"To Trust or Not to Trust: Telescopic (mis)Information on the Early Modern Stage" by Vivian Appler


"To Trust or Not to Trust: Telescopic (mis)Information on the Early Modern Stage" by Vivian Appler

 “To Trust or Not to Trust: Telescopic (mis)Information on the Early Modern Stage”

Vivian Appler

Galileo Galilei’s Siderius Nuncius (1610) announced to early modern Europe the introduction of a new machine to the labor of astronomy: the telescope. This manuscript made claims about the topography of the moon and announced the discovery of three new stars, which Galileo named after his benefactors, the Medicis. Galileo’s claims would be transformed into fodder for theatrical satire well into the end of the seventeenth century. Early modern philosophers of science were the first to incorporate machines into the process of re-visioning the contents of outer space, which caused a rift in the European academy. The debate over such machines, and the reliability of the information derived from them, quickly became the subject of popular plays and performances of the time. The seventeenth century stage was teeming with telescopes.

Giambattista della Porta, who claimed to have invented the telescope before Galileo, also wrote the commedia erudita, Lo Astrologo, in 1606. Della Porta’s play soon became a primary source for Thomas Tomkis’s English farce, Albumazar (1615), which pokes fun at the idea of mechanical instruments constructed to enhance human perception. Aphra Behn’s comedy, The Emperor of the Moon (1687 – also based on an Italian commedia) raises questions about knowledge gained through the medium of the telescope and mocks the characters who value such information. The seventeenth century was a time, in England and in Italy, during which the distinction between the sciences and the arts were not as fixed as they might seem today, a disciplinary fuzziness which may have contributed to a cultural rejection of empiricism. This paper considers the reasons why the visual information presented through the lens of the telescope was suspect, and what role theatrical performances had in perpetuating and/or challenging such a culture of mistrust.

  • Debating Visual Knowledge