That’s for Jan Brueghel the Elder…….

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OK so yet again I’m blogging on a topic I don’t know terribly much about but that I found interesting. A month ago this paper by Paolo Molaro and Pierluigi Selvelli from Trieste Observatory appeared outlining the interesting case of early telescopes in paintings.

The paper focusses on the work of Jan Brueghel the Elder and in particular two works made between 1608 and 1617. My knowledge of Flemish painters is limited to Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch (and most if the latter comes from watching In Bruge) so forgive me if I can’t discuss the finer technical points of the art, there does appear however that there could be be a fascinating story behind the paintings.

In the early 17th century the Eighty Years’ War had reached stalemate. Most of what is now The Netherlands was held by the new Dutch Republic while their Spanish opponents and former overlords remained in control of Flanders to the south. It was in this environment that the telescope was first invented. Who invented it is not certain, but we do know that the first public demonstration was in Den Haag in 1608.

Around this time Jan Brueghel the Elder was working as the court painter for Archduke Albert VII (the sovereign of the Spanish/Austrian portion of the Low Countries). At some time in-between 1608 and 1611 he painted “Extensive Landscape with View of the Castle of Mariemon” (I can’t find a picture online, see the original paper). In this the archduke is seen viewing the scenery through a telescope. Given the date it is likely this is one of the earliest such device. The authors then go on to speculate that this device could have been made by the inventor of the telescope. One letter from a Papal envoy to a nephew of Pope Paul V claims that, having seen the telescope being demonstrated in Den Haag while he was there negotiating a peace deal with Dutch Stadthouder Maurice of Nassau, Ambrosio Spinola (the Genoese commander of the Spanish Army in the Low Countries) was impressed and managed to obtain one of these “spyglasses”. Another letter written by a Udine nobleman (to Galileo of all people) claims this came from the inventor himself.

Brueghel also worked on a series of paintings in collaboration with Ruebens. In The Allegory of Sight (1617, see below),

he paints a long, silver telescope. The authors deduce from its style and dimensions that this instrument could be one of the first Keplerian Telescopes (one where the eyepiece as well as the objective lens is convex). These were first described in principle by Kepler in 1611 and could have been manufactured shortly after. They suggest that Christoph Scheiner, one of the first people to observe sunspots, had presented Keplerian telescopes to Archduke Albert’s brother in Innsbruck. A Keplerian Telescope produces an image which is upside down, Scheiner added a third lense to flip the image to the correct orientation. So again it is quite possible that this is one of the first ever device of its type ever made.

I hope I’ve given a reasonable run-down of a subject, if you want to know the full story from a much better source then I urge you to read the original paper. And if you understand what the title of this post is a nod to, don’t complete it in the comments thread (please).

Paolo Molaro, & Pierluigi Selvelli (2009). The mystery of the telescopes in Jan Brueghel the Elder’s paintings Memorie della Società Astronomica Italiana arXiv: 0908.2696v1