The monkey’s telescope – a mystery

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    Jeremy Shears

    As a fan of the Flemish masters, I was intrigued by a paper out today on the painting “the Allegory of Sight” by Jan Brueghel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens. Painted in 1617, it discusses two telescopes depicted in the painting. One, held by a monkey, appears to have transparent tube. The author, Paolo Del Santo (Museo Galileo, Florence) goes on to claim it is made of glass:

    I’m no art historian, but I wonder whether there is a more prosaic explanation. Perhaps the painter(s) hadn’t actually completed this part of the painting, though given their known attention to detail this would be surprising. Did they paint the monkey’s hand in place to ensure it was rendered correctly, with the intention of painting over the tube later? Or perhaps the painters simply chose to depict it as transparent.

    Taking it at face value, it is intriguing. I suppose wealthy people might have chosen to use unusual materials for telescopes (rather like the other, highly ornate, telescope in the painting. The author ends:

    “Apparently, this is the only known example of the use of this material to make the tube of a telescope, but, now that we know that such an instrument existed, some glass tube lying forgotten in the warehouse of some museum, without anyone having ever understood the use to which it was intended, could be identified as the tube of a telescope in future”.

    Might anyone know of another glass tubed telescope?

    Bill Barton

    Surely the monkey is using lorgnettes (handheld spectacles)?

    Lars Lindhard

    I think the author of the article is referring to another picture?

    Jeremy Shears

    yes, its a different painting. Apparently monkeys like optics.
    Here’s a direct link to the paper:

    Jeremy Shears

    Here is the relevant part of the painting, from the paper

    Andy Wilson

    At first, I too could not spot the telescope in question. Then I realised there are two monkeys in the picture, near to one another. The one holding the telescope like object is near to the monkey holding the spectacles, hidden mostly behind the painting of ships.

    Roy Hughes

    It may just be that the tube was painted with a thin wash of some fugitive pigment that has faded over the years.
    I once had an opportunity to get very close (15cm) to a Hieronymus Bosch painting in Washington.
    Much of that painting was ‘transparent’ and the under work clearly visible.


    It has been purposefully painted to look like a glass cylinder; the white paint strategically placed to show it reflecting light coming from the left, and to give the appearance of glass. So I don’t think this represents an unfinished telescope. I would be skeptical that it is a telescope as I’m not aware of glass refractors, or why you’d want one. The end cap of the glass tube is different to the ends of the telescope near it on a mount.

    We need an expert in glass artefacts of the C17th to indicate what a glass cylinder might have been used for. I was wondering what other material it could be; plastics weren’t known, rock crystal seems unlikely, ice again seems unlikely. So I would have thought it does represent glass.

    Interesting story.

    David Arditti

    Interesting. I’m with James. I think it is a glass object that has been painted, and the painting has been finished, but I doubt it is a telescope. There are various geometrical, navigational and surveying instruments scattered round the room. I think the object in question could be a spirit level, with metal end sections and a short central glass section containing the liquid, through which we see the monkey’s arm. Such a level would be an important tool for a painter drawing horizons and buildings. Unlike a builders’ level, you might not make it with a flat base, as there would be no reason to do so.

    David Arditti

    And researching this topic led me to this fascinating lecture on the use of optical instruments by renaissance painters, very relevant to my talks (Presidential addresses) on the history of the telescope.

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