Cover image for Vision and Its Instruments: Art, Science, and Technology in Early Modern Europe Edited by Alina Payne

Vision and Its Instruments

Art, Science, and Technology in Early Modern Europe

Edited by Alina Payne


$89.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06389-8

$42.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06390-4

304 pages
9" × 10"
64 color/39 b&w illustrations

Vision and Its Instruments

Art, Science, and Technology in Early Modern Europe

Edited by Alina Payne

“The book’s subject is also part of the experience of reading it: the generous provision of illustrations offers patterns of analogy and juxtaposition that present the reader with their own epistemic images. Payne’s introduction proposes that Renaissance art and science conceived of sight as performance and event. In the complex acts of seeing performed in these essays, and those they encourage in the reader, the book illustrates as well as argues its own propositions.”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
Starting with Brunelleschi’s invention of perspective and Galileo’s invention of the telescope—two inaugural moments in the history of vision, from two apparently distinct provinces, art and science—this volume of essays by noted art, architecture, science, philosophy, and literary historians teases out the multiple strands of the discourse about sight in the early modern period. Looking at Leonardo and Gallaccini, at botanists, mathematicians, and artists from Dante to Dürer to Shakespeare, and at photography and film as pointed modern commentaries on early modern seeing, Vision and Its Instruments revisits the complexity of the early modern economy of the image, of the eye, and of its instruments. The book explores the full range of early modern conceptions of vision, in which mal’occhio (the evil eye), witchcraft, spiritual visions, and phantasms, as well as the artist’s brush and the architect’s compass, were seen as providing knowledge equal to or better than newly developed scientific instruments and practices (and occasionally working in conjunction with them). The essays in this volume also bring a new dimension to the current discourse about image production and its cultural functions.
“The book’s subject is also part of the experience of reading it: the generous provision of illustrations offers patterns of analogy and juxtaposition that present the reader with their own epistemic images. Payne’s introduction proposes that Renaissance art and science conceived of sight as performance and event. In the complex acts of seeing performed in these essays, and those they encourage in the reader, the book illustrates as well as argues its own propositions.”
“A highly rewarding volume, brimming with exciting ideas and findings. It is also beautifully illustrated.”
“Originating in the seemingly disconnected provinces of art and science with the development of perspective by Filippo Brunelleschi and of the telescope by Galileo Galilei, these carefully textured analyses of vision continue the conversation from the processes of image making and reception to the physiology of the body and the mechanics of technology. Beyond the predictable methodological and disciplinary concerns, these authors incorporate the range of early modern cultural and religious considerations of vision, including mal occhio (evil eye), witchcraft, spiritual visions, and phantasms as they extend the early-20th-century debate between the objects being seen versus the process of seeing.”
“Any scholar who is seriously interested in the intertwined histories of art and science, the scientific revolution, the philosophy of science, the history of the idea of objectivity, the concept of nature, the theory of art, the role of photography in art history, the limits of visibility, the place of vision in Dante, vision and the visionary, the epistemology of drawing, theories of the imagination, botanical illustration, semiotics, aesthetics, and optics (among many other related topics) will need to read this beautifully designed, copiously illustrated, and challenging collection of dovetailing essays gathered by the estimable Alina Payne. Taken together, these essays point toward a synthetic understanding of the history of vision, to which the history of art belongs.”
“This remarkable collection of essays, gathered together with an illuminating introduction by Alina Payne, ranges from Dante to Alfred Hitchcock, from Leonardo da Vinci to Marcel Duchamp. Yet, though the particular focus continually shifts, the central questions remain the same: What is the relationship between seeing and knowing? Between image and reality? Between art and science? Vision and Its Instruments is an important book for anyone interested in these questions and in the particular changes that Renaissance art brought to the representation of the visible and invisible world.”
“Just as Leonardo da Vinci exemplifies dual breakthroughs during the early modern period in both observation and representation of nature, this interdisciplinary volume addresses both revolutions analytically to consider ‘sight as performance.’ By assembling contributions from leading scholars in both history of science and history of art, including several notable Leonardo experts, these essays explore vision itself and contemporary understandings of visuality at the moment when sight and visual knowledge were expanded by new instruments (telescopes, microscopes, and the early camera obscura). Led by editor Alina Payne, Vision and Its Instruments also examines challenges to artistic verisimilitude and to the emerging concept of objectivity—through visions and through problems of picturing invisible forces and concepts. Artworks studied include sculpture as well as painting, and modern film and photography address lingering interpretive issues. This outstanding, coherent volume reformulates early modern intellectual issues pertaining to both vision and visual art. It will contribute richly to further reconsiderations of the ‘visual turn’ in contemporary culture.”
“An iridescent florilegium of contemporary investigations into the science of visual art and the artful visuality of science.”
“Handsomely produced and beautifully illustrated, Vision and its Instruments challenges the modern dichotomy between art and science. Assembling authoritative essays by scholars in early modern studies, it shows that architects, designers, and painters were engaged in projects that ran parallel to, and often overlapped with, the work of some of the most important naturalists of the period as they grappled with a shared problem: how to grasp the truths that underpinned natural phenomena and how to communicate them to others.”
“Alina Payne and the polymath contributors to Vision and Its Instruments open new perspectives on the art and the science of vision. Artists, botanists, zoologists, and astronomers mix freely in this fascinating history. We learn about prosthetic technologies of sight, about physiognomies shared by plants and people, and about brushes and fingers with brains and libido. Did you know how fingertips can see the shape of color? Or how quincuncial and other naturally recurring patterns underpin a natural language of ornament and construction? I didn't before reading Vision and Its Instruments.”
“The famous image of a blind man ‘seeing’ with the help of two sticks—devised by René Descartes—emblematically illustrates the fact that vision is fundamentally determined by instruments. The significance of the comprehensive nature and expansive range of these instruments is brilliantly demonstrated by the essays in this book. Their interest ranges from optical devices and techniques of the observer (that is, the more receptive aspects of seeing) to the formative ‘epistemic concepts’ and the creative acts of the artist who, with only the tip of the brush, makes the invisible visible, bringing Descartes’s argument about the blind man’s stick full circle. This new approach to vision and its instruments not only supplements the most recent methodological challenges of the object, materiality, and agency but also presents a spectrum of the different ‘scientific cultures’ of art history and other disciplines concerned with the visual in Europe and the United States.”
“The question shared by all of the interesting contributions to this volume concerns sight itself: What can be seen, how far, how well? Alina Payne has collected twelve excellent essays on the fundamental cognitive problems that vision has posed for both science and art from Galileo’s discoveries of the moon's surface to the present day. The contributors—historians of science and art, well-known specialists in their fields, working in the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, and Switzerland—effectively communicate the results of their recent research. The volume’s brilliant illustrations heighten the pleasure that it will bring to the reader.”

Alina Payne is Alexander P. Misheff Professor of History of Art and Architecture at Harvard University.


List of Illustrations

Introduction, Alina Payne

I. Epistemic Images

1 Epistemic Images, Lorraine Daston

2 Drawing as an Instrument of Knowledge: The Case of Conrad Gessner, Sachiko Kusukawa

3 Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature in Early Modern Science, Catherine Wilson

II. Seeing the Unseeable

4 Leonardo’s Point, Frank Fehrenbach

5 Beyond the Eye: Observing the Unseen in Mathematics and Architecture, Alina Payne

6 Dante’s Eyes and the Abysses of Seeing: Poetical Optics and Concepts of Images in the Divine Comedy, Gerhard Wolf

7 The Invisible Element in Art: Dürer, Shakespeare, Donne, Carla Mazzio

III. The Painter’s Brush and the Mind’s Eye

8 “Art on the Tip of the Brush”: A Blind Manœuvre? Reflections on Correggio’s Brush, Arent de Gelder’s Spatula, and Pietro Testa’s Figure of Practice, Nicola Suthor

9 White Earth, or How to Cultivate Color in the Field of Painting: Still Life and Baroque Color Theory, Karin Leonhard

10 Counterfeit Chimeras: Early Modern Theories of the Imagination and the Work of Art, Claudia Swan

IV. Looking Back: From Photography and Film to Alberti

11 Sculpture Before Photography, Michael Cole

12 From Alberti’s Finestra Aperta to Hitchcock’s Rear Window: Avatars of the Scopic Drive in Painting and Film, Victor I. Stoichita

List of Contributors


The starting points for this volume were two historical events—one in the sciences, the other in the arts—that mark inaugural moments in the history of vision. One point of departure was a completely forgotten, and indeed unknown, event in the career of Galileo. In the corpus of manuscripts left by the Sienese polymath Teofilo Gallaccini (1564–1641), more specifically in his treatise on astronomy (“La monade celeste”), lies buried a passage in which he described an experiment he had witnessed in the summer of 1633. After the publication of his Dialogue of Two World Views (1630) and his 1633 condemnation, Galileo had taken refuge in Siena for several months at the invitation of Archbishop Ascanio Piccolomini. In August 1633 the archbishop organized a soirée on his palace rooftop loggia to allow Galileo to display the workings of his telescope upon the night sky. Naturally, he invited his entourage of learned friends, among them Gallaccini. As a scientist (astronomer, medical doctor, and mathematician) but also as an architecture critic and literary figure of some prominence at the academies and the University of Siena, he was in a position to appreciate and comment upon what Galileo had to show. In this exquisite Renaissance frame, upon this stage, literally, the experiment of looking at the moon took place for six nights in a row. And we know of this event because Gallaccini illustrated six images of the moon as he saw them through the telescope on those consecutive nights (fig. I.1). The effects of seeing the Aristotelian conception of the moon as a pure silver disc annihilated by the observation of its topography clearly vibrates from the page. Indeed, in these drawings the surface of the moon looks even more convulsed than the images Galileo himself had shown in his Sidereus nuncius (1610), and they suggest by this very exaggeration the excitement that was felt on that distant rooftop, all those centuries ago.

However, what was on display beyond the moon and beyond Galileo’s finely ground lens was sight itself. Indeed, the issues that accompanied the debates and confrontations caused by Galileo’s discoveries were fundamentally about sight: what can be seen, how far, how well? Can sight be trusted, can its prostheses be trusted, can the eye witness upon itself? Thus beyond a triumph for science, Galileo’s moment was also a moment of crisis, where the testimony of sight over thought was propelled to the center of scientific discourse. For here, sight was objectified, was made visible as an act, and it was made thus by an instrument: the telescope. The tube, its lens, its adjustments showed where sight passed through; it literally contained sight and made the passage of the visual rays a palpable object. In short, the instrument, as it were, made the act of seeing physically apprehensible. Upon this small stage, then, surrounded by a group of excited people not unlike Niccolò Tornioli’s astronomers—his painting may well have been modeled on this event—vision became an event; it went on display (fig. I.2).

Galileo’s was an inaugural moment of conflict and disjunction, a coming of age of the cognitive problems vision had posed for some time—a moment of recognition that sight was both a strength and a weakness—and it was tied to the sciences and to instruments. By contrast, the second inaugural moment, the one that had set in motion the process that found such a climax in Galileo’s life, was one of acclaim and recognition, and was associated with the arts, with paints, brushes, and mirrors. Far better known than the performance on the Piccolomini altana and predating it by a good two hundred years, was Filippo Brunelleschi’s experiment in front of the Baptistery of Florence, sometime before 1413. This is the moment for the Renaissance as we have come to construct it in the arts, the paradigmatic moment of the invention of perspective that is the mathematization of sight. Of course, it is not really the moment of invention—these “thick” moments need to be unpacked, as they are never really just single instances—but it is the moment of its public performance, of the presentation of vision as event. Standing in the main entrance of Florence Cathedral and intent on painting the view of the Baptistery, Brunelleschi—with his panel, his easel, his brushes, his paints, his measuring instruments and drafting equipment, and his camera oscura—took up a lot of physical space. One has to imagine friends and colleagues around him looking at his work, looking through the hole in his painting to see how lifelike it all was, how true to nature—a solid group, moving about, bending over, leaning over his shoulder and generally drawing attention to themselves and blocking the entrance to Florence’s principal religious establishment. In short, a performance of artistic seeing was being presented to the city and its citizens on the elevated platform of the cathedral stoop. The excitement on that day in Florence must have been similar to that in August 1633.

Whatever else this event inaugurated, it was also the moment when Brunelleschi proposed painting as an instrument—an instrument that was useful in several ways. First, it allowed images to become more convincing because the space of the fictive action was presented as if coextensive with the space of the viewer; second, and more fundamentally, it provided a means of representing reality “correctly,” of representing what is seen as it is; it provided a means to explore nature by way of representation. Granted, this was a view from a distance—not the close-up view of the scientist who gets more and more myopic and close to his objects, the better to see them, until he is literally inside them, like the early modern microscopists. Nor is this the view of the astronomer whose long-distance sight gets stronger and stronger, as the telescope enables him to see the distant heavens up close. But it was the first step in that quest, too, for Brunelleschi literally turned painting into an epistemic instrument by way of perspective.

Granted, as instruments go, perspective is an invisible one—a mental process and construction that is erased in the image, unlike telescopes and microscopes, which are solid and can be lifted and held. But it is an instrument nevertheless. Painting here promises to represent reality, and it affords lengthy and close examination by detaching individual frames from the continuum of nature. Indeed, two centuries later, perspective helped Galileo understand sunspots, that is, helped him develop yet another and decisive demonstration of the corruptibility of the heavens. Thus painting, by way of perspective, steps onto the stage, like Brunelleschi’s group of viewers and doubting Thomases in the door of the cathedral. Like them, it obstructs the normal flow of traffic and causes a “disturbance.” In this story, painting emerges as a disturbance in the apprehension of nature—a disturbance that must be noticed and acknowledged, like the small group blocking the entrance to Florence Cathedral.

The questions about vision and its instruments around which the essays in this volume cohere, then, start with the kinds of problems these two moments pose. Both represent sight as performance—as it is looked at, as it is turned upon itself, as it is made the object of vision, of spectatorship, and is judged. In one case, sight is physically distilled into an object—the telescope—whereas in the other, it is present by way of an abstract construction that allows physical things (paintings) to come into being. Both pose the question of the eye: what sort of instrument is it? How does it interact with the world of manufactured instruments? What happens when it does? What problems arise from an epistemological perspective?

Of course, these two moments or stories are also about two apparently distinct provinces—art and science. But their place of overlap is the eye, as instrument and as the origin of more instruments, such as painting and the telescope. They are very different instruments, but therein lies the point of this volume. In the early modern economy of the eye, painting (that is, representation) and telescopes are instruments of equal value for knowledge. Both are seen to provide equal access to a truth, both allow investigation, both push the envelope of knowledge further.

By this meandering route, the larger issues that this volume addresses begin to come into focus. To be sure, in recent years the topic of vision and visuality has attracted substantial interest among historians of art as well as historians of science. Traditionally, perspective, which governed representation and its laws, had been the most frequently addressed theme, for being both a paradigmatic invention of the Renaissance and the most obvious convergence point between artists, architects, and mathematicians, and thus inaugurating a relationship between art and science that would become increasingly complex in the modern period. The string of publications, from Erwin Panofsky’s seminal “Perspektive als symbolische Form” (1924–25), to Martin Kemp’s Science of Art (1990), and, more recently, to such collective works as The Treatise on Perspective: Published and Unpublished (ed. Lyle Massey, 2003), testifies to the persistence of this line of inquiry. In a parallel move, the categorical shift from a text- to an image-based culture that characterizes society in the era of the computer screen and mass advertising has led the field of art history to subject images to a renewed and intense scrutiny—from Hans Belting’s Bild und Kult: Eine Geschichte des Bildes vor dem Zeitalter der Kunst (1990) and William Mitchell’s Picture Theory (1994), to Caroline Jones and Peter Galison’s Picturing Science, Producing Art (1998), to the projects currently under way at the universities of Basel and Humboldt (Berlin)—“Bildkritik” and “Eikones” under Gottfried Boehm, and “Bildakt” under Horst Bredekamp. A parallel line of inquiry has emerged from the perspective of the history of science, looking toward the contribution of the arts, in particular in the project on observation under way at the Max Planck Institute in Berlin. Also related is the recent work connecting cognitive science, and in particular the pathology of the brain, with art making and art history. Together, these efforts showcase how interest in the exchanges between the arts and sciences has shifted from perspective to the processes of image making and reception, to the physiology of the body and the mechanics of instruments.

Despite the wide-ranging quality of this work and its interdisciplinary nature, most inquiries have tended to focus on the period following the Scientific Revolution, with particular emphasis on the modern interaction between the arts and sciences, while the early modern investigations have remained focused on perspective. However, the economy of the eye has not had a linear development that climaxed in the modern world. The course of the debates on the nature of sight and seeing, on sight as vehicle as well as limit to knowledge, and on the eye itself as ultimate instrument of nature (often challenged and hence unstable in its privileged position as offering primary access to truth) in the early modern period provides much uncharted ground and reveals it to have been both complex and complicated. More important still, in its cumulative form this discourse has continued to inform and still lies embedded within modern concepts and prejudices, like old sins with long shadows. Not that the pejorative implication is warranted. Different ways of “seeing” analogically may yet contain insights that modernity would do well to revisit. Indeed, the centuries-old tradition of comparing living organisms and their makeup with machines and inanimate nature so as to extract principles of lightness, aerodynamics, and so on is experiencing a comeback.

Among this cornucopia of offerings, then, space for a different kind of investigation needs to be cleared, one that teases out the multiple strands of the discourse about sight and investigates particular moments of discovery and crisis, insight and mutual illumination, that the arts and the sciences shared in their perpetual effort to understand nature through the eye in the early modern period. In this context, the tools and prostheses that extended or modified sight, that enhanced and transformed it, and that turned sight into an event are particularly relevant to the questions addressed here. It is the ambition of this volume, then, not to limit the definitions of sight and its instruments to modern formulations, but to explore the full range of early modern conceptions of vision in which mal’occhio (evil eye), witchcraft, spiritual visions and phantasms, as well as the artist’s brush or the architect’s compass were seen to provide knowledge equal to, and in certain cases better than, newly developed scientific instruments and practices. Put simply, this volume aims to revisit the complexity of the early modern economy of the image, of the eye, and of its instruments, and to provide a frame that acknowledges the porous walls of discourses that nowadays, in our culture if not in our discipline, are seen as fundamentally unrelated. From art and architecture, to science and philosophy, to literature and film, the essays in this volume provide a finely textured series of analyses of vision, of seeing and its instruments.