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  • Did Strabismus Help da Vinci’s Artwork?

    By Kate Rauch
    Published Nov. 30, 2018

    A new study from England concludes that Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci had the eye condition strabismus, and that it affected his vision and made art easier for him. But one eye expert isn’t so sure.

    After analyzing portraits of the famous Italian painter, researchers from City University of London's Division of Optometry and Visual Sciences believe da Vinci had a condition called strabismus.

    If true, da Vinci would join Rembrandt and Picasso as artists who are also believed to have had the condition.

    In people with strabismus, the eyes don’t align normally when the person is looking ahead. One or both of the eyes turns slightly inward or outward, off center.

    The British researchers believe da Vinci had a type of strabismus called intermittent extropia, with one eye directed outward, at least some of the time. They base this idea on detailed geometric calculations of the artist’s eyes as portrayed in self-portraits and possible self-portraits. They also analyzed pictures he painted of others. They believed these reflected how he saw his own features.

    They didn’t have much to work with, since da Vinci wasn’t known for self-portraits. The researchers examined six artworks. Some were paintings and some sculptures.

    Most people see the world three-dimensionally, which is called depth perception. The eyes work together to see one image that includes things that are near, far and at distances in between. This normal vision depends on coordination between the eye’s six muscles.

    Strabismus is caused by problems with these eye muscles. Some muscles may not work. Or the muscles don’t coordinate with each other. One result of this can be a loss of depth perception. People with strabismus may see more flatly or two-dimensionally. If one eye is affected, the other eye can dominate, taking over vision. But it won’t have the depth perception of two eyes working in unison.

    The researchers think da Vinci saw his world two-dimensionally some of the time and three-dimensionally at other times. This variation depended on the severity of his strabismus at a given moment.

    They also believe this condition helped the artist paint or draw with amazing detail. Da Vinci was known for using shading to bring three-dimensional depth to his work.  Seeing in two-dimensions even some of time may help an artist bring realism to a flat surface, the researchers said.

    Aaron M. Miller, MD, MBA, a pediatric ophthalmologist in The Woodlands, Texas, called the research interesting but not completely convincing. Diagnosing an eye condition from art is challenging, he said.

    “This is a very interesting article that discusses a topic that has actually been contemplated for many years in renaissance portraits, such as the Mona Lisa,” Dr. Miller said. “In this classic portrait, the woman appears to follow the observer around the room, and she was thought to have strabismus. However, it is all very speculative. The jump from artwork to actual physical condition of the artist is a large one and while this is a fun topic to theorize about, I do not feel the article’s findings are a strong, convincing indicator that de Vinci had strabismus.”

    Dr. Miller said the research highlights an important area of eye health. Discussions of strabismus bring attention to vision issues that can exist in children and adults. These issues can affect visual development and depth perception.

    Strabismus is most common in infants, but can appear later in life. Today, ophthalmologists treat strabismus in a variety of ways, depending on the type. Treatments include special glasses, eye exercises and, in some cases, surgery.