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The enchantment of 17th-century optics


An old treatise on optics and its machines provides a surreal walk through the human imagination.

The sense of sight is perhaps one the imagination’s most prolific masters. That is why humankind has been fascinated and bewitched by optics and their possibilities for centuries. Like the heart, the eye is one of those organs most present in the imagination. This fact was well understood by the German cleric, Johann Zahn, who in 1685 published Oculus Artificialis Teledioptricus Sive Telescopium (The Long Distance Artificial Eye or Telescope), a treatise on the function and use of several optical instruments.

Some of these devices—artifacts which play, transform, augment, and distort what the human eye is capable of—include magic lanterns, telescopes, microscopes, lenses, and reflectors. In his work, Zahn also explains and illustrates the first portable version of the camera obscura, an instrument which didn’t exist at the time and which, according to his own graphic study, would work through a mechanism of mirrors and reflections. A primitive antecedent to the portable photographic camera to emerge a century and a half later, the camera obscura makes Zahn’s visionary character clear. He lived in Wurzburg, in Bavaria.

More than a manual or an antique treatise on technology, Zahn’s book includes illustrations that function not just as guides and instructions, but which serve as graphic explanations of processes through which light passes. Plus, they serve as a visual delight in and of themselves. They’re illustrations marked by surreal and symbolic elements, by eyes, by rays of light, and ornaments as allegorical as they are religious. Below is a selection from his work:

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