Leonardo da Vinci Saw the World Differently… Thanks to an Eye Disorder, Says a New Scientific Study

Leonar­do da Vin­ci was a man of many abil­i­ties, so many that he has defined the very image of the man of many abil­i­ties for more than 500 years now. His­to­ry remem­bers him for his impres­sive intel­lec­tu­al feats of sci­ence and engi­neer­ing (as well as the ambi­tion of his to-do lists), but even more so for his works of visu­al art. Most of us get our intro­duc­tion to Leonar­do through images like the Mona Lisa, The Last Sup­per, and Vit­ru­vian Man, not least because they’ve long since become too cul­tur­al­ly promi­nent to avoid. The ques­tion of how on earth he did it nat­u­ral­ly springs from con­tem­pla­tion of Leonar­do’s whole body of work, but also from con­tem­pla­tion of many of the indi­vid­ual pieces that con­sti­tute it. A part of the answer, recent research sug­gests, may well have to do with a dis­abil­i­ty.

“There is now evi­dence that da Vin­ci’s renowned capac­i­ty to repro­duce the three-dimen­sion­al world in paint­ings may have been aid­ed by an eye dis­or­der that allowed him to see in both 2‑D and 3‑D, accord­ing to a study pub­lished Thurs­day in JAMA Opthal­mol­o­gy, a peer-reviewed jour­nal,” writes The Wash­ing­ton Post’s Allyson Chiu.

“Da Vin­ci is believed to have had a con­di­tion called inter­mit­tent exotropia, a form of stra­bis­mus, com­mon­ly referred to as being ‘walleyed’,” a form of an eye mis­align­ment. If he did, it would have ham­pered his depth per­cep­tion enough for him to see a flat­ter world than the one most every­one else does, and thus a world more suit­ed to faith­ful repli­ca­tion on the page or the can­vas.

But the fact Leonar­do that could some­times con­trol his eyes enough to get them into prop­er align­ment, says the study’s author Christo­pher Tyler, would make him “very aware of the 3‑D and 2‑D depth cues and the dif­fer­ence between them.” He came to sus­pect that Leonar­do suf­fered from exotropia — if “suf­fered” is quite the right word here — after notic­ing the align­ment of the eyes in both images con­sid­ered por­traits of the man him­self as well as the por­traits Leonar­do made of oth­ers (on the the­o­ry that the work of an artist will, to an extent, reflect his own char­ac­ter­is­tics). The oph­thal­mo­log­i­cal­ly inclined can judge for them­selves by read­ing Tyler’s paper online. And if oth­er, sim­i­lar stud­ies done in the past also hold up, Leonar­do isn’t alone in art his­to­ry: such fig­ures as Rem­brandt, Picas­so, and Degas have also left behind evi­dence of their pos­si­bly stra­bis­mic vision. We some­times say that artists see the world dif­fer­ent­ly; the great­est artists may take that say­ing to a new lev­el of lit­er­al­ness.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How to Build Leonar­do da Vinci’s Inge­nious Self-Sup­port­ing Bridge: Renais­sance Inno­va­tions You Can Still Enjoy Today

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Vision­ary Note­books Now Online: Browse 570 Dig­i­tized Pages

The Anatom­i­cal Draw­ings of Renais­sance Man, Leonar­do da Vin­ci

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Bizarre Car­i­ca­tures & Mon­ster Draw­ings

What Leonar­do da Vin­ci Real­ly Looked Like

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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