Public Science Insights: The One-Eyed Duke of Urbino

Posted Tue, Jan, 03,2017


One of the most famous paintings in the world is Piero della Francesca's Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, which hangs in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. The Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro (1422-1482), was a renowned soldier, political leader, and patron of the arts during the Italian Renaissance. He is painted in profile from the left side because he is known to have suffered a severe injury to his right eye during a jousting tournament in his youth.

In addition, the Duke's nose is oddly shaped, with missing tissue at the upper part of the nose. Many historians believe that the nose was injured at the same time as the eye. However, some believe that the Duke, after losing his right eye, underwent surgery on his nose in an attempt to improve the vision in his remaining left eye.

There is no way to know for certain whether this surgery was actually performed, but medical historians believe it was possible. Would such a surgery have helped?

There are many aspects to vision besides reading an eye chart. "Visual field" describes peripheral vision, or vision "out of the corner of the eye." You may have undergone a visual field test at an eye doctor's office, but this can be demonstrated simply. If you close your right eye and look straight ahead with your left eye, without moving the eye, you can see many things in your own visual field. If you move your fingers around towards the edges of your vision, you can map the extent of your visual field. For many people, it does seem that the nose blocks part of the visual field. This is even more noticeable if you keep your right eye closed and look to the right.

There is also a phenomenon called "parallax," in which viewing an object from a different perspective appears to change the position of the object. Once again, close your right eye and look straight ahead with your left eye. Make a "thumb's up" sign with your right hand and your right arm extended partly forward (not all the way). Move your right thumb so that it is just at the right edge of your visual field. Now look to the right. The thumb will disappear from your view, blocked by your nose. Finally, without moving the left eye, and keeping the right eye closed, move your thumb forward and it will re-appear into view.

In theory, removing part of the Duke's nose might have expanded his visual field and perhaps improved the parallax phenomenon. However, undergoing this surgery at a time before modern anesthesia and antibiotics seems like a very high price to pay. There have been many other famous one-eyed soldiers throughout history (such as the British naval hero Horatio Nelson, although some historians doubt that he actually did lose an eye), and none of them underwent surgery on their nose.

Hopefully this discussion will increase your appreciation for your own visual field, as well as this very famous work of art.

Stephen G. Schwartz is author of the recently published paper The Monocular Duke of Urbino, available for download now in Ophthalmology and Eye Diseases.

Image Credit: Piero della Francesca, Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino. Note the nasal deformity of the Duke. Photograph taken by the author (SGS). (Schwartz et al., 2016)

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