Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Speculation about Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda (La Joconde) is a 16th-century portrait painted in oil on a poplar panel by Leonardo Da Vinci. Perhaps the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa is the subject of a great deal of theorizing and speculation.[1]



Columns and trimming

Early copy of the Mona Lisa showing the columns, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore
Early copy of the Mona Lisa showing the columns, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore

It has for a long time been argued that after Leonardo's death the painting was cut down by having part of the panel at both sides removed. Early copies depict columns on both sides of the figure. Only the edges of the bases can be seen in the original.[2][3] However, some art historians, such as Martin Kemp, now argue that the painting has not been altered, and that the columns depicted in the copies were added by the copyists. The latter view was bolstered during 2004 and 2005 when an international team of 39 specialists undertook the most thorough scientific examination of the Mona Lisa yet undertaken. Beneath the frame (the current one was fitted to the Mona Lisa in 2004) there was discovered a "reserve" around all four edges of the panel. A reserve is an area of bare wood surrounding the gessoed and painted portion of the panel. That this is a genuine reserve, and not the result of removal of the gesso or paint is demonstrated by a raised edge still existing around the gesso, the result of build up from the edge of brush strokes at the edge of the gesso area.

The reserve area, which was likely to have been as much as 20 mm originally appears to have been trimmed at some point probably to fit a frame (we know that in the 1906 framing it was the frame itself which was trimmed, not the picture, so it must have been earlier), however at no point has any of Leonardo's actual paint been trimmed. Therefore the columns in early copies must be inventions of those artists, or copies of another (unknown) studio version of Mona Lisa.

Other versions

It has been suggested that Leonardo created more than one version of the painting. The owners of the version known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa claim that it is an original, though the great majority of art historians believe it to be a later copy by an unknown artist. The same claim has been made for a version in the Vernon collection.[4] Another version, dating from c.1616 was given in c.1790 to Joshua Reynolds by the Duke of Leeds in exchange for a Reynolds self-portrait. Reynolds thought it to be the real painting and the French one a copy, which has now been disproved. It is, however, useful in that it was copied when the original's colors were far brighter than they are now, and so it gives some sense of the original's appearance 'as new'. It is in a private collection, but was exhibited in 2006 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.[5] There are also copies of the image in which the figure appears nude. These have also led to speculation that they were copied from a lost Leonardo original depicting Lisa naked.[6]

A cartoon for Mona Lisa attributed to Leonardo
A cartoon for Mona Lisa attributed to Leonardo


Mona Lisa's smile has repeatedly been a subject of many - greatly varying - interpretations. Sigmund Freud interpreted the 'smile' as signifying Leonardo's erotic attraction to his mother.[7] Others have described the smile as both innocent and inviting. Many researchers have tried to explain why the smile is seen so differently by people. The explanations range from scientific theories about human vision to curious supposition about Mona Lisa's identity and feelings. Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University has argued that the smile is mostly drawn in low spatial frequencies, and so can best be seen from a distance or with one's peripheral vision. Thus, for example, the smile appears more striking when looking at the portrait's eyes than when looking at the mouth itself.[8][9][10] Christopher Tyler and Leonid Kontsevich of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute in San Francisco believe that the changing nature of the smile is caused by variable levels of random noise in human visual system.[11] Dina Goldin, Adjunct Professor at Brown University, has argued that the secret is in the dynamic position of Mona Lisa's facial muscles, where our mind's eye unconsciously extends her smile; the result is an unusual dynamicity to the face that invokes subtle yet strong emotions in the viewer of the painting.[12]

In late 2005, Dutch researchers from the University of Amsterdam ran the painting's image through "emotion recognition" computer software developed in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The technology demonstration found the smile to be 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, 2% angry, less than 1% neutral, and 0% surprised.[13][14]

Eyebrows and eyelashes

One long-standing mystery of the painting is why Mona Lisa apparently does not have any eyebrows or eyelashes. In October 2007, Pascal Cotte, a French engineer and inventor, says that he discovered with a high-definition camera that Leonardo da Vinci originally did paint eyebrows and eyelashes. Creating an ultra-high resolution close-up that magified Mona Lisa's face 24 times, Cotte says he found a single brushstroke of a single hair above the left brow. "One day I say, if I can find only one hair, only one hair of the eyebrow, I will have definitively the proof that originally Leonardo da Vinci had painted eyelash and eyebrow," said Cotte. The engineer claims that other eyebrows that potentially could have appeared on the painting may have faded or been inadvertently erased by a poor attempt to clean the painting. In addition, Cotte says his work uncovered proof that her hands were originally painted in a slightly different position than in the final portrait.[15]

Giorgio Vasari's Lives of Artists describes the painting as having thick eyebrows; however, while this may mean that the eyebrows and lashes were accidentally removed, it could also mean that Vasari did not have first-hand knowledge of the work.


Various alternatives to the traditional identification of the sitter have been proposed. During the last years of his life, Leonardo spoke of a portrait "of a certain Florentine lady done from life at the request of the magnificent Giuliano de' Medici." No evidence has been found that indicates a link between Lisa del Giocondo and Giuliano de' Medici, but then the comment could instead refer to one of the two other portraits of women executed by Leonardo. A later anonymous statement created confusion when it linked the Mona Lisa to a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo himself — perhaps the origin of the controversial idea that it is the portrait of a man.

Comparison to Leonardo's self-portrait
Comparison to Leonardo's self-portrait

Dr. Lillian F. Schwartz of Bell Labs suggests that the Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait. She supports this theory with the results of a digital analysis of the facial features of Leonardo's face and that of the famous painting. When a self-portrait drawing by Leonardo is reversed and then merged with an image of the Mona Lisa using a computer, the features of the faces align perfectly.[16] Critics of this theory suggest that the similarities are due to both portraits being painted by the same person using the same style. Additionally, the drawing on which she based the comparison may not be a self-portrait. Serge Bramly, in his biography of Leonardo, discusses the possibility that the portrait depicts the artist's mother Caterina. This would account for the resemblance between artist and subject observed by Dr. Schwartz, and would explain why Leonardo kept the portrait with him wherever he traveled, until his death.

Isabella of Aragon, Raphael, Doria Pamphilj Gallery
Isabella of Aragon, Raphael, Doria Pamphilj Gallery

Art historians have also suggested the possibility that the Mona Lisa may only resemble Leonardo by accident: as an artist with a great interest in the human form, Leonardo would have spent a great deal of time studying and drawing the human face, and the face most often accessible to him was his own, making it likely that he would have the most experience with drawing his own features. The similarity in the features of the people depicted in paintings such as the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist may thus result from Leonardo's familiarity with his own facial features, causing him to draw other, less familiar faces in a similar light.

Some have seen a facial similarity between the Mona Lisa and other paintings, such as St. John the Baptist.
Some have seen a facial similarity between the Mona Lisa and other paintings, such as St. John the Baptist.

The art expert Dr. Henry Pulitzer suggested that the portrait was possibly that of Constanza d'Avalos, duchess of Francavilla, a patroness of Leonardo, and mistress of Giuliano de Medici. D'Avalos, coincidentally, was also nicknamed 'La Gioconda'.[17]

Maike Vogt-Lüerssen argues that the woman behind the famous smile is Isabella of Aragon, the Duchess of Milan. Leonardo was the court painter for the Duke of Milan for 11 years. The pattern on Mona Lisa's dark green dress, Vogt-Lüerssen believes, indicates that she was a member of the house of Sforza. Her theory is that the Mona Lisa was the first official portrait of the new Duchess of Milan, which requires that it was painted in spring or summer 1489 (and not 1503). This theory is allegedly supported by another portrait of Isabella of Aragon, painted by Raphael, (Doria Pamphilj Gallery, Rome).

Historian Giuseppe Pallanti published Monna Lisa, Mulier Ingenua (Mona Lisa: Real Woman, published in English under the title Mona Lisa Revealed: The True Identity of Leonardo's Model).[18] The book gathered archival evidence in support of the traditional identification of the model as Lisa. According to Pallanti, the evidence suggests that Leonardo's father was a friend of del Giocondo. "The portrait of Mona Lisa, done when Lisa del Giocondo was aged about 24, was probably commissioned by Leonardo's father himself for his friends as he is known to have done on at least one other occasion."[19][20] In 2007, genealogist Domenico Savini identified the princesses Natalia and Irina Strozzi as descendants of Lisa del Giocondo.[21] Scan data obtained in 2004 suggested that the painting dated from around 1503 and commemorated the birth of the Giocondo's second son.[22][23]

Notwithstanding the variety of theories, the recent findings of Heidelberg academics, noted above, confirm the traditional identification of Lisa del Gioconda.[24]

Rationale for painting

Mona Lisa certainly never belonged to the Giocondi, as Leonardo had it with him in France and it was sold to King François I of France there. Why Leonardo should have painted it remains unclear; it would have been an unusual portrait commission from a family such as the Giocondi at this date - most portraits of the "borghesia", even the Medici, were still much smaller and simpler.

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