giorgio’s projectiles.


Chinese mastery of gunpowder led to the development of many effective and deadly weapons.


Taccola’s fire lances do not seem so fierce!

Another interesting similarity between di Giorgio’s designs and the Chinese gunpowder cannon may be seen in the curious bulbous shapes of both. Di Giorgio illustrated five different types of bombard in MS Palatino 767 (BNCF). This curious vase shape is shown in the Huo Lung Chung.26 At that stage, the Chinese had not yet mastered making steel strong enough to cope with the expansion of gas in the explosion chamber once the gunpowder was ignited. The bulbous shape allowed for thicker metal than in the barrel.

By 1400, the early Ming era, this problem had been solved, enabling the Chinese to produce “thousand ball thunder cannon,”27 which Francesco copied in his later drawings.28 Francesco’s cannons have beautiful embellishments. However, remove the embellishments, and what remains is the shape of Chinese cannons.


Chinese naval technology had been far superior to that of Europe’s for centuries.


An armored boat as featured in a military treatise penned in 15th-century Italy.

Gunpowder, steel, cannons, and explosive shells were not the only weapons that Taccola, Francesco, and Fontana copied from the Chinese. Within a generation after the Chinese visit of 1434, Florentines were using a variety of Chinese methods to smelt iron and were using Chinese-designed gunpowder to produce exploding shells from cannons identical in design to their Chinese counterparts.


Chinese mobile siege ladders and offensive weaponry.


Di Giorgio’s illustration of mobile siege ladders.


Chinese mobile shields could be effective when both attacking and defending positions.


Di Giorgio’s shields were not as visually arresting.


Illustrations of crossbows from the Nung Shu.


One of Leonardo’s three illustrations of crossbows.


Chinese horses and oxen could become dangerous weapons!


Compare Taccola’s drawings—they are strikingly similar.



Both the Chinese and the Europeans used fire-bearing animals to devastating effect.


An impregnable border fortress.


A similar fortress by di Giorgio, from his treatise on architecture and machines.

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