I have a much better appreciation for the volvelles, or circular computers, that survived from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment to the present day.  Fragile, finicky and prone to moving right went you don’t want it to, the volvelle is the brainchild of Raymond Llull, a Catalan Catholic theologian of the mid-1300s AD. 

I want to make a volvelle to go on the inside front cover of a hand bound book I’m designing. As you can probably tell, this volvelle is astronomical in nature, but Llull’s was intended to be logical and grammatical, designed to explore theological concepts and train missionaries to work in Islamic regions (he failed to win many converts).  

The volvelle remains. This one has pointers for the seven visible planets of medieval astronomy (less the Moon, because I lost the paper cutout between cutting it out and assembling the volvelle). It also has a horizon line, and a “sphere of fixed stars” that includes both the Decans of the Zodiac and the Mansions of the Moon; as well as the fixed ground of the twelve houses of astrology. 

And it doesn’t work as smoothly as I’d like. I need to replace the brass brad with a paper system, as is used in medieval and renaissance volvelles. The brass brad is too thick, and doesn’t allow for smooth or independent rotation of the parts. Back to the drawing board. 

Autumn Maker School: Volvelle


Volvelle: astronomy

This is part of the Autumn Maker School. The goal is to make ten things between now and December 21. I am behind on my own project.

At left is the assembled first try at a volvelle.

A Volvelle is a medieval computer for help at visually calculating the movement of the stars and visible planets.  Its a fixed ring along the outside, representing the twelve houses of astrology.  A central pin holds a second ring, which rotates freely around the outside; this holds the Zodiac ranges, which here are each divided into 10° increments called Decans or Faces; I’ve worked with some of them before.  Each Zodiac sign has a ruling planet, and many of them are associated with a given planet in one of four other ‘essential dignities’ called ExaltationTriplicity, Detriment and Fall — and there’s space on this disk to record that information too.

Essentially, this is a floppy paper astronomical calculator for helping you figure out approximately where the planets should be.  It’s not particularly accurate yet, but it’s a good start.

Why am I building it?  Well, ultimately I would like my Latin students’ notebooks to resemble florilegia, which I tend to think of as elaborate student notebooks.  Students would copy whole texts into them, as well as selected quotations of important works, illustrations they liked, visual summaries of information akin to modern mind-maps, fold-out maps, and sometimes even computers like this one.  I want my students’ working notebooks to have volvelles and other features in them, because my feeling is that if student notebooks are interesting, then they’ll be more likely to paw around in them and look at their contents, and remember what little Latin I’ll have time to teach them.

I produced the initial design for the volvelle in Apple Pages, and eventually I intend to convert the thing to PNG so I can import it into Photoshop and colorize it. For those who don’t know how Pages’ layout tools work, a lot of this was done with tools that resemble those of a collage artist: making shapes and lines, and then ‘stacking’ them digitally from top to bottom or bottom to top until they resemble the image that you’re trying to create.  I have to admit that designing this image sucked.  There are almost certainly better tools for doing this; and I’m definitely going to be coloring it in a different program than the one I started in. Once it’s colorized, I can then set up a PDF which I can distribute separately for interested folks.

Is anyone interested?