The Optical Life

The Optical Life—Transformations of Optics in the Premodern Period

Sven Dupre


From: Franciscus Aguilonius' Opticorum Libri Sex Philosophis Iuxta Ac Mathematicis Utiles (1613).

This project studied the long-term development of optics between ca. 1400 and ca. 1700. Its central objects of study were the practices of optics and how these practices—if you wish, the "optical life"—interacted with changing images of the discipline of optics, i.e., the changing boundaries, scope, and aims of optics.

The fourteenth century saw the establishment of a highly-regarded discipline of optics—known as perspectiva—which was central in the medieval map of knowledge and strongly embedded within the authoritative educational context of the universities. This project showed that, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, perspectiva was also transmitted and appropriated outside the universities, foremost in artisanal workshops and artists’ studios. By studying the role of traveling objects in this transmission, the project showed how objects and the concepts used to make sense of them acquired new meanings in new contexts and examines the role of media in this transmission. Finally, as the consequence of the appropriation of perspectiva in new sites the scope of the discipline of optics changed and the aims of the discipline, and the rhetoric around those alleged aims, became increasingly varied. In short, contrary to the accepted view, this project painted a picture of the long-term development of the history of optics in the premodern period in which the "new optics" of the seventeenth century emerged from the competition among various images of optics, rather than as the natural outcome of perspectiva with which it shared not only concepts but also a vision of the scope and aims of the discipline of optics.