Motorcycle aficionado and condensed-matter physicist Charles Falco gave a colloquium on 14 December 2001 at NIST (the US National Institute of Standards and Technology) about a fascinating subject: his collaboration with David Hockney on the use of optical equipment in early art. (Hockney's new book on this is titled Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters.) Falco is a professor at the University of Arizona. He's also a flamboyant, highly entertaining lecturer. Clad in a black shirt and suit, punctuated by a bright red tie, he made a strong case that beginning in the early fifteenth century (long before it was hitherto suspected) at least some artists were using image-manipulation technology to aid them in sketching, painting, and copying their works.

Proving the Falco thesis, however, is nontrivial. The best evidence comes from precise quantitative measurements of paintings that show slight errors in convergent lines, tiny mismatches of scale, and inexplicable depth-of-field problems or other aberrations. These are subtle phenomena, easily overlooked. And when the optics is done correctly, it leaves nary a clue. As Falco commented, "The people who made no mistakes can hide the fact that they used a lens." And he noted that in spite of close examination, he found not a hint of optical chicanery in one famous artist's works which he examined: "Leonardo da Vinci was such a genius that, if he used this, he was able to hide it."

Falco stopped far short of claiming that everyone used artificial assistance all the time, or even most of the time. "The good painters used the lens where they needed it," he said. He was also meticulous in expressing his respect for the great artists of the past. "This takes nothing away from masters like van Eyck or Bellini. These were truly Renaissance Men --- who produced their paintings with the aid of lenses."

Much of the case for early art image technology is mathematical. It's not deep math; virtually all of it can be derived with a bit of high school algebra and geometry. But here's where the "Two Cultures" abyss between science and the humanities really bites. How many art historians have taken freshman physics? Not a lot. "This discovery might have been made decades ago if art history students were routinely educated in selected aspects of the science of optics," Falco suggested. On the other hand, "If you didn't understand that 1/f = 1/d1 + 1/d2, that's just a magical set of symbols. ... It's like you're speaking Bulgarian..." (see also Mary Midgley's comments in EducationCultureAndBlame, 1 June 2000)

The result: an understandable skepticism about this radical proposal, at least in some circles. As Prof. Falco explained it, "The Press likes controversy. There has been an overwhelmingly positive response. Artists believe it. Art historians --- some believe it and some don't believe it. I'm a scientist. It's like if someone from the Classics came and proved that everything about Bose Einstein Condensation is wrong, based on Medieval scholarship --- you wouldn't accept it!" And quoting from a symposium on the subject in New York, Falco reported "Susan Sontag said that there are three reactions: (1) It's wrong. (2) We knew it all along. (3) It's irrelevant. What was interesting to me is that several times we heard all three from the same person!"

Some other quotes from Charles Falco's talk:

Yes, some of Falco's terminology was a bit sloppy (e.g., the use of "lens" to describe a curved mirror, because "Outside of the scientific community, people don't know that curved mirrors can make images."). But his enthusiastic and fact-based presentation was persuasive.

And it was a joy to witness --- like some of the fabled lectures given to general audiences by Michael Faraday, Richard Feynman, and other great scientific communicators of years past. Perhaps if enough such engaging discussions could be arranged, a bit of the Two Cultures gap might begin to close. As a society dependent on advances in technology, we could do much worse. And as a society in search of meaning, in which many scientists and engineers are virtually illiterate in the humanities, the bridge-building could proceed from both sides of the chasm....

TopicScience - TopicArt - 2001-12-27

(correlates: DoLess, CheckingOut, AnalysisAndAlgebra, ...)