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An eye condition that impacts around four per cent of the population today may have given Leonardo da Vinci an artistic advantage. Ohhhhhh, is that what Mona Lisa’s smirk is about?

Da Vinci is known for his expert use of highlights and shadows, but new findings published online in JAMA Ophthalmology suggest that the health disorder known as exotropia may have been the secret to his superior talents.

Exotropia is a kind of strabismus, a group of disorders that causes one eye to focus in another direction rather than the intended object. With exotropia, the eye strays outward. It strays upward with hypertropia, and downward with hypotropia. Inward esotropia is also commonly and rather insensitively referred to as “cross-eyed.” You probably know someone who is affected by strabismus in one of its forms either sometimes or all the time. Now you know two people…if you count dead people, anyway.

 

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But how does an unfocussed eye provide an artistic edge?

“The artist’s job is to paint on a 2-D surface,” says Christopher Tyler, a visual neuroscientist at the City University of London. “This can be difficult when you view the world three-dimensionally.”

So with da Vinci’s possible 2-D vision in one eye, his world looked a bit different than how the average person perceives it, thus making it easier for him to translate a person or a scene onto a canvas with a brush and paint.

Six of da Vinci’s paintings — both portraits and self-portraits — were investigated, including some of his more famous pieces, like Salvator Mundi and Vitruvian Man. Using a method that measured the alignment of the eyes (similar to how an optometrist might measure the eye to fit glasses) in each painting, the study found that there was a consistent eye misalignment within five out of six of the works.

According to Tyler, this suggests that da Vinci may have been able to control his exotropia.

“The person [with intermittent exotropia] can align their eyes and see in 3D, but if they’re inattentive or tired, the eye may droop,” he says.

Huh.

Da Vinci’s eye condition may have influenced his work, but certainly there’s some raw talent at play here, too. But it does make you wonder: would his paintings have been just as endearing had he been seeing the world the same as his peers?