Leonardo da Vinci had a ‘super-fast eye’ that let him capture momentary changes like the flutter of a dragonfly wings or the ‘enigmatic magic’ of Mona Lisa’s smile.
This superhuman trait is similar to one top tennis players and baseball player share and allowed the great master to capture the most minute and fleeting expressions.
Researchers from the University of Basel, Switzerland, have confirmed the ‘quick eye’ theory that has been long been talked about by art historians.
Professor David S Thaler focused on drawings by da Vinci of dragonfly in movement and how their wings are out of sync – something confirmed centuries later.
This led Thaler and colleagues to determine that the great master saw the world in a kind of ‘freeze frame’ where he could remember an individual shot in a sequence.
The team used a measure called flicker fusion frequency that determines how many images you see to make up your view of the world – for Da Vinci this was 50 to 100 images – for the average human it is between 20 and 40, said Thaler.
The study was published alongside research showing how the famed polymath gave his drawings and paintings uncanny emotional depth by using different light.
The artist, who lived from 1452 to 1519, in his sketches showed that when a dragonfly’s front wings are raised, the hind ones are lowered – a motion that happens very rapidly.
In fact, when Thaler and his colleagues tried to observe the difference in the movement of dragonfly wings themselves it was all a blur.
Professor Thaler’s research turns on how Leonardo’s eye was so keen he managed to spot that incredible and momentary change in motion.
The fact the wings fly out of sync was confirmed by slow-motion photography four centuries after his drawings.
Thaler said that this gift to see what few humans can may be the secret of da Vinci’s most famous painting – the Mona Lisa.
‘Mona Lisa’s smile is so enigmatic because it represents the moment of breaking into a smile. And Leonardo’s quick eye captured that and held it,’ he said.
‘So often our memories are of a fixed image, not a movement. Leonardo and perhaps other artists had that ability to pick up the point of breaking into a smile’ or emotion.
Thaler suspects the Japanese painter Hokusai – best known for The Great Wave of Kanagawa – had the same ability.
The Edo master (1760-1849) also picked up the difference in dragonfly wings, which led Thaler to wonder if ‘he saw (in) the same freeze-frame way as Leonardo’.
Thaler applied ‘flicker fusion frequency’ (FFF) – similar to a film’s frames per second – to try to judge Leonardo’s extraordinary visual acuity in the study.
Because of our slower FFF, as humans we construct a single 3D image of the world by jamming together many partially in-focus images, he said.
Leonardo realised he could freeze the separate snapshots with which we construct our perception, Thaler believes.
Thaler said he was fascinated by Ted Williams, an American baseball legend who claimed to have trained himself to see the seams of a baseball as it flew towards him.
‘It is said that elite batters can see the seams even when the baseball is rotating 30 to 50 times per second,’ Thaler said.
In Leonardo’s case, Thaler estimated that to see the difference in batting dragonfly wings clearly, he would have to have an FFF range of 50 to 100 frames per second.
Leonardo da Vinci (right) obsessed over movement and anatomy – as seen in the drawing of the vitruvian man (left). Researchers suggest he could see the world in ‘freeze frame’
Thaler applied ‘flicker fusion frequency’ (FFF) – similar to a film’s frames per second – to try to judge Leonardo’s extraordinary visual acuity in the study. He focused on the drawings da Vinci made of dragonfly wings moving out of sync – something captured in slow motion years later
Art historians have long held the view that da Vinci had a ‘quick eye’ similar to tennis and baseball players that let him capture moments like the Mona Lisa smile – this study confirmed it
The average person’s is between 20 to 40 per second, according to the researchers, adding that it’s not clear whether this gift is genetic or if it can be learned.
Thaler’s work for the Rockefeller University in the US is a part of a wider Leonardo DNA Project looking at the Renaissance polymath.
The researcher also described in another paper how Leonardo used psychophysics – much of which still remains a mystery today – to communicate beauty and emotion.
He said Leonardo’s mastery of the sfumato technique – which subtly blurs the edges of images and creates a 3D effect – allowed him to render lifelike expressions and gave an intimate gaze to his portraits.
Thaler believes that Leonardo achieved selective soft focus in portraits by painting in overcast or evening light, where the eyes’ pupils enlarge to let in more light but have a narrow plane of sharp focus.
The enlarged pupils of his sitters – also a sign of affection or attraction – were a mark of beauty in Renaissance portraits.
It appears to confirm what the artist himself wrote in his notebook: ‘In the evening and when the weather is dull, what softness and delicacy you may perceive in the faces of men and women…’
LEONARDO DA VINCI WAS A RENAISSANCE POLYMATH
Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, more commonly Leonardo da Vinci or simply Leonardo, was one of the greatest individuals of the last millennium.
The polymath was a driving force behind the Renaissance and dabbled in invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography.
He has been attributed with the development of the parachute, helicopter and tank.
He was born in what is modern-day Italy in 1452 and died at the age of 67 in France.
After being born out of wedlock the visionary he worked in Milan, Rome, Bologna and Venice.
His most recognisable works include the Mona Lisa, The Last Supper and the Vitruvian Man.
Another piece of artwork, dubbed the Salvator Mundi, sold for a world record $450.3 million (£343 million) at a Christie’s auction in New York in 2017.