Dr. Svetlana Lukishova

OSA symposium: Optics
and Renaissance Painting

It was held during the October 2004 Annual Meeting of the Optical
Society of America. (Press coverage in APS and OSA magazines
Physics Today and Optics and Photonics News)

Organizers: Svetlana G. Lukishova, the Institute of Optics, University of Rochester, USA; Nancy Norwood, University of Rochester Memorial Art Gallery, USA
Presider: Wayne H. Knox, the Institute of Optics, University of Rochester, USA

Strong interest within the optics community in the Hockney-Falco theory motivated this symposium. According to this theory, Northern and Italian Renaissance painters (e.g., Campin, Van Eyck, Bellini, Lotto) used lens/mirror images as aids in their paintings as early as the 1430s. See, for instance "Opt. Phot. News", vol.11, No. 7, 52 (2000), vol. 15, No 3, 30 and No. 6, 7 (2004); "Nature", vol. 412, 860 (2001) and vol. 417, 794 (2002). See also proceedings of the workshop "Optics, optical instruments and painting: The Hockney-Falco thesis revisited" (November 2003, Ghent) published in the journal "Early Science and Medicine", vol. 10, issue 2 (2005).

OSA symposium presented the diversity of opinion concerning the theory. In addition to talks debating these idea, the Metropolitan museum curator of Department of European Paintings, and the art historian delivered lectures about Renaissance art, the role of aids in art and the difference between artist and craftsman. Optical historians outlined the state of optics at this time.

A special booth featured optical images projected by lenses/mirrors/camera obscura in sunlight. Poster session was held during booth demonstration.

All downloadable publications, abstracts, summaries and other texts from this site are copyrighted and copies may be made only for your personal but not for public use.

Invited talks:

1. How Much Optics did Medieval and Renaissance Scholars Know? David C. Lindberg, Univ. Wisconsin-Madison, USA. Widespread myths about the ignorance and intellectual stagnation of medieval Europe, along with equally widespread myths about the Scientific Revolution of the 15th and 17th-centuries as the birth of serious science, have left the impression that medieval optical knowledge was thin to nonexistent. This lecture explored the level of medieval optical knowledge up to the year 1600 and beyond. Summary pdf

2. Optical Instruments and Realism in European Art ca. 1400-1800, Walter Liedtke, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, USA. This paper will review opinions among historians of European art concerning the importance of optical devices for the making of naturalistic images from about 1400 onward, and will compare David Hockney's sweeping claims on the same subject. His examples and others, including paintings by Van Eyck and Vermeer, will be considered. It will be shown that optical aids were regarded by pioneers of naturalism like Leonardo not as "secret knowledge" (Hockney's notion) but as curiosities that were of little use to mature artists. Summary pdf

3. Liberal or Mechanical? Optical Aids in Renaissance Art, Paul Duro, University of Rochester, USA. Optical and drawing aids have been known at least since Aristotle. However, they took on particular importance in Renaissance since their use was closely tied to changing notions of artistic status, competing models of perception, and not least to the formulation of a recognizably modern conception of art making. Summary pdf

4. Optics and the Old Masters, Charles M. Falco1, David Hockney2, 1University of Arizona, USA, 2Independent Artist, USA. We have discovered a wealth of optical evidence within a variety of paintings that as early as c1425 artists such as Jan van Eyck used optical projections as aids for their work. These discoveries demonstrate that optical instruments were in use over 150 years earlier than is widely thought possible. Summary pdf

5. Did Early Renaissance Masters Use Optical Projections While Painting? Image Analytic, Optical and Historical Rebuttals to the Hockney Theory, David G. Stork, Ricoh Innovations and Stanford University, USA. We apply image and optical analyses to key works to test whether Renaissance artists as early as 1420 used projections while painting. Our results and the historical documentary record and analysis of putative "re-enactments" show that the optical projection claim is implausible for adduced paintings of the 15th century. Summary pdf

6. Against the Hockney-Falco Thesis: Glass and Metal Mirrors of the 15th Century Could Not Project Undistored Images, Sara J. Schechner, Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, Harvard University, USA. Inspection of surviving mirrors and related objects shows that they were too crude to offer the early Renaissance painter an optical short-cut to a naturalistic image of his subject. The craftsmanship of mirror makers was independent of and inferior to the quality of theories of image formation of the day. Summary pdf

7. Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes, Vincent Ilardi, Univ. of Massachusetts, USA : I'm writing a book called "Renaissance vision from spectacles to telescopes". The book treats the early development, diffusion, commerce, and artistic representation of eyeglasses from their invention ca. 1286 to the discovery of the telescope ca. 1600. Summary pdf

Invited posters:

1. Machine Vision: The Answer to the Optical Debate?, Antonio Criminisi, Microsoft Res., Ltd., UK. Machine vision is a branch of artificial intelligence aimed at extracting useful information from images. Vision techniques have typically been applied to images acquired by cameras, but recent research efforts have seen novel algorithms work with paintings. Promising results have been obtained which cast a new light on the debate regarding the way traditional paintings were created. The author believes that only a careful scientific analysis of each painting can provide meaningful answers to the debate. Summary pdf

2. The Mirror, the Window, and Galileo's Eye: How one Lost Renaissance Painting Changed the Way We See the World From Sacred to Secular, Samuel Edgerton, Williams College, USA. I'm writing a book tentatively called "From sacral to secular: the unintended consequences of Renaissance linear perspective in Western art and science", offering new arguments as to why Brunelleschi employed the science of optics and especially the mirror in his first perspective Florentine Baptistery picture. Summary pdf

3. The Hockney Thesis and the History of Optical Projection, Michael J. Gorman, Arkimedia, Ireland. David Hockney's recent book Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters, argues that 15th century painters employed optical devices to achieve realistic portraiture. A reexamination of the history of optical projection techniques raises problems for Hockney's thesis. Summary pdf

4. Reactions of Historians of Science and Art to the Hockney Thesis: Summary of the European Science Foundation's Conference of 12-15 November, 2003, Christoph Lüthy, University of Nijmegen, Netherlands. The claims of David Hockney's Secret Knowledge, buttressed by Charles Falco's optical measurements, were recently debated at a conference at Ghent University. The consensus was that for technical and historical reasons, painterly reliance on optical tools is plausible from the late sixteenth century onwards, but less likely for the fifteenth. Summary pdf

5. Did Lorentzo Lotto Use Optical Projections While Painting "Husband and Wife"?, Christopher Tyler1, David Stork2, 1Smith-Kettlewell Eye Res. Inst., USA, 2Recoh Innovations and Stanford University, USA. We apply optical and perspective tests to the carpet in Lorenzo Lotto's "Husband and Wife" (c. 1543) to test the claim that this painting was executed by tracing an optically projected image. While the perspective exhibits many inaccuracies consistent with this claim, such inaccuracies are equally consistent with non-optical explanations, such as artistic freehand for features that are peripheral to the theme of the painting. Further, a number of properties-specifically the perspective inconsistencies within some putative projection regions-are incompatible with the use of projections. We explore perspective in carpets in other Lotto paintings and find perspective incoherence that is unlikely due to refocusing or depth of field problems in a projection, the putative source in "Husband and wife." Our analyses and the lack of supporting historical evidence lead us to reject claims for "proofs" that projections were used in the creation of this painting. Summary pdf

6. Evidence for Mechanical (not Optical) Copying and Enlarging in Jan van Eyck's Portrait of Niccolò Albergati, Thomas Ketelsen1, Olaf Simon1, Ina Reiche2, Silke Merchel3, David Stork4, 1Kupferstich-Kabinett, Germany, 2Ctr. De Rech. Et Restauration des Musées de France, France, 3Bundesanstalt für Materialforschung und -prufung, Germany, 4Ricoh Innovations and Stanford University, USA. We review Ketelsen et al.'s discovery of tiny pinprick holes in Jan van Eyck's silverpoint study portrait of Niccolò Albergati(?), which indicate mechanical copying such as by a Reductionszirkel or Proportionalzirkel, rather than by an optical epidiascope. We "re-enact" copying by Reductionszirkel and find (sub-millimeter) fidelity equal to that in van Eyck's work. We show that Renaissance artists would face significant challenges making and using an epidiascope, which finds no documentary support, including none from scientists, artists or patrons. Summary pdf


As one of the symposium organizers, I thank all participants for their contributions, especially Charles Falco and David Stork who initiated this discussion, attracted a big interest of the optical community to optics and painting of the Renaissance period and helped us in selection of invited speakers. The interest in the idea of using optical aids by some early famous Renaissance painters was so strong that even the journal "Nature" and the Optical Society of America magazine published papers in this field.

The main reward for me as an organizer was a phrase of one professor in optics that he learned from this symposium how museum curators and art historians work. I wish all participants success in their work and hope that such mutual exchange of information was helpful.