Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Contents -

The pe­cu­liar power – and se­crets – of the most fa­mous paint­ing in the world.

Mona Lisa mys­tery #1: Who was Mona Lisa?

Over the past cen­tury, it has been pro­posed that Mona Lisa was a no­ble­woman – Is­abella d’Este, Mar­quise of Man­tua, or Costanza d’Ava­los, Duchess of Fran­cav­illa. Others have stared at that un­set­tling vis­age and seen the face of a man – Leonardo da Vinci him­self, or the man who was for 20 years his as­sis­tant (and per­haps his lover), Gian Gi­a­como Caprotti. There is even a the­ory that the pic­ture may have started out as a por­trait from

As the most fa­mous paint­ing in the world, the Mona Lisa draws more than six mil­lion ad­mir­ers to the Lou­vre each year. Just what is her pe­cu­liar power?


life but, over the years that Leonardo worked on it, evolved into an ab­stract vi­sion of the fem­i­nine ideal.

Th­ese days, most ex­perts agree that the Mona Lisa is a por­trait of Lisa Gher­ar­dini del Gio­condo, wife of a Floren­tine silk mer­chant named Francesco del Gio­condo (hence the name by which she is known in Italy and France, La Gio­conda, or La Jo­conde). When she sat for Leonardo da Vinci, in around 1503, she was about 24 years old. Her con­trap­posto pose – with the body an­gled away from the viewer, head turned for­ward – was widely ad­mired and copied by Leonardo’s con­tem­po­raries. And his sfu­mato tech­nique, where sharp edges are blurred to cre­ate an un­can­nily life­like ef­fect, was seen as a bril­liant tech­ni­cal in­no­va­tion, very un­like the slightly frozen hu­man fig­ures of ear­lier, lesser painters.

Mona Lisa mys­tery #2: The hid­den ini­tials

In 2010, Sil­vano Vinceti, chair­man of Italy’s Na­tional Com­mit­tee for Cul­tural Her­itage, claimed to have dis­cerned let­ters minutely painted on Mona Lisa’s eyes: L and V (Leonardo da Vinci’s ini­tials) in the right eye, and per­haps C, E or B in the left. The Lou­vre re­sponded that Vinceti’s let­ters were sim­ply mi­cro­scopic cracks in the paint.

Mona Lisa mys­tery #3: The bro­ken back­drop

The dis­tant, dream­like vista be­hind Mona Lisa’s head seems to be higher on the right-hand side than on the left. It is hard to see how the land­scape would join up. This is sub­lim­i­nally un­set­tling: Mona Lisa ap­pears taller, more erect, when one’s gaze drifts to the left than when it is on the right.

Mona Lisa mys­tery #4: The be­witch­ing smile

In 2000, sci­en­tists at Har­vard Univer­sity sug­gested a neu­ro­log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion for Mona Lisa’s elu­sive smile. When a viewer looks at her eyes, the mouth is in pe­riph­eral vi­sion, which sees in black and white. This ac­cen­tu­ates the shad­ows at the cor­ners of her mouth, mak­ing the smile seem broader. But the smile di­min­ishes when you look straight at it. It is the vari­abil­ity of her smile, the fact that it changes when you look away from it, that makes her seem so alive, so mys­te­ri­ous.

The vari­abil­ity of her smile … makes her seem so alive, and so mys­te­ri­ous

Mona Lisa mys­tery #5: The un­known bridge

The Mona Lisa’s back­ground land­scape seems un­real, but the bridge might be one that Leonardo knew. It is usu­ally said to be Ponte Buri­ano in Tus­cany, but in 2011, a re­searcher

claimed it de­picts the Bob­bio Bridge over the Treb­bia, which was washed away in a flood in 1472.

Mona Lisa mys­tery #6: Da Vinci’s ob­ses­sion

Leonardo da Vinci worked on the paint­ing for four years, and pos­si­bly at in­ter­vals af­ter that. He al­ways took it with him when he trav­elled, and he never signed or dated it. The pic­ture went with him when, to­wards the end of his life, he moved to France. It was sold to his last pa­tron, King François I, and re­mained out of sight in the royal col­lec­tion for al­most 200 years. In 1799 Napoleon came across the paint­ing and com­man­deered it for his bed­room. Only in 1804 did the Mona Lisa go on pub­lic dis­play – in the newly founded Lou­vre Mu­seum. At that time, it was not seen as par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing, but in the mid­dle of the 19th cen­tury Leonardo’s stock as an artist slowly rose. He came to be seen as the equal of the two ac­knowl­edged Re­nais­sance greats, Michelan­gelo and Raphael. This new

in­ter­est in Leonardo as a painter drew at­ten­tion to his few known works.

Mona Lisa mys­tery #7: Was Mona Lisa un­well?

Mona Lisa has of­ten been scru­ti­nised by med­i­cal ex­perts. In 2010, an Ital­ian doc­tor looked at the swelling around her eyes and di­ag­nosed ex­cess choles­terol in her diet. Other con­di­tions as­cribed to her in­clude fa­cial paral­y­sis, deaf­ness, even syphilis. More hap­pily, it has been sug­gested that the look of con­tent­ment on her face in­di­cates she is preg­nant. Den­tists have also posited brux­ism, com­pul­sive grinding of the teeth; or that the line of her top lip sug­gests that her front teeth are miss­ing – which, along with the faintest hint of a scar on her lip, raises the pos­si­bil­ity that she was a vic­tim of do­mes­tic vi­o­lence. Jun­gians have seen her as an ac­com­plished rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the an­ima, the fe­male archetype that re­sides in each one of us. It seems that al­most any con­di­tion can be read into that puz­zling face.

The Lou­vre Mu­seum in Paris has been home to the Mona Lisa for more than 200 years


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