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Brief Report
October 18, 2018

Evidence That Leonardo da Vinci Had Strabismus

Author Affiliations
  • 1Division of Optometry and Vision Sciences, School of Health Sciences, City University of London, London, United Kingdom
JAMA Ophthalmol. Published online October 18, 2018. doi:10.1001/jamaophthalmol.2018.3833
Key Points

Question  Did Leonardo da Vinci, the preeminent artist-scientist of the Italian Renaissance, have a form of strabismus that could have facilitated his artistic work?

Findings  Examination of 6 likely portraits and self-portraits of da Vinci in which the direction of gaze of each eye is identifiable shows that most paintings exhibit a consistent exotropic strabismus angle of −10.3°, supported by a similar Hirschberg angle in the recently identified da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi.

Meaning  The presence of exotropia, particularly if it was intermittent, may have contributed to da Vinci's exceptional ability to capture space on the flat canvas.

Abstract

Importance  Strabismus is a binocular vision disorder characterized by the partial or complete inability to maintain eye alignment on the object that is the target of fixation, usually accompanied by suppression of the deviating eye and consequent 2-dimensional monocular vision. This cue has been used to infer the presence of strabismus in a substantial number of famous artists.

Objective  To provide evidence that Leonardo da Vinci had strabismus.

Design, Setting, and Participants  In exotropia, the divergent eye alignment is typically manifested as an outward shift in the locations of the pupils within the eyelid aperture. The condition was assessed by fitting circles and ellipses to the pupils, irises, and eyelid apertures images identified as portraits of Leonardo da Vinci and measuring their relative positions.

Main Outcomes and Measures  Geometric angle of alignment of depicted eyes.

Results  This study assesses 6 candidate images, including 2 sculptures, 2 oil paintings, and 2 drawings. The mean relative alignments of the pupils in the eyelid apertures (where divergence is indicated by negative numbers) showed estimates of −13.2° in David, −8.6° in Salvator Mundi, −9.1° in Young John the Baptist, −12.5° in Young Warrior, 5.9° in Vitruvian Man, and −8.3° in an elderly self-portrait. These findings are consistent with exotropia (t5 = 2.69; P = .04, 2-tailed).

Conclusions and Relevance  The weight of converging evidence leads to the suggestion that da Vinci had intermittent exotropia with the resulting ability to switch to monocular vision, which would perhaps explain his great facility for depicting the 3-dimensional solidity of faces and objects in the world and the distant depth-recession of mountainous scenes.

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