The tiny stars were painted almost 400 years ago by Adam Elsheimer, a tailor’s son from Frankfurt, who made it as an artist in Rome. He is a painter long known by experts as a key influence on Rubens and Rembrandt, but his name is unfamiliar to the general public.
Now, she tells me, scientist have confirmed that the constellations in Elsheimer’s miniature painting, The Flight Into Egypt, are clearly recognisable, his shimmering depiction of the milky way the very first of its type, and the position of the moon so accurate that it can be dated to a particular night: June 16, 1609, a year before Galileo published his groundbreaking research. To make his painting, Elsheimer must have observed the night sky through a telescope. His reputation may have become buried in the past, but in his own time he was a man of the future.
In this picture, considered the first true moonlit night scene in European painting, Elsheimer reproduced the starry night sky with the Milky Way. Unresolved remains the question whether the artist was aware of Galileo’s research published in 1610 and whether he recorded an actual Roman night sky.