Magic lantern

This lantern was bought by Giovanni Poleni for the Cabinet of Physics of Padua University between  2 September 1747 and 24 May 1749. Poleni catalogued it in his Indice delle Macchine as “A magic lantern made by Domenico Selva. With a new mechanism, so that figures are seen approaching or leaving. There are three frames with figures, besides those marked with Numbers 73 and 121.”

Maker: Domenico Selva, b.? - d.1758. Skilled and well-known Venetian maker of optical instruments, he had a workshop in San Marco.

Date: 2nd quarter 18th century


It is the first magic lantern that Poleni bought for the University’s Cabinet of Physics. It contains an oil lamp and can be opened through a door, on the internal side of which a concave mirror in speculum is fixed. The mirror was intended to focus the light of the lamp. On the opposite side is fixed a brass cylinder, which originally must have borne a tube with a lens, to focus the image. The tube is now missing. The glasses to be observed were inserted between the tube holding the objective and the lantern itself, so that their image was projected and magnified. The lantern was probably revised in the course of time, in particular as for its stand, which does not seem to be the original one.

Magic lanterns were classical instruments in eighteenth-century cabinets of experimental philosophy, and their functioning is described in all the main scientific treatises of the time. As for their inventor, many discussions have been going on about it, but historians seem to converge and regard  Christiaan Huygens as the inventor of this device.

Example Row: example

Materials and techniques: iron/wood/speculum/lead

Dimensions: height 55 cm, width 26 cm, length 25 cm

Related scholars: Giovanni Poleni (b.1683 - d.1761). Professor of Experimental Philosophy at the University of Padua from 1739 to 1761.

Keywords: optics, pre-cinema

University of Padua, Museum of the History of Physics

Cat. Number: 69


  • Giovanni Poleni, Indice delle macchine, Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana di Venezia,, cl. III, 54-55 = 4969-4970, cl. IV, 626 = 5488, 636 = 5497 [It was written by Giovanni Poleni from 1740 to 1761]