A new perspective: Leonardo’s view on optics

Leonardo studied light first as an artist. He devoted much attention to the many variables that influence the diffusion of light. The “sfumato” – the use of tone and colour shading – in his paintings is a consequence of his discoveries, and an expression of Leonardo’s shift from a mathematical to a physical vision. By Dr. Domenico Laurenza, Museo Galileo, Florence.

Self-Portrait (c. 1435) by Leon Battista AlbertiNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

A perspective on perspective

The Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti devised rules for linear perspective in the 15th century which were based on the laws of mathematical perfection and proportion. However, Leonardo realised that the diffusion of light and its perception by the eye are subject to physical variables incompatible with the Albert’s mathematical vision

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.170v-171r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

A perspective on perspective

Leonardo studied how the colours and shadows of various objects interacted with each other. He also discovered that the image in the eye formed not in a point but on a surface. For Leonardo, therefore, the Alberti’s pyramid was only an ideal.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.115v (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Here Leonardo studies how the structure and movement of the eye affects vision, and thus how vision is relative and variable.

For example, when the eye is pushed upwards with a finger, its rear half lowers and the imprensive, (Leonardo’s anatomical term for the receptive part that occupies the rear part of the eye), will see the objects as lowered.

Here, Leonardo observes that the flame of the candle has an oblong shape, but the eye surrounds it with a roundness because the light enters the eye through a circular opening.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.064v (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Bird’s eye view

This sheet looks at the anatomy and vision of a bird's eye. Leonardo studies and draws the function of what we now call the nictitating membrane or third eyelid of a bird, a transparent membrane that is drawn across the eye.

Leonardo also describes another movable membrane or opaque “cover”. He then analyses the purpose of these membranes and their movements: the protection of the eye in the fast flight (the transparent membrane) and the maintenance of the upward vision to spot predatory birds.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.093v (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

How water interferes with visual perception

Given Leonardo's obsession with the study of water and light, it is not surprising that he was among the few to consider the problem of how water interferes with the visual perception of an object immersed in it.

In this first drawing, the eye, located above the surface of the water, sees the object half-immersed in the water in a distorted way...

...unlike the eye at water level in this drawing.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.170v-171r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Light and shadow

Leonardo carefully studied the relationship between eye, light and object, using the terrestrial observer, moon and sun as his models.

In this example the eye does not see the illuminated part of the object, which is possible only when the eye “sees all the original light”, that is its light source.

Two candles, one with a lower flame (top), the other higher (bottom), show how the shadows cast by an illuminated opaque body are much longer as the light that illuminates it is lower.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, f.100r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Here Leonardo considers the case in which an opaque body is interposed between an object and the light that illuminates it.

Due to the interference of the intermediate body, it is as if the object were illuminated by various light sources.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.113v-114r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

The blue colour of air is fully appreciable, according to Leonardo, at noon, in the absence of clouds or excessive humidity. He explains the blue of the air as an optical phenomenon, a consequence of the light reflected by the minute particles of air humidity on the dark background of the sky with the sphere of fire.

The drawing here represents the opposite situation, namely the sun (on the right) that radiates light partly intercepted by clouds (on the left).

Leonardo studies the relationship between shadows and lights in trees. He considers the shaded areas inside the tree, and the shadow cast by the tree on the ground.

The drawings relate to this last phenomenon: the sun, on the right, projects the shadow of the tree on the ground and the length of the projected shadow varies according to the inclination of the ground, represented at its greatest in the bottom drawing.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.114v-113r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Leonardo considers the influence on the light-shade relationship of various trees.

The dark green of pines, cypresses, bossi and laurel. The paler yellowish green of walnuts, pear trees, vines and young plants. The darker yellowish green of chestnut trees and oaks. The reddish green in autumn of vines, rowans, pomegranates and cherries. The whitish green of willows, olives and canes

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.170v-171r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

Framing the future

Leonardo distinguishes freely diffused light (bottom drawing), from that which penetrates into a closed space through a hole or an opening (top drawing).

The latter study led Leonardo to experiment with the “camera obscura” or "darkroom", the basis of modern photography.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.221v-220r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263

According to medieval and Renaissance ideas of perspective, the images of objects reached the eye in the form of a perfect pyramid, with its base in the object and vertex or point in the eye...

... In this sheet Leonardo doubts that the lines that form the pyramid are straight.

Codex Arundel, Arundel MS 263, ff.084v-088r (1478–1518) by Leonardo da VinciOriginal Source: Arundel MS 263


In this example Leonardo studies the reflection of light in a concave mirror, which he makes plans to build.

The purpose of this mirror has not been clarified with certainty; perhaps Leonardo designed it as an experimental device for optical studies, or to harness sunlight as a source of energy.

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