World’s first photo: an unknown Da Vinci?
September 28, 2009
Page 1: Camera obscura
SPECIAL REPORT by AP news editor Chris Cheesman
Roger Davies used sophisticated computer graphics to back his claim that this famous 1514 engraving by Albrecht Dürer is a photograph of a drawing by Leonardo da Vinci. The graphical representation shown here has been simplified for use online
Image, courtesy Roger Davies
A photography enthusiast is battling to re-write the history books after a three-year project left him convinced that a famous 16th-century engraving is the ‘world’s first photograph’.
Welshman Roger Davies also claims to have uncovered a secret code in the artwork, leading him to conclude that the 1514 engraving is a photograph of a previously un-attributed drawing by Leonardo da Vinci.
Davies came up with his intriguing theory after scrutinising Melancholia, a famous engraving by renowned German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.
The former contractor for the Atomic Weapons Establishment – whose job gave him experience in optics – claims that the 9in high Dürer masterpiece was no such thing. Rather a photograph of a much larger Da Vinci drawing – perhaps eight feet tall – exposed and then fixed onto a ‘light-sensitive’ copper plate, placed inside a camera obscura.
‘It’s basically a photograph of a drawing,’ says the retired electrical engineer, adding that the exposure time may have taken several days.
He claims Dürer then used the plate to run off hundreds of prints in his name more than three centuries before Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre first experimented with the permanent fixing of a photographic image using chemicals.
By magnifying a high-resolution digital image of the engraving, the 66-year-old says he can show that lines on the print are so close together – a ‘sixth of a millimeter’ in one area – that it would have been physically impossible to hand engrave them with such accuracy and consistency, even for the master technician that Dürer was.
Davies believes that Da Vinci created his artwork before 1507 and then gave Dürer the photographic plate.
‘Da Vinci’ code
Davies says he first suspected a Da Vinci connection after spotting that the cherub in the Melancholia image has similar facial features to a figure depicted in a Da Vinci sketch held at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Caen, France.
Also, key to it being the work of Da Vinci, he asserts, is the Italian artist’s renowned level of knowledge of mathematics and geometry, in addition to what some believe was Da Vinci’s practice of planting secret messages in his work.
‘It’s not a random drawing. It’s a mathematically geometrical structure,’ says Davies who believes Da Vinci also used a camera obscura to help him sketch the human figures in the original large-scale artwork.
Davies suggests that the layout was a deliberate attempt to create a type of astronomical calculator, linked to the cycles of the sun and the moon relative to the earth.
He believes Da Vinci implanted a hidden code in the work connected to the prediction of future geophysical events such as earthquakes.
The number ‘532’ is fundamental to this concept – a figure reached by multiplying the 28-year cycle of the sun to the 19-year cycle of the moon.
The fifth-century astronomer Victorius of Aquitaine used this figure to predict the recurrence of a given phase of the moon on the same day of the week and month.
Davies says he found that when superimposing computer-generated lines over Melancholia, they radiate from two distinct areas of the image corresponding to lunar and solar cycles.
And the lines – he insists – align themselves with various key points in the image, such as the thread marks in the rope (top right in the picture) and the jagged edges of the knife (bottom).
Furthermore, these ‘precise radial graduations’ (not visible on the artwork itself) totalled 532, or multiples of that figure, leading Davies to suggest that the artist created the piece to conform with a predetermined ‘symmetrical’ geometric pattern.
Davies argues that Da Vinci used a thin pencil to draw these lines as an ‘underlay’ to the drawing which was then photographed using a camera obscura.
Page 2: Magic Square
Davies, from Swansea, points to 1480 as a key starting point in his ‘calculator’ theory – a year in which seismic activity struck Europe.
Though not a multiple of 532, 1480 is reached by deducting 34 (the total of each line of Dürer’s ‘magic square’ – top right in the picture), from the number 1514 (the documented date of the engraving – visible in the bottom row of the square).
Moving forward to the 21st century, Davies says the year 2012 is reached, by adding 532 to the year 1480.
However, explains Davies, though the 532 figure was believed to be correct in Da Vinci’s day, it was based on an inaccurate 19-year lunar cycle.
This cycle was later corrected to ‘18.61’ years. Using this adjusted figure, the year 2001 is produced (18.61x 28 + 1480), coinciding, says Davies, with years either side of a peak in a geophysical cycle that coincided with the 1997 Montserrat Volcano eruption and the 2004 Asian Tsunami.
‘Burned at the stake’
Davies’ theory is backed by Lee Hooker, director of Antiquity at the Bath Royal literary and Scientific & Institution.
She claims that the research ‘convincingly demonstrates the existence of an unacknowledged work by Leonardo da Vinci and its conversion into the world’s first photograph’.
Hooker translates ancient documents as part of her work. She told us: ‘Mr Davies does seem to have come up with something remarkable. He has undoubtedly got something. The artist has clearly encoded a message. There is a factual basis to it.’
She supports Davies’ idea that the creator would have wanted to keep his ‘message for the future’ secret in order to avoid the ‘excesses of the censorship of the church’ and being ‘burned at the stake’ for predicting a future ‘doomsday scenario’.
However, there is one major hurdle to overcome; to convince the outside world that photography was invented more than 300 years before the history books tell us.
Sceptics are lining up to shoot down the theory, not least Amateur Photographer (AP)’s photo-science consultant Geoffrey Crawley.
‘It’s an impossible idea that the multi-faceted element lens needed to be able to produce that image could have existed one hundred years before even the first telescope was invented,’ he says.
Crawley concedes that knowledge of how light can darken silver stretches back to Dürer’s time but his contemporaries would not have known how to fix an image.
He adds: ‘At that time the simple meniscus lenses were very rudimentary and incapable of producing a really sharp image in the camera obscura.
‘Even today you would need to use an expensive top-class macro lens fully corrected chromatically and for spherical aberration and curvilinear distortion to achieve this standard.’
However, Davies believes that a concave mirror lens would have been available at that time, capable of projecting an image onto the plate, inside the camera obscura, in sufficient detail.
Crawley points out that the resolving power of lenses did not reach such high standards until the late 19th century. ‘That anyone could have invented a complete photographic process of this capability in  is beyond credibility.’
Page 3: Optical projections
Charles Falco, professor of Optical Sciences at the University of Arizona is less dismissive.
Falco collaborated with artist David Hockney on the artist’s 2006 book, Secret Knowledge, which controversially suggested some Renaissance painters traced around optical projections of their subjects – created with a camera obscura – to help them paint.
While Falco described Davies’ theory as ‘interesting speculation’ he says there is only ‘circumstantial evidence’ that Dürer used optical projections to help him draw.
Commenting on the Melancholia engraving, Falco told AP: ‘There are no features in it that let me judge whether or not an optical projection was involved.’
Of course, he adds, the artist would then have to have figured out a way of fixing the image on a copper plate.
That said, he does not rule out Dürer?s use of optical projections.
Falco bases his optical projection theory on spotting optical ‘mistakes’ in paintings where, for example, the subject’s mouth appears out of true shape.
The subject may have moved slightly during the sitting and the artist then – deliberately of otherwise – included this error when tracing the projected image, and subsequently reproducing an ‘offset mouth’ in the final painting.
‘However, if it is only the level of detail in the drawing that makes [Davies] think a projection has to have been used in creating it, instead Dürer could simply have done this engraving with the aid of a magnifying glass,’ he adds.
Giulia Bartrum, an expert on the work of Dürer, agrees that engravers would have used optics to help magnify the detail in their work.
She is adamant that Dürer’s engraving prowess was behind Melancholia.
Bartrum, curator of German Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, says that working in a finely detailed manner was ‘commonplace’ in Dürer?s time.
‘He [Dürer ] was an incredible technician? the detail he achieved was remarkable,’ she says.
Speaking to AP, Bartrum says that engravers were able to steady their hand using all sort of supports and fine-tune their skills with practice, to include shades and ‘depths’.
And, she insists, the engraving bears evidence of the groove marks left by a ‘burin’, the tool engravers used. She says that lines on an engraving taper to a fine point, and this is feature is visible on Melancholia when viewed under a microscope.
Yet, Davies questions – if it was an engraving – why have such highly detailed engravings not appeared since Dürer?s day?
Bartrum says such techniques are now lost because they are no longer needed, as more advanced methods of printing emerged over time. Dürer’s skills were ‘not passed down’, and so there is now no-one to learn from, she explains.
Bartrum is highly dubious of any suggestion that the Melancholia work is a photograph. ‘There are so many articles and books about it [Melancholia] that a book has been written about the literature,’ she points out.
And though she says Dürer was also a mathematician she doesn’t believe he ever met Da Vinci.
There is another question mark. An early print of the engraving, kept at the British Museum, shows that the artist depicted the number ‘9’, in the magic square, upside down. Later versions of the print show that this was corrected.
Why would such a discovery have been kept secret? Click HERE
Page 4: ‘Ghost’ image
Did the artist somehow make a tiny mistake, possibly confused by the subject reversal that occurs when an image is projected in a camera obscura? Davies thinks so.
But we may never know. The Melancholia plate no longer survives and, so, finding physical evidence of a photographic connection seems unlikely.
In any case the detail on the plate would have worn thin after several hundred prints were made from it. ‘It was an incredibly popular print. I don’t think it would have lasted Dürer?s lifetime, He would have run off as many impressions as he possibly could,’ says Bartrum.
Davies remains undeterred, despite lacking evidence as to how the image would have been fixed.
He believes that the artist must have possessed an extensive knowledge of mathematics, alchemy. geometry, astronomy and optics to, first, conceive the drawing and then photograph it onto a light-sensitive copper plate inside a camera obscura. The only person with such skills, according to Davies, was Da Vinci.
Dürer?s connection with Da Vinci also lies in their sharing the same ‘mentor in mathematics’, Luca Pacioli, adds Davies.
Furthermore, he concludes, the artwork contains an unexplained image on the stone in the left of the picture which leads him to believe this is ‘ghost’ image, left behind on the plate from a previous exposure – similar to an effect seen on some daguerreotypes.
But, if true, why would such a momentous discovery have been kept secret? The answer is simple, says Davies, given that Da Vinci was already famous.
‘I believe Leonardo destroyed the [photographic] process afterwards to retain the working life of fellow artists.’