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Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Recto: Studies of optics and men in action. Verso: Studies of optics c. 1508

Red chalk, Pen and ink | 43.7 x 31.4 cm (sheet of paper) | RCIN 919149

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  • This is one of Leonardo’s most comprehensive sheets on the propagation of light and the casting of shadows. He demonstrates that multiple images can pass through a small aperture without interfering with one another, and examines the shadows cast by a sphere illuminated by several sources. At bottom right Leonardo studies the optics of the eye: he knew that as light passes through the pupil the image must be inverted, but he assumed that the image on the retina is upright, and thus postulated that the lens must correct the orientation of the image. Small sketches at centre left show a sequence of a man striking the ground with a hammer, with the Latin heading De pictura (‘On Painting’) demonstrating that Leonardo was thinking specifically of his treatise on the theory of painting. The stooping man in red chalk is by a pupil.

    On the verso of the sheet Leonardo continues to investigate the geometry of optics. At top left and lower right he investigates the images formed when light from multiple sources passes through an aperture. At centre left he studies the optics of the eye. At lower left he considers ‘the colours of the rainbow’ seen when sunlight passes through a glass of water, and discusses the iridescent colours of birds’ feathers, of films of oil on water, and so on.

    Text adapted from Leonardo da Vinci: A life in drawing, London, 2018

    Bequeathed to Francesco Melzi; from whose heirs purchased by Pompeo Leoni, c.1582-90; Thomas Howard, 14th Earl of Arundel, by 1630; probably acquired by Charles II; Royal Collection by 1690

  • Medium and techniques

    Red chalk, Pen and ink


    43.7 x 31.4 cm (sheet of paper)

  • Alternative title(s)

    Recto: Notes on optics etc., with diagrams. Verso: Notes on optics etc., with diagrams

The income from your ticket contributes directly to The Royal Collection Trust, a registered charity. The aims of The Royal Collection Trust are the care and conservation of the Royal Collection, and the promotion of access and enjoyment through exhibitions, publications, loans and educational activities.