Ready for Close-Ups


Think of early telescopes and you’ll probably think Galileo, not old masters. But a fresh look at early 17th-century paintings has turned up the first-ever depictions of telescopes, and the canvases might even pre-date Galileo’s famous demonstrations of their power.

Two distinct types of telescopes appear in several works by the Flemish painter Jan Brueghel the Elder. One painting, Extensive Landscape with View of the Castle of Mariemont, shows an archduke staring through a so-called Dutch telescope approximately a foot long. Given that the first telescopes appeared in late 1608 and that the painting was completed circa 1609, it possibly shows the telescope within months of its invention. Pierluigi Selvelli and Paolo Molaro, astronomers at the Osservatorio Astronomico di Trieste in Italy, also noticed that Brueghel tucked a six-foot-long collapsible telescope into Allegory of Sight, a 1617 collaboration with Peter Paul Rubens. It is a Keplerian telescope, the familiar collapsible tube first sketched out by astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1611 but never built by him. This one was probably the first model designed for astronomy (Galileo used modified spyglasses, originally built for ships at sea and other military purposes), and Allegory of Sight pushes back the telescope’s first confirmed appearance in history by a decade.

Allegory depicts a second telescope (behind the cherub), the same Dutch model the archduke employs in Castle of Mariemont. This time, perhaps as a wicked joke, a monkey wields it.

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Sam Kean is the author of six science books, including The Disappearing Spoon and The Icepick Surgeon.


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