Of telescopes and painting

May 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Ireland

“Galileo did not invent the telescope”.

“Of Telescopes and a Moon Landing – Two Important Anniversaries” was the first lecture at Trinity College’s “From a Bang to a Whimper: Celebrating Differing Views of the Universe”.

In this 400th anniversary year of the telescope, it seems odd to now learn that it was not invented for the lofty aspiration of exploring the heavens, but for altogether more mundane reasons. Galileo refined the telescope in such a way that he was able to observe the moons of Jupiter, but its invention was due to business, and not science.

Dutch merchants wanted to know as early as possible details of cargo ships approaching ports. Prices of commodities could fluctuate greatly with the arrival of ships and no merchant wanted to be caught with unsold goods or wanted to miss an opportunity to corner a market. If one could spot a ship while it was distant from shore, it gave one an edge over one’s business rivals. Spectacle makers in the Netherlands of the early Seventeenth Century were the first to apply the use of their knowledge of lenses to the observation of distant objects.

Going to the National Gallery at lunchtime to sit and look at Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid”, a connection between telescopes and Dutch painting suddenly seemed obvious.

Woman writing letter

The work of Vermeer and his contemporaries became possible because of the wealth of the Dutch merchants who could pay for such paintings. The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam tells of the importance of the emerging merchant class as patrons of the arts. In Protestant Holland, the Church, the body that had traditionally paid for art, no longer had the same influence. Art depended on business, but was also freed from the confines of the traditional religious themes. The brilliance of Vermeer could be used in exploring secular themes, but only because an entrepreneurial class had cash in their pockets.  “Woman Writing a Letter with Her Maid” was never sold during Vermeer’s lifetime; after his death his wife gave it to a baker to settle bills, huge arrears having accrued.

Progress in both science and the arts came through enterprise and, whether the motive was profit or vanity, depended on at least a degree of self-interest.

Caught in a downward economic spiral, the Irish government has forgotten the role of self-interest as a spur to activity.  Everyone likes to be rewarded, (even Christians like to be rewarded!); enterprise and work have to seem worthwhile.  There must be a point where people think that perhaps something is not worth the effort.  Surely that point comes when most of additional earnings are taken away by the Government. When marginal rates of tax and levies pass 50%, when the Government starts to take the majority of the reward for one’s efforts, then questions arise as to whether effort is worthwhile.

Had the Dutch authorities operated a confiscatory tax regime, one wonders whether the telescope or the Vermeers would ever have emerged in that country.  A day spent on either side of Nassau Street would have been salutary for the finance minister.

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  1. Completely aside from the whole point of your post just wanted to say thanks for the pic of the Vermeer. I really love that picture and could look at it for ages.

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