You are on page 1of 6

The Inspiration of Astronomical Phenomena VI ASP Conference Series, Vol. 441 Enrico Maria Corsini, ed.

c 2011 Astronomical Society of the Pacic

The Telescope: Outline of a Poetic History

Manlio Pastore Stocchi Dipartimento di Italianistica, Universit` a di Padova, Padova, Italy
Abstract. Amongst the rst editions of Galileos books, only the Saggiatore has on its frontispiece the image of the telescope. Indeed, the telescope is not pictured on the very emphatic frontispieces of the other books in which Galileo was presenting and defending the results achieved by his celestial observations, such as the Sidereus Nuncius. Many contemporary scientists denied the reliability of the telescope, and some even refused to look into the eyepiece. In the 16th and 17th century, the lenses, mirrors, and optical devices of extraordinary complexity did not have the main task of leading to the objective truth but obtaining the deformation of the reality by means of amazing eects of illusion. The Baroque art and literature had the aim of surprising, and the artists gave an enthusiastic support to the telescope. The poems in praise of Galileos telescopic ndings were quite numerous, including Adone composed by Giovanni Battista Marino, one of the most renowned poets of the time. The Galilean discoveries were actually accepted by the poets as ideologically neutral contributions to the wonder in spite they were rejected or even condemned by the scientists, philosophers, and theologians.

The tomb in Santa Croce in Florencewhere Galileos remains were admitted only on 12 March 1737has the clear image of the telescope, which is intended to evoke, together with the statues of Geometry by Girolamo Ticciati and Astronomy by Giovan Battista Foggini that ank the bust of the scientist, the newest and most prestigious aspects of his work in astronomy and cosmology (see Figure 7 in Thienes contribution, this volume). Vincenzo Viviani provided the iconographic program of the monument and worked very hard so that the Master had nally, almost a hundred years after his death, a burial worthy of his merits. He thought the telescope was the instrument that obviously more than any other object could represent the Galilean revolution. The project of the tomb was inspired by the frontispiece of the Saggiatore, on which the title, surrounded by an elaborate architectural frame, is anked by the personications of the Natural Philosophy and the Mathematics (see Figure 1 in Besomis contribution, this volume). Amongst the rst Galilean editions, only the Saggiatore has in its frontispiece the image of the telescope. Indeed, it is not pictured on the very emphatic (according to the 17th -century custom) frontispiecesand the page preceding themof the other books in which Galileo was presenting and defending the results achieved by his celestial observations, not even in the Sidereus Nuncius, dedicated to the discoveries made through the new use of that instrument. Nevertheless, the only one depiction of the telescope on the Saggiatore is left aside. On the base holding the Mathematics, two decussated telescopes are accompanied and supported by a curved mirror, forming an ornamental frieze similar to those that were drawn and carved in 37


Pastore Stocchi

war trophies by crossing two pieces of ordnance. And it is interesting to notice that the original Galilean telescopesimilar to a rigid cannonis not represented here, but rather a more sophisticated instrument with sections sliding one inside the other. However, the presence of the mirror (or, as it may be, a lens with a very high curvature) did not support the respectability of the telescope, which was already questioned by many people, for the reasons I am going to explain. Many contemporary scientists denied the reliability of the phenomena observed with the telescope, and some, like the philosopher Cesare Cremonini, even refused to put the eye on the telescope, exclaiming that the instruments like that imbalordiscon la testa (are used to disorient and deceive the observer). Anecdotes such as this one are usually cited to demonstrate the foolish stubbornness of unreasonable opponents. Nevertheless those attitudes, senseless at rst sight, were shared by philosophers and high-level scientists and have a justication worthy of consideration. First, the telescope was originallyand would have remained for many yearsvery unreliable in itself due to various and unavoidable construction defects: impurities in the glass, irregularities of the curvatures, imprecise collimation of the lenses, and so on, with consequent spherical, geometric, and chromatic aberrations. Hence in the Istoria e dimostrazioni intorno alle macchie solari e loro accidenti of 1613, Galileo had to care about those skeptics that attributed the phenomenon to mere imperfections of the lenses, and in the Dialogo sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo he testied that in 1632 a part of the scientic world was still considering that what he saw on the disk of the Sun were just mere illusioni de cristalli (illusions of the lenses). Besides, there is a deeper reasonrelated to the word illusioni (illusions) which explains the distrusts toward the reliability of astronomical observations made with the telescope. In the 16th and whole 17th centurylong before and long after Galileos discoverieslenses, mirrors, and ingenious combinations of both in optical devices of extraordinary complexity did not have the main task of leading to the objective truth, but obtaining the deformation of the reality by means of spectacular eects of illusion. Therefore, in the common usage and opinion, lenses and mirrors altered the reality to create new and wonderful objects, in harmony with the purpose of mystifying and surprising, which was typical of the arts and literature during the Baroque age. A particularly instructive example of optical devices designed to give enigmatic or misleading representations of the reality, is the usealready documented a century before Galileos telescopeof anamorphic lenses and mirrors to mask and in some sense to encrypt everyday objects or even disreputable actions. A well-known example is oered by the detail in the masterpiece The Ambassadors by Hans Holbein (1533) that the observer perceives as a front indecipherable white-brown stain. It is instead the anamorphosis of a skull. The painter must have used a simple devicefor example, a curved mirror or a conical lensand has faithfully reproduced the dilated image, unrecognizable at rst sight of the real model in aenigmate (in a less artistic way and with more malice, it was the custom to engrave prints, whose subject seemed innocuous, such as a landscape, but which revealed, seen from an angle, obscene or scatological gures). In the decades after Holbeins masterpiece, complex devices were designed to obtain more and more special eects. The German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher described in his works many of these devices, which he collected in a Wunderkammer. Some of them are still conserved in Romethe city where he lived and diedin various and not

The Telescope: Outline of a Poetic History


easily accessible places. Kircher is attracted by the anamorphic eects and illusions achievable through the combination of mirrors and lenses. He guarantees astonishing results by arguing, for example, that humans can be transformed into animals with a set of seven mirrors and few lamps. These arguments are enough to assert that until the 17th -century lenses and mirrors were not obviously used only to achieve the scientic truth. For example, the Jesuit Francesco Lana Terzi from Brescia, published in 1670 the Prodromo, ovvero saggio di alcune invenzioni nuove premesse allArte Maestra, a work sometimes cited today because it includes the project of a nave che cammini sostentata sopra laria a remi e vele (ship able to walk on the air through oars and sails). Together with four methods of achieving perpetual motion and other similar follies, Lana explains quite precisely the theory and methods of construction of the telescope, considers the possible defects of the lens, shows how to avoid or correct them, and gives ample elucidations of Galileos discoveries. However, he cannot resist the temptation to conclude this part of his book describing how to use the telescope per ingannare con uno spettacolo dilettevole glamici (to deceive the friends with a delightful show), that is to obtain extraordinary eects of trompe-loeil with appropriate adjustments. It is understandable how the distorting and mystifying function of the optical instruments raised in the scientists some suspicions about the reliability of the Galilean telescope. These are certainly unjust suspicions, but also not without an explanation more honorable than the sheer ignorance and stupidity of the various Simplicians who made the path of Galileo arduous. A surprising return of this scientic skepticism is the widespread, enthusiastic support that the contemporary artists and men of letters manifested with respect to the telescope. The poems in praise of Galileo for his invention and the revolutionary astronomical discoveries were quite numerous and were composed not only by less known occasional versiers, but also by some of the most renowned artists of the time. The explanation of this literary success is that knowing whether the Galileos discoveries were really able to represent the nature was not fundamental within the humanistic culture. In the same way, the subjects of Baroque painting and poetic imaginations did not have to correspond to reality. The deceptions of the telescope were still consistent with a theory of art that assigned to the poetry and painting the purpose of the meraviglia (wonder) awakened by new and capricious inventions of painters and poets. The telescope would have been considered as an awesome novelty. In this way, even the long title of the Sidereus Nuncius, which emphasizes the magna, longeque admirabilia spectacula [. . . ] quae [. . . ] perspicilli [. . . ] benecio sunt observata (great and awesome spectacles that are observed by means of the telescope) could have contributed to suggest that the universe of wondersrevealed by the Galilean discoveriescould have been accepted as a wonderful extension of the artistic universe. Therefore it is not strange at all that the telescopeso little present on the Galilean frontispiecesis celebrated and well shown in the sumptuous frontispiece of Il cannocchiale aristotelico (Figure 1), a successful work published in 1654twelve years after Galileos deathby Emmanuele Tesauro, a Count and former Jesuit. Donato Rossetti, a professor from Pisa and follower of Galileo, who met Tesauro in Turin in 1674, reported that Tesauro was an admirer of Galileo and inclined to the Copernican system, but very ignorant of science. In addition, Rossetti noticed that Tesauro did not have any scientic book in his library. Indeed Il cannocchiale aristotelico is not a scientic work, but rather a confused treatise of rhetoric and poetics. Tesauro discusses and praises the


Pastore Stocchi

Figure 1. 1654.

Frontispiece of Emmanuele Tesauro, Il cannocchiale aristotelico, Turin,

use of methaphors stressing its incompatibility with the severe language of science, as already pointed out by Aristotle. The title of the work puts togetherin a bizarre combinationthe instrument of the new science and the patron of the old science, who was represented by Simplicio in the Dialogo sopra i massimi sistemi. In fact, Aristotle is the undisputed reference model for Tesauro, who invokes and approves him on every page of the book. On the frontispiece, the Poetry and Painting substitute the Natural Philosophy and the Mathematics of the Galilean iconography, and it is clearly shown a telescope that the Poetrywith the help of Aristotle who holds itpoints toward the Sun, observing,

The Telescope: Outline of a Poetic History


however, not spots but a perfectly immaculate disk. As a matter of fact, the telescope is not expected to discover the physical world, and no one cares if what it shows does correspond or not to the real nature. Here, the telescope is adopted to explain Horaces verse egregio inspersos reprendas corpore nevos (unveil moles on an noble body; Sermones, 1, 6, 67) which is written as a caption. The telescope and its use are poetic metaphors on a research devoted not to sunspots but to the strenghts and weaknesses of poetry. On the frontispiece the telescope is also associated to an anamorphic lens with the motto Omnis in unum. Long time after Galileos death, the telescope was still used as an instrument capable to give a misleading representation of the reality. With these assumptions, the success of Galileo amongst the poets of his time is granted. As is well known, in 1620 even the Cardinal Maeo Barberiniwho would have been elected pope Urban VIII becoming a strong persecutor of the scientist composed the Latin ode Adulatio perniciosa and sent it to Galileo with many compliments. This is a good example to understand how the Galilean works could have been accepted in a poetical context as ideologically neutral contributions to the wonder of literary men, but would have been condemned in the scientic and ideological eld. Most of that enthusiastic but generic poetry does not have a great value. However there is one exception. In the poem Adone published in Paris in 1623, Giovanni Battista Marinothe greatest Italian poet and one of the most notable in Europededicated a wonderful page to Galileos telescopic discoveries, conrming that the sensitivity of the artists and poets of the 17th century was more unconditionally sympathetic to Galileo than was the culture of philosophy, science and religion. Adone, the main character, embarked on a journey into the celestial spaces. This is still the Ptolemaic universe, but he surprisingly notes that the surface of the Moon is rough and uneven, just as Galileo would have described and drawn it on the Sidereus Nuncius. The god Mercury, who acts as a guide, following step by step the Sidereus Nuncius announces to Adone that in a distant futurethat is the time in which Marino livesthe mysteries of the Moon and other planets will be nally revealed (c. X, st. 42-43):
Tempo verr` a che senza impedimento queste sue note ancor en note e chiare, merc` e dun ammirabile stromento per cui ci` o ch` e lontan vicino appare e, con un occhio chiuso e laltro untento specolando ciascun lorbe lunare, scorciar potr` a lunghissimi intervalli per un picciol cannone e duo cristalli. Del telescopio, a questa etate ignoto, per te a, Galileo, lopra composta, lopra chal senso altrui, bench e remoto, fatto molto maggior loggetto accosta, [. . . ]


Pastore Stocchi
(A time will come when these her marks will be clearly observed without impediment, thanks to a marvelous new instrument through which things distant can appear close by; and one surveying the bright lunar orb, with one eye closed and with the other xed, will shorten the tremendous interval by a small cannon with two crystals set. Through thee, O Galileo, the telescope, to present age unknown, shall be composed, the work which brings remotest object close and makes it show much larger to ones sense. [. . . ])1

an so on, in a digression constituted by more than 250 lines. It is strange thatas I have just mentionedfor Marino the cosmological framework is the Ptolemaic one and the poet does not contest its validity according to Galileos discoveries. That wasin his eyesa matter of scientists and he did not care about it; but the poetry of the wonder already knew the truth.

G. M, Adonis, trans. H. M. P, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 1967.