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The Cover
October 26, 2011

Street Light

JAMA. 2011;306(16):1739. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.1450

Night after night the Italian painter Giacomo Balla (1871-1958) went to the Piazza Termini in the heart of Rome to look at the streetlights and consider an idea for a painting. Today, the arc lamps that lit up the Piazza Termini are used for searchlights and welding equipment, but in the early 1900s they were also used for lighting public spaces. Unfortunately, Balla stared so long at the streetlights that he was temporarily blinded, probably as a result of “arc eye” photokeratitis, a painful burn of the corneas resulting from unprotected exposure to the ultraviolet rays emitted by electrical arcs. He had to spend several days in a darkened room to allow his corneas to heal. For an artist, even a temporary loss of vision is a catastrophic price to pay for a picture, but Balla came away with a concept based on a concentric spray of multicolored fragments of light.