The secret to the Mona Lisa smile

Who’s that girl, you might say, of the woman behind one of the most famous and iconic paintings in art. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is widely accepted to be a truly masterful portrait of a strangely beguiling woman, all at once demure, yet knowing, her restrained smile – or is it a smirk? – indecipherable. Until now that is… possibly.
Archaeologists working in Florence have uncovered skeletal bones underneath a derelict nunnery, which was previously known as the Convent of Saint Ursula. It is believed to belong to Lisa Gherardini, widely considered to be the lady behind the Mona Lisa, though, hence the mystery; no one has ever been able to authenticate this prevailing belief.
“We don’t know yet if the bones belong to one single skeleton or more than one,” commented Silvano Vinceti, an archaeologist and lead digger for this excavation. “But this confirms our hypothesis that in Saint Ursula convent there are still human bones and we cannot exclude that among them there are bones belonging to Lisa Gherardini.”
Interest in the woman behind Da Vinci’s sublime work of art, which was painted between 1503 and 1506, and is now on permanent display in Paris at the Musée du Louvre, has never diminished, making it, in the words of the Independent’s John Lichfield: “The best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world.”
That very much is a self-evident truth, so much so, that aside from attributing the model’s poised gaze and general countenance to Ms Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant, endless rumours have circulated about every inch of the canvas and its resonance beyond just art.
One claim is that it is in fact a self-portrait of Da Vinci, which, although outlandish, is given credibility by the supposed masculinity of the woman in question. Furthermore, quite elaborately, an actual self-portrait – though possibly not, such is the ambiguity of the whole conspiracy – if reversed and then aligned with the Mona Lisa, is found to fit perfectly. It’s almost so preposterous that it becomes hard to ignore.
Another idea, very recent in fact, is the idea that the painted eyes in the Mona Lisa contain hidden numbers and signals. Again, as bizarre as it may appear, this was the conclusion of Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage.
In 2010, the president of the committee, Silvano Vinceti, said that to the naked eye, the eyes appeared routine, though of course, enthralling. However, once viewed with considerablymagnification – high resolution preserved – letters can be seen. In the right eye, LV is allegedly visible. In the left eye, they’re not so obvious.
“It is very difficult to make them out clearly but they appear to be the letters CE or it could be the letter B – you have to remember the picture is almost 500 years old so it is not as sharp and clear as when first painted,” the art expert told the Telegraph at the time.
Such ideas have greater credence in a world after The Da Vinci Code. Dan Brown’s blockbuster of an action book delivered a rip-roaring page-turning story of mystery and subterfuge surrounding the many paintings by the famous Renaissance painter, enthralling to those who wanted to be entertained, irritating to those who saw it as deviating widely from fact, forgetting somewhat that it was a novel after all.
Whatever the outcome of the findings in Florence by archaeologists, one thing is assured: the Mona Lisa will remain a fascinating work of art, one that will still elicit new scholarly analysis, whether thematically based or a further study of what were revolutionary techniques.
With reference to the latter, Da Vinci approached the composition of the painting through “sfumato”, which literally translates as “gone up in smoke”. The technique basically involves layering up unusually fine strokes to create tone, depth and colours. Even his contemporaries, like the great Michelangelo, were awed by his breathtaking ability to seemingly create new ideas, impossible almost.
It’s a waiting game now to discover the identity of the remains – which they will do, in part, through DNA analysis (compared against the bones of Ms Gherardini’s two sons) – so in the meantime, it makes sense to spend some time getting reacquainted with the painting. We cannot forget that smile.
Mona Lisa only has eyes for me,” explained R.A. Scott, an author. “There is no other. No one more interesting, more intelligent, more compelling. And what is extraordinary, if a dozen others crowd into this room, each one will feel the same. Each person who looks at her becomes the only person in her world. It is flattering and, at the same time, maddening, because she gives away nothing of herself.”