The Mystery of the Mona Lisa Painting

by Elaine Anderson
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Is the "Mona Lisa" DaVinci's self-portrait?

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For centuries Leonardo DaVinci's painting, the "Mona Lisa," has puzzled and fascinated viewers. Controversy swarms around everything from the very identity of the woman to smaller details like her lack of eyebrows. Theories abound about the mysteries of the work, and as of 2011, few concrete answers have been found.

Identity

Many scholars and artists once believed that the "Mona Lisa" was a painting that Da Vinci did as a commission for a nobleman, perhaps of a wife or daughter. However, traditionally these paintings had some marker on them denoting the subject, information devoid on the "Mona Lisa." Others speculate that she is a local girl from Bobbio, a medieval town bordering the Trebbia valley in northern Italy. Some other theories speculate that a secret code was left behind by Da Vinci in the Mona Lisa's eyes, or that her depiction is actually a self-portrait of the artist. Italian researcher Silvano Vinceti claims that in the pupil of her right eye are the letters "LV" and in the left possibly "BS," and he says that an inscription of "L2" leads to the conclusion that she could be someone from Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan's court. Finally, researcher Giorgio Gruppioni has been seeking to get permission to exhume the artist's remains in order to perform a facial reconstruction and compare it to the face of the Mona Lisa.

The Smile

Mona Lisa's smile has seemed to come and go, flickering in intensity, for viewers over the centuries. This flickering has led her portrait to seem almost alive and her expression to seem mysterious and ambiguous. However, as skilled as Da Vinci was as an artist, his skills cannot necessarily explain this phenomenon. Harvard neuroscientist Margaret Livingstone has discovered the root of this seeming mirage-like smile: human visual processing. When humans look at a person's face, they tend to focus on the eyes. When a person looks at the Mona Lisa's eyes, one sees only a shadowy peripheral vision of her mouth, and it appears to be smiling. But when one looks directly at her mouth, the smile is gone. This effect is enhanced by the shadows coming down from her high cheekbones.

Landscape

Until recently the landscape of the "Mona Lisa" was considered to be an idealized rendering of the Italian countryside. But the author of "The Leonardo Enigma," Carla Glori, believes the bridge in the landscape to be the key to its exact location. She says that an inscription below the bridge of "72" indicates the year 1472, the year that a flood swept away the bridge in the medieval town of Bobbio.

Other Details

Other smaller mysteries of the Mona Lisa include minor details of the paining. For instance, scholars have long postulated that she was never painted with eyebrows because during the time period of the painting it was fashionable for women to pluck their eyebrows completely away. French engineer Pascal Cotte scanned the picture using ultraviolet and infrared technology to peel away centuries of alterations to show what she would have looked like to Da Vinci's contemporaries. He discovered a long brushstroke over her left eye, revealing that she once had eyebrows. He also discovered details of lace on her dress and that the painting, unlike many earlier speculations, was painted on uncut poplar board.

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