ca. 1420

What appears to be the earliest-ever illustration of the camera obscura is found in a book by Fontana in 1420. The drawing shows a nun holding a vertically shaped camera with an image on the inside. Historians and commentators routinely speak of this illustration as a lantern, however the apparatus held is nothing like a lantern. The camera obscura contains the image and the lantern projects it. In this drawing by Fontana we see the image within the held object. The subject image does not appear to be projected, even when viewing the entire image. One aspect of the supposed image (devilish character) is interesting however; the lantern very early became an instrument to instill fear in its viewers. Diabolic and demonic themes were common. In France for instance, the lantern became known as the Lanterne de Peur or "Lantern of Fear". To date, all other interests have only described the camera with reference to it's appearance but with no actual drawing or illustration. I am not convinced this is a lantern or a drawing of a lantern, however, could this drawing of Fontana's be the same as referenced by Siegfried Zielinski in his piece on Cinema Archaeology when he states regarding the magic lantern.......
"One of the earliest, around 1420, had a particularly striking feature: the diabolical element was very definitely imagined as feminine. The projectionist, who held the lantern with a taper in his hand, wore oriental clothes (possibly a reference to the original inventors of the magic lantern). The drawing of the lantern was not exact; the apparatus is depicted around the image . . . . .." (Siegfried Zielinski, Media Archaeology, #5, A companion piece ).

Johannes de Fontana sketch (above left) of his camera obscura from 1420 (Indebtedness to Loek Raemakers, Rotterdam) RETURN TO INTRODUCTION

  1425 FILLIPO BRUNELLESCHI (1377 - 1446)    
  Brunelleschi is believed to have either built or used a camera obscura in this year. Little is know of him. Shigeru Tsuji's 'Brunelleschi And The Camera Obscura: The Discovery of Pictorial Perspective', Art History vol.13, 1990, pp. 276-292 makes this claim.  

Brunelleschi's Perspective Viewer

Besides his use of the camera obscura, Brunelleschi also developed a 'peep show' or Perspective Viewer which provided a 3D image and incredible depth. Brunelleschi's work as a sculptor, architect, gold and silversmith advanced greatly the art of perspective painting and interactive art.

His Viewer (left) was created using a glass plate on which a silver background was painted. Overlying this was painted (in this example-left) an image of the Baptistry in Florence. At the vanishing point of the image Brunelleschi placed a hole for the eye to see through. Using a mirror, and turning the plate around, the observer would see the image reflected on the mirror, with the sky and clouds reflected off the silver base. This ingenius use of the mirror and silver added to the depth of the 'peep show' image.

The Baptistry Of Florence

Source: Adventures In Cybersound His mathematical work can be said to have led to an understanding of what linear perspective is.
Source: Georges Jansoone
  The Baptistry in Florence today (right) as seen in the Perspective Viewer in AD 1425.




1457 LEON BATTISTA ALBERTI (1404 - 1472)
Vasari, in his 'Lives of the Painters, Sculptors and Architects' tells us of Alberti; "Leon Battista made a discovery for representing landscapes and for diminishing and enlarging figures by means of an instrument, all good inventions useful to art." This instrument was actually Alberti's "intersector" (a cousin to the camera lucida), and not a camera obscura. Alberti describes this technique in his 'Treatise on Painting'.

Vasari's work also contains details of a show box (Vite de' Piu Eccellenti Architetti E. Scultori, Vasari, G., Milan, Italy, 1809, vol.5, p81) where painted pictures on transparent bases were illuminated from behind by candles. This description closely resembles (and pre-dates) the magic lanterns of Drebbel and Kircher.

While Alberti was describing his showbox and intersector to the world, Guttenberg was printing the Bible.

Leon Battista Alberti
Leon Battista Alberti
  AUTHOR'S NOTE: During the 15th Century, Gainsborough painted (for Alberti?) many landscapes on glass and made similar apparatus (show boxes) to that of Alberti. These boxes were wooden and had peepholes at one side. The opposite end was open and had the glass-painted slide inserted and lit from behind by candles. A Gainsborough showbox is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.  
  'The Theoriques of Purbachius' is published in Venice, 27 years after the death of the author.  

Leonardo's Self Portrait


Vinci gives the fullest description known to date on the camera obscura. Due to Vinci's special form of writing (written backwards called Mirror Writing), his work on the camera would not become common knowledge in the civilized world for almost three centuries. His 'Codex Atlanticus' (Vinci, Leonardo, Ambrosian Library, Milan, Italy, Recto A of Folio 337), and 'Manuscript D' (Manuscript D, Vinci, Leonardo, Institut de France, Paris, Folio 8) both give detailed accounts of the camera obscura effect, observations, diagrams and explanations of it's principle. In all of Da Vinci's works there are 270 separate diagrams of the camera obscura. These descriptions would remain unknown of for 297 years when Professor Venturi would decipher and publish them in 1797. SEE VENTURI

While Da Vinci works, Henry VIII ascends the English throne (1503), and Michelangelo paints the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1504).

Leonardo Da Vinci 1452-1519, 'Self Portrait' (left)


In writng on the eye, Vinci incorporates the camera obscura effect seen through the pinole. He writes;

"O marvellous, O stupendous necessity, thou with supreme reason compellest all effects to be the direct result of their causes; and by a supreme and irrevocable law every natural action obeys thee by the shortest possible process. Who would believe that so small a space could contain the images of all the universe? O mighty process! What talent can avail to penetrate a nature such as these? What tongue will it be that can unfold so great a wonder? Verily none! This it is that guides the human discourse to the considering of divine things. Here the forms, here the colours, here all the images of every part of the universe are contracted to a point. What point is so marvellous? O wonderful, O stupendous necessity---by thy law thou constrainest every effect to be the direct result of its cause by the shortest path. These are miracles...forms already lost, mingled together in so small a space it can recreate and recompense by expansion. Describe in thy anatomy what proportion there is between diameters of all the lenses in the eye and the distance from these to the crystalline lens."

One Of Da Vinci's  Lantern Drawings

Vinci wrote a manuscript ‚€˜Treatise on Painting‚€™ covering various principles within optics. It will be published in Milan in 1589 and later in Paris in 1651.
  Approximately one hundred and forty years prior to Kircher's lantern, Leonardo gave us this drawing (lower left) of a lantern showing clearly a condensing lens, candle and chimney. None of Leonardo's writings indicate any hint of him actually projecting images, however this illustration from the master strongly suggests a figure of some type between the candle and lens.  

  This astronomer and mathematician writes in his 'De Subtilitate', on light, theatres, and light theatres. He names Da Vinci, Albertus Magnus and Pliny in this work.  


A Jesuit priest, Maurolycus finishes his 'Theoremata De Lumine Et Umbra Ad Perspectivam' (1611, Naples, 1613, Leyden) explaining how to build a microscope and in proposition 20 of the book writes, "an object's shadow can be converted and projected."

He also notes that using the pinhole image effect, a shadow moves the opposite way of the object, a claim already observed and documented by the Chinese 2000 years prior.

This work is not published until 1611, after his death. Maurolycus also studied and made references to rainbows and how light refraction affected them.

Franciscus Maurolycus
Franciscus Maurolycus

  What could be the earliest published description of the camera obscura (Vinci's works were not published until 1797 when deciphered by Venturi) is found in Vitruvius's 'Treatise On Architecture' (10 volumes, Trans. by Caesare Caesariano, Como, Italy, 1521, Book 1, Leaf 23, verso). Caesariano was a student under Vinci and through the work of Vitruvius, describes a passage detailing an experiment by an unknown Benedictine monk, Papnutio, or Paunce. The entry tells of the use of a cone-shaped hole (or tube) in the wall, in order to allow more light and therefore a larger image on the opposite white wall. A concave glass screen is also mentioned being placed in the hole of a wall in a darkened room. Caesariano wrote;

"Cut a circular concavity about two inches in diameter in a piece of wood about four or six inches in size, then place in the centre of the concavity a small and very short tube [spectaculum] or aperture, which is also called a sight. If you fix this properly in a panel of a door or in a window shutter, closed so that no light can enter, and if you have a piece of white paper or other material upon which [the images of] everything passing through the aperture may be received, you will see everything on the earth and in the sky with their colours and forms, according to the conical shape [piramide] of the hole."
(This quote taken directly from the work of Helmut Gernsheim, The History of the Camera Obscura From the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century Up To 1914, p4,5).

Like the style of Leonardo Da Vinci, Papnutio gives exact dimensions in his account of the camera obscura. Unfortunately, Caesariano does not give dates of the experiment. Thirty years later, Porta will speak of the camera in astonishingly similar terms and claims for his own the idea of using lenses under the pretence of "secrets".

Author's Note:All research to date (including source references) has failed to unearth this Papnutio,other than the above finding.

ALBRECHT DURER (1471 - 1528)
This German artist made woodcuts of drawing aids, one of which was his own and published them in his 'Underweysung' in 1525. His illustrations show telescopic, or sighting tubes and grids used by the artist.

One of Durer's drawing aids called a 'sighting tube'. A cord attached to the wall and the tube provided the artist with a one-eyed view, and a much longer distance in the viewer, which in turn reduced potential distortion.
Albrecht Durer's 'Sighting Tube'

  Maurolycus was a Sicilian professor of mathematics at Messina. He made references to observing eclipses without harming the eyes by using a camera obscura in his 'Cosmographia', (Maurolycus, Venice, Italy, 1543).  



At least a century before Kircher‚€™s show (which would place it at approximately 1540), the history of CELLINI provides us with a report on a phantasmagoric-type show presented at the Coliseum, Rome, documented by many writers including ROSCOE in his ‚€˜Life Of Benvenuto Cellini‚€™.

On this supposed event, the writer Samuel Higley wrote in the June 1876 edition of The Magic Lantern (regarding the work of Kircher but referring to Cellini);

Benvenuto Cellini
Benvenuto Cellini
"There is every probability that this was the crude kind of optical arrangement employed by the Sicilian priest whose incantations in the Colosseum at Rome are so graphically described by the celebrated Florentine engraver, Benvenuto Cellini. This necromantic ceremony, he states, lasted above an hour and a half, whereat legions of fiends seemed to fill that vast amphitheatre. Cellini seems to have had some knowledge of how these demons were "raised", as he says that he tried to quell the intense fear and horror of his companions by telling them that "all these demons are under us, and what ye see is but smoke and shadow," thus indicating an optical origin for such frightful visions. A declaration made by a youth who accompanied Cellini on this occasion further confirms the conviction that some kind of magic lantern was employed, for the boy states: "As we are going home to our houses in the Quarter Branchi, two of the demons whome we had seen at the Amphitheatre went on before us and leaping and skipping, sometimes running upon the roofs of the houses, and sometimes upon the ground."             - Samuel Higley, The Magic Lantern, June 1876, Vol. II, No. 6
  Brewster has also quoted this event.    

  1540 - 1545
ERASMUS REINHOLD (1511 - 1553)
  This German mathematician and astronomer made observations of solar eclipses using a pinhole camera, and explained how to use the camera to view the eclipse. Reinhold tells of two eclipses that took place in 1544 (a solar eclipse of January 24, 1544 was illustrated and described by Frisius) and 1545. Reinhold's 'Theoricae Novae Planetarum' of Georg Pauerbach, mentions that not only can one observe an eclipse, but also "things in the street."  

Illustration Of January 24 1544 Eclipse By Gemma-Frisius 1544

A Dutch mathematician and physician, Gemma-Frisius observes and illustrates (believed to be the initial account) the eclipse of January 24, 1544 using the camera obscura. He refers to his mentor's (Reinhold) commentary on Pauerbach when he says "we have also observed an eclipse of the sun at Louvain in 1544." He publishes his illustration in 1545 and titles it 'De Radio Astronomica Et Geometrico'. (Gemma-Frisius, Antwerp, 1545, leaf 31).

Reinerus Gemma-Frisius's illustration (left) of the solar eclipse he observed in Louvain on January 24, 1544.
He published 'De Radio Astronomica Et Geometrico' the next year. This pinhole camera drawing is an excellent illustration of a camera obscura and the workings of a pinhole image. The inverted image of the sun and moon is clearly visible on the wall of the camera.

GIROLAMO CARDANO (1501 - 1576)

Cardano, a professor of mathematics and a great physician, published in his book 'De Subtilitate Libri' (XXI, Cardani, Nurnberg, 1550, Book IV, p107) his makings of a camera obscura with a diverting spectacle and a very graphic description of darkroom pictures and their appearances. Cardano appears also to have initiated the use of a convex lens in the aperture. Cardano was a showman, and projected wild scenes of the outdoors along with appropriate sound effects to audiences in the camera obscura. In 1570, Cardano was accused of heresy, jailed, and lost his right to publish books. SEE VILLENEUVE

In 1117 Cardano published De Subtilitate Rerum on other inventions, and natural history. He traveled throughout Europe and in 1552 treated the Archbishop of St. Andrews (Scotland) successfully.
Girolamo Cardano
Girolamo Cardano 1501-1576

Giovanni Battista Della Porta 1553 - 1558

Porta gave elaborate details in physics, alchemy, astronomy, magic, cooking, perfumes, toiletry and optics in his 'Magiae Naturalis Libri' (III, vol.4, Porta, Naples, Italy, 1558). This first work (also see 1588) by the Neopolitan scientist Porta, was a popular piece of scientific literature in the sixteenth century and in book 2, chapter 3, Porta gives a thorough description of a camera obscura and the images that one would see. From about this point on, the camera obscura would become a useful tool to artists.

Giovanni Battista Della Porta 1538-1615
Translated through the work of Zielinski, Della Porta begins his XVII Book of the "Magiae Naturalis" with the study of mirrors by saying "It is also possible, using flat mirrors, to see things that are happening in far-off places . . ." (Ch.2, paragraph 4). Chapter VI provides us with his 'Obscurum Cubiculum' or camera obscura, where he tells us "how hunting scenes and battles and other kinds of hocus pocus can be made and performed in a room. Guest performances, battle fields, games, or what you will, so clear, distinct, and pretty to see as though it were taking place before your very eyes,". Porta explains, "For the image is let into the eye through the eyeball just as here through the window".

In keeping with the true showmen of this century, Porta continues to describe the common film of today . . . "Namely, opposite to the room where you desire to see this, there must be a large, level space that the sun can shine down upon, where can be placed all manner of trees, forests, rivers, or mountains as well as animals, and these can be real or artificial, of wood or other material... There can be stags, wild boars, rhinoceroses, elephants, lions and other animals, whatever one wants to be seen; they can slowly creep out of their corners into the space, and then the hunter can appear and stage a hunt . . ."
(These quotes (trans. from Latin) taken directly from the work of Siegfried Zielinski, Media Archaeology, Cologne, Germany).

GEORG FABRICIUS (1516 - 1571)
  This alchemist came upon horn silver, also known as luna cornea, a semi-transparent compound found naturally in iron ore in the silver mines of Germany. He found that by adding a solution of salt and silver nitrate, the metal would turn from white in the prepared state to black under sunlight. Because of the nature of alchemy (the false belief that gold exists in all metals) this discovery was tossed aside. Fabricius would publish a book in this year on these metals.  


DANIEL BARBARO (1514 - 1570)

This Venetian nobleman and architect describes the use of a biconvex lens in the camera obscura in his 'La Practtica Della Perspecttiva' (Barbaro, Venice, Italy, 1568, ch.5, p192). As did Porta, Barbaro suggested the use of the camera obscura to the painter. In describing the use of the convex lens, he shows that the image is much sharper and can therefore be outlined by a pen;

"Close all shutters and doors until no light enters the camera except through the lens, and opposite hold a piece of paper, which you move forward and backward until the scene appears in the sharpest detail. There on the paper you will see the whole view as it really is, with its distances, its colours and shadows and motion, the clouds, the water twinkling, the birds flying. By holding the paper steady you can trace the whole perspective with a pen, shade it and delicately colour it from nature."

Daniel Barbaro
— Daniel Barbaro, in his 'La Practtica Della Perspecttiva', 1568, chapter 5, page 192

Daniel Barbaro


LEONARD DIGGS (1520 - 1559) & THOMAS DIGGS (1546 - 1595)
  The senior Leonard and son Thomas, two mathematicians from London, publish their 'Pantometria' (A Geometricall Practise Named Pantometria, Diggs, L&T, London, 1571) and let it be known that they were learned men in convex and concave lenses. They spoke of the ability to make far objects look nearer.  
  Translates Alhazen's 'Optics' into Latin. Risner mentions in his own 'Opticae' published after his death, the camera obscura to reduce and enlarge drawings and says it can delineate easily and accurately, topographical views. Risner also relates to the reader the idea of a transportable (camera) apparatus, and current knowledge on alchemy by the Arabic scientists.  



Florentine astronomer and mathematician Danti speaks of using a concave mirror in a darkened room to "upright" the image (Danti's Edition Of Euclid's Optics, Florence, Italy, 1573).

While correcting the vernal equinox in order to recalibrate deficiencies in the calendar, Danti used the camera obscura to assist him in determining the height of the mid-day sun. He accomplished this by placing a small hole in a window of the church to create his camera. To complete the project he made two other holes in the wall higher up the building to allow a line of sunlight to strike the aperture.

Ignatio Danti

Ignatio Danti


  Maurolycus (also see 1520, 1521 and 1535-1543) now concerns himself with light rays and their direction in the camera. In the year he died, he published 'Photismi De Lumine Et Umbra' and offered a solution to the age old optical phenomenon (SEE ARISTOTLE) of why, regardless of the shape of the aperture (rectangular) does the image of the sun always appear round or crescent-shaped during an eclipse. He fails to describe the apparatus used.  
  This Venetian Patrician wrote in a mathematical treatise entitled 'Diversarum Speculationum Mathematicarum' (Jo. Batistae Benedicti, Turin, Italy, 1585, p270) his use of both concave mirror and convex lens to correct the image. Benedetti spoke of angles and degrees (45) in his treatise along with the camera obscura.  

Frontispiece Of Porta's  Magiae Naturalis 1588

In this later version of his 'Magiae Naturalis' (1st English Trans. Young & Speed, London, 1658, p363, Et Seq. 2nd Trans., Wright, London, 1669) which is 20 volumes in length, Porta talks again of the camera obscura at great length and expands on what he calls his "secrets", namely, the use of the lens in the aperture (a common practise to this point in time, as we saw with Benedetti, Barbaro, Cardano and Papnutio). Chapter VIII of Porta's 17th book of Magiae Naturalis gives us his visual description of the 'dark room' and the sight thereof .......

"How an image can be made to appear in the air without either the mirrors or the form of the thing itself being seen."

The cover to his 'Magiae Naturalis' (Natural Magic) of 1558. "That by night an image may seem to hang in a chamber."     
- Giovanni Battista Della Porta

  Da Vinci's 'Treatise on Painting' is published in Milan from his posthumous manuscripts. These writings indicate that art never looks like natural objects seen by the eyes. He compares paintings to actual sight and claims binocular vision as the reason.  
  In a paper published on refraction called 'De Refractione', Porta compares the eye to the camera and refers to vision, prisms, colours and optics in general, including lenses.  
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