At Large  December 6, 2019  Chandra Noyes

Experts Refute Alleged da Vinci Eye Condition

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Leonardo da Vinci, Portrait of a man in red chalk (presumed self-portrait, detail), c. 1512.

Researchers are refuting a 2018 theory that one thing that gave Leonardo da Vinci an artistic advantage was exotropia, a rare condition that results in a slight misalignment of the eye. It has been thought that this condition, in which one eye turns outwards, gave da Vinci, and perhaps Rembrandt van Rijn, a shift in perspective that helped them become leaders in the art world.

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Exotropia is a type of strabismus, or squint, which affects 1% of the world population. A 2004 study theorized that Rembrandt was also affected by this condition. Researchers relied on studying the artist’s self-portraits, which they believe show one eye turned subtly outward.

A letter recently published in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology refutes this idea, claiming that the artists likely simply had a dominant eye, where one eye is favored, not unlike left- or right-handedness. Depicting one’s own eyes has always presented a challenge for artists working in self-portraits: one can only focus on the details of one eye at a time. While looking directly into one eye in the mirror, the other appears slightly off-center.

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Rembrandt, Self-portrait, 1668-1669.

Images of da Vinci are relatively rare, though it is thought that he used himself as a model for many works, as did his teacher, Verrocchio, whose bronze David is said to be modeled after a young da Vinci. Rembrandt, however, painted and printed dozens of images of himself, showing us how he aged over the years and giving us a sense of how he saw himself. Over the years, medical advancements have increased, as has interest in the great masters of art history. From our new perspective, we continue to try and gain insight into the inner workings that create genius. As this case shows us, we may be better off accepting that some of the mysteries of the past can’t (and don’t need) to be solved.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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