Kevin R. Loughlin
Boston, Massachusetts, United States
It is one of the most recognizable sculptures in Western art, the work of an acclaimed Renaissance artist. For over 600 years, it has been viewed by millions of tourists and by millions more in photographs or books. Yet until recently, an obvious physical abnormality had gone largely unrecognized. Michelangelo’s David, the representation of the idealized male body, has strabismus, a misalignment of the eyes.
In 1501, the city government of Florence commissioned Michelangelo to create David as part of a series of statues meant to surround the roofline of Florence’s cathedral dome.1 Michelangelo created David out of a single piece of Carrara marble that forty years before had been discarded as unworkable by two other sculptors, Agostino di Duccio and Antonio Rossellino.2 Michelangelo completed David in 1504. However, it was considered so beautiful that a more visible place for it was sought, rather than high in the cathedral dome. In fact, the sixteenth-century Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari wrote of David, “Whoever has seen this work need not trouble to see any other work executed in sculpture, either in our own or other times.”1 Although Michelangelo had gained notoriety with the completion of the Pieta in 1499, the creation of David in 1504 at the age of twenty-nine cemented his reputation as an artist of the first rank. It undoubtedly influenced Pope Julius II to commission Michelangelo to begin the Sistine Chapel in 1508.
After much discussion and debate, it was decided to place David outside of Florence’s government offices in the Palazzo Della Signoria. Michelangelo had based David’s pose on depictions of Hercules, who had appeared on the Florentine seal for centuries.1 David measured almost seventeen feet high and weighed over 12,000 pounds. Despite the artistic majesty, the statue is not completely anatomically correct. The right hand is out of proportion to the rest of his body and is felt to be Michelangelo’s clever nod to David’s nickname manu fortis, or “strong of hand.”1
David has not remained untouched since its creation. Despite the beauty of the work, David has suffered damage through the years. Protesters pelted it with stones in the year it debuted, and in 1527 an anti-Medici riot resulted in its left arm being broken in three pieces.1 In 1991, the statue was damaged by a chisel-wielding vandal2 who hammered off part of its left foot.3
The history of David also includes a scandal. In 1857, the Grand Duke of Tuscany surprised Queen Victoria of England with a replica of David. Apparently, the prim monarch was so scandalized by the generous genitalia that a detachable plaster cast fig leaf was created to protect her modesty.
|Figure 2: Guitar. Pablo Picasso. 1912. Via the Museum of Modern Art. © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.|
Originally, the sling on his left shoulder and the tree trunk behind his right leg were covered with gold leaf. However, over decades of exposure to weather in the Piazza della Signoria, the gold leaf was washed away. The placement of the tree trunk was more than just an artistic device. Because of the sheer size of the sculpture, it was used to provide additional support to the statue.
Regardless of the acclaim achieved by David, there is no record of recognition or comment about his strabismus. Part of that may have been because of the sheer height of the sculpture; few observers had been able to see the eyes close-up.
However, in 1999 the Digital Michelangelo Project, led by Stanford University professor of computer science and engineering Marc Levoy, produced a three-dimensional computer model of the sculpture that facilitated the viewing of the work from different angles and with varying light intensity and color modulation.4 The Stanford group was able to produce a direct frontal image, which was not easily achieved by photography or by direct observation by the viewer on the floor. Their reconstruction verified that David had exotropic strabismus. (Figure 1).5 By further utilizing the computer reconstruction, Levoy and his colleagues demonstrated that his head and upper body were proportionally larger than the lower body. The deviated left eye appears to be in accord with the body’s intended movement, directing the stone on his left toward the intended target, Goliath.
Levoy’s computer model contributed to the awareness and interest in David’s strabismus. As more research was done, it became more widely recognized that the artistic appreciation of strabismus as a sign of beauty likely started with Sandro Botticelli’s depiction of strabismus in his Birth of Venus in the mid 1480s. Venus was the Roman goddess known for her beauty. Through the centuries, strabismus became a sign of beauty—Strabismo di Venere. Today, mentioning to an Italian women that she has Strabismo di Venere is considered a compliment.6
Over the past few decades, there has been increasing awareness of the incidence of strabismus in well-known artists, as well as medical research to understand why this may be so. Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, Marc Chagall, Jasper Johns, Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert Rauschenberg, and Alexander Calder all had misaligned eyes.7 Rembrandt and Leonardo DaVinci were also found to have had strabismus.8,9 Researchers found that DaVinci had a variant of strabismus called exotropia, where the alignment of the eye diverges outward. Picasso, too, had strabismus and it is felt that this disorder made it easier for him to reproduce his two-dimensional representations of his subject matter. (Figure 2)10
|Figure 3: Rembrandt van Rijn. Self Portrait. 1659. National Gallery of Art.|
Margaret S. Livingstone and her associates have had a long-standing interest in how the brain processes visual images, especially stereopsis, or depth perception. Stereopsis requires the precise alignment of the two eyes.8 Rembrandt was a convenient subject for her group to investigate as he was notable for producing many self-portraits. (Figure 3) In a preliminary review of his self-portraits, they noted that most showed one eye gazing directly at the viewer and the other eye directed laterally. They then reviewed all known Rembrandt self-portraits and measured the positions of the eyes. They discovered that Rembrandt portrayed his eyes as exotropic in thirty-five of thirty-six self-portraits, twenty-four paintings, and twelve etchings.
Another study by Livingstone and her group examined the stereoscopic ability of two groups: 403 art students and 190 college students not majoring in art. In the second part of the study, they analyzed the intraocular alignment of photographic portraits of established artists and compared them to the published photographs of U.S. congressmen as a control group.11 In both groups, the art students as well as the established artists were found to have an increased incidence of compromised stereopsis or strabismus. They also cited prior reports that art students exhibit a higher incidence of dyslexia12 and that people with dyslexia show weaker binocular vergence compared to control subjects.13 They further commented that artists who are stereoblind appear to possess a natural ability to focus on shapes of objects and the space around them, referred to as negative space, which gives them a natural advantage in developing flat images.14
The final question that remains: what about Michelangelo’s vision? Did Michelangelo have strabismus? The answer is: not exactly. It is theorized that Michelangelo had a condition known as acquired transitory nystagmus causing spatial sensitivity (inversion illusion).15 The main symptom of this disorder is the sensitivity to elevate a document for reading up to the level of the eyes. In Michelangelo’s case, this was likely because of the confluence of several factors, including working for long periods on his back with chronic exposure to lead salts and toxic solvents such as turpentine. The defect disappeared a few months after he finished his masterpiece.15
An iconic work of art, the embodiment of the perfect male physiognomy, has an obvious physical abnormality that essentially went unnoticed for over six centuries. Then the confluence of art, computer science, and neurobiology identified the previously unrecognized defect and provided an insight into both artistic creativity and neuroscience.
- Puchko, K. 15 Things You Might Not Know About Michelangelo’s David. Mental Floss http://www.mental floss.com/article/71643/15-things-you might-not-know-about-michelangelo’s-david accessed 5/27/2021.
- Academia: Guide to Academia Gallery in Florence. https://www.academia.org/explore-museum/artworks/michelangelo’s-david/facts=about-david accessed 5/31/2021.
- City Wonders Team. 10 Facts Exposing A Little More Of Michelangelo’s David, November 3.2017 accessed 4/15/2021.
- Levoy, M. The Digital Michelangelo Project. Available at http://graphics.stanford.edu/projects/mich. Accessed 6/1/2021.
- Shaik, S. The Deviating Eyes of Michelangelo’s David. J. Royal Soc. Med. 2005; 98: 75-76.
- Strabismo di Venere. Word Reference Forums. http://forum-wordreference.com accessed 6/12/2021.
- Harmon K. Why So Many Artists Have Lazy Eyes, And Other Things Art Can Teach Us About The Brain. Scientific American 6/4/2010. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/why-so-many-artists-have-lazy-eyes-and-other-things-art-can-teach-us-about-the-brain/ accessed 6/19/2021.
- Livingstone MS and Conway BR. Was Rembrandt Stereoblind? N. Engl. J. Med. 2004; 351(12): 1264-1265.
- Stephens A. Eye of the Renaissance. Posted in Arts, Science and Tech. 11/29/18. https:the boar./org/2018/11/da-vinci/ accessed 6/12/2021.
- Inside the mind of creative geniuses. The Blog Archive. Boston University. https://sites.bu.edu/ombs/2012/02/21/inside-the-mind-of-creative-geniuses/ accessed 6/15/2021.
- Livingstone MS, Lafer-Sousa R, Conway BR. Stereopsis and Artistic Talent: Poor Stereopsis Among Art Students and Established Artists. Psychol. Sci.2011; 23(3): 336-338.
- Wolff U and Lundberg I. The prevalence of dyslexia among art students. Dyslexia 2002; 8:34-42.
- Buzzelli AR Stereopsis, accommodative and vergence facility: Do they relate to dyslexia? Optometry and Vision Science. 1991; 68:842-846.
- Blakeslee S. Deconstructing the Gaze of Rembrandt. NY Times 9/16/2004 https://www.nytimes.com/2004/09/16/arts/design/deconstructing-the-gaze-of-rembrandt:html accessed 6/15/2021.
- Gallenga PE, Giampiera N, D’Anastasia RD et al. Medical Hypothesis 2012; 78(6): 757-759.
KEVIN R. LOUGHLIN, MD, MBA, is a retired urologic surgeon and a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School. He is an avid reader of medical history and lives in Boston.