This lesson will explore the study of optics, the principle of linear perspective, and the device known as the "camera obscura" as seen in drawings from Leonardo da Vinci's Codex Atlanticus, and other relevant examples. This lesson demonstrates how art and science have historically intersected in the study of sight itself.
"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," as the timeless idiom goes, and the function of the eye itself is just as critical in appreciating the beauty of visual art as is the labor of artists' who produce such work. The inquiry of vision itself has been a subject of great interest throughout history, but the foundational research of our modern understanding of vision was not established in the "Western" world until the Middle Ages. Prior to this understanding the two accepted theories of vision were ones of "emission" and "intromission." The theory of "emission" (supported by the Ancient Greek mathematicians Euclid and Ptolemy) postulated that one's eyes transmit rays of light; allowing one to see the surrounding environment. The theory of "intromission" (which was endorsed by the Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle among others) meanwhile argued that the objects of an environment projected rays of light that penetrated one's eyes; allowing one to view physical objects.
It was the medieval Egyptian mathematician Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040 CE) , also known by the latinized name "Alhazen," who helped develop our present understanding via his Book of Optics written between 1011-1021 CE. In this study of optics, Alhazen incorporated elements of both previous theories of vision, emission and intromission, to develop what is now known as the Principle of Linear Perspective; that light is emitted from the sun and travels in straight lines, which become perpendicular when in contact with objects, that are then received by the eye. In order to develop this Principle, Alhazen employed a device known as the "camera obscura" (literally meaning "dark room" in Latin) which demonstrated how light traveled in straight lines.
Alhazen's Book of Optics would be translated from Arabic into Latin during the late 12th (or early 13th) century, and it was through this tranlsation that European scholars were able to study Alhazen's research from Europe; among them the prolific Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. Thanks to Alhazen's studies in optics, and the Principle of Linear Perspective, da Vinci, along with many other European Renaissance artists, was able to employ new techniques of perspective in his subsequent drawings and paintings; allowing for compositions of greater depth and detail.
This lesson seeks to present some of da Vinci's own drawings which explore the study of the Principle of Linear Perspective, the anatomy of the human eye, as well as examples of the camera obscura. Finally two famous early-modern European paintings will be presented to demonstrate how such works may have utilized the Principle, and possibly the camera obscura, in their composition.
This lesson serves as an online complement to the upcoming exhibit Leonardo da Vinci: Bella e Brutto, The Idea of Beauty (running from April 15 - June 30 2015) which features a collection of da Vinci's drawings on loan from the Uffizi Museum in Florence and the Biblioteca Reale in Turin. Organized in partnership with the Muscarelle Museum of Art, this groundbreaking exhibition explores the artist’s concepts of ideal beauty. Throughout his career, Leonardo experimented with three kinds of drawings: scientific studies made from life, grotesque caricatures of craggy faces, and, finally, the most beautiful faces of men and women that he could imagine. Because he left so few paintings, Leonardo’s drawings have been recognized for centuries as the deepest window into his thinking. The artist poured the full fervor of his intelligence and creative powers into the 25 works on view, which offer a rich and varied selection.
Learning Goals: By exploring this lesson, students will...
- learn about key historical developments in the study of optics, and their impact on both science and art
- learn how some of the "revolutionary" ideas of the Italian Renaissance in fact have origins from the medieval Middle East
- learn about the origin of optical devices like the camera obscura, which is considered to be the origin of camera (or optical) technology
These discoveries will require students to...
- compare the developments of optical studies from the medieval and early-modern periods with the knowledge of the present day
- analyze studies of the Principle of Linear Perspective to see how "three-dimensional" representations have been applied to two-dimensional visual art
- analyze a pair of paintings in order to determine how they may have been composed with the Principle of Linear Perspective, and possibly, a camera obscura device.
Using this Resource:
Science teachers will be interested in using this lesson as a classroom supplement in exploring the function of human vision, the principle of linear perspective, and how these scientific developments influenced approaches to visual art.
Social studies and Visual Arts teachers will be interested in this lesson to explore the historical transmission of information from one geographic/cultural region to another (specifically the Middle East to Europe), as well as the history of "optics" in relation to the development of art in history, as well as the technological origins of the camera.
For supplementary classroom activities and materials, refer to the links and downloadable PDFs under Related Resources at the bottom of this page. The objects in this lesson are just a beginning. We encourage you to explore the Museum's online collection through this web source - or even better, to visit the Museum and walk through the physical galleries - to look for other objects that will provide further insight into da Vinci's drawings, and other examples of early modern European art.