Last week news broke that an Italian television producer is going to exhume the body of Lisa Gherardini, the woman long believed to be the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Outside of the fact that this isn’t the first time there’s been talk of exhuming a body to solve one of the painting’s many mysteries, the news made me wonder why we’re so captivated by the Mona Lisa. Just about every six months something new pops up in the news about this 492-year-old painting. Last February an Italian researcher claimed proof that the model for the painting was a man; and two months earlier, in December, the media and the art world were buzzing about tiny letters and numbers found in Mona Lisa’s eyes.
And here’s a (by no means exhaustive) run-down of some of the last decade’s other big Mona Lisa newsbites (pay particular attention to the shear amount of time and resources that have been poured into this painting over the years!):
- In 2005, a “University of Amsterdam computer using ‘emotion recognition’ software” concluded that the model for the Mona Lisa “was 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful and 2% angry.”
- In 2006, the world’s “leading acoustics expert” studied the painting for a month and used a research team and a database of more than 150,000 voices to “recreate the voice” of the woman depicted in the Mona Lisa.
- 2007: A French Engineer scanned the painting with a 240 million-pixel camera and, after 3,000 hours of analysis with a team of French and Canadian scientists, proved some of the following: that “the lady does indeed have eyebrows” (It had been long believed that the model for the painting was painted without eyebrows or eyelashes); that the smile was originally more expressive; and that “the woman depicted in [the painting] was either pregnant or had recently given birth.”
- 2010: A team of French scientists beamed “an X-ray fluorescence spectroscope at the canvas” to detect “each layer of glaze, paint and pigment.” From this they were able to determine how Da Vinci was able to give the painting “the lifelike shadows and tones that give [the painting] a sense of depth and reality.”
- Also in 2010: A Palermo University doctor, through an examination of the painting, diagnosed the woman as having not only “a build-up of fatty acids under the skin caused by too much cholesterol” but also “a lipoma, or benign fatty-tissue tumour in her right eye.”
- 2011: The writer of a new book about Da Vinci, using historical records and the recently-found “7” and “2” numbers concealed in the painting background’s stone bridge, theorized the location of the painting’s setting to be “Bobbio, a village which lies in rugged hill country south of Piacenza, in northern Italy.”
The amount of time and money that have gone into solving the “mysteries” of this painting is incredible. Not to mention the ethical issues (Exhuming bodies?).
So why are we so fascinated by this painting?
The Origin of our Fascination
Probably the popularity of Dan Brown’s best-selling The Da Vinci Code has something to do with it, and how that helped communicate to the larger culture Da Vinci’s reputation for embedding codes and esotericism into his work. But also, I found a 2002 article in The Guardian that explains “the myth of the Mona Lisa was born out of 19th-century northern Europe’s fascination with the Italian Renaissance in general, and Leonardo in particular.” And the fact that:
“almost everything about [the Mona Lisa painting] is obscure. We don’t know precisely when it was painted, we don’t know for certain who she is, and as we stare at her puzzling features for the umpteenth time we are inclined to ask ourselves: what is it about her?”
Still… it is just a painting, isn’t it?
Ridding the Emotion from the Art
What I also find interesting is the effect all of this might have on the painting as a work of art. It could be argued that all of this analysis has the cumulative effect of taking the “art” out of the piece. It reduces the painting to a puzzle and rids it of the emotion that Da Vinci poured into it.
In Any Case…
In any case, I look forward to reading about whatever else is discovered about this painting and the woman (man?) who modeled for it. We already know her voice, how poor her diet and health were, and just how happy and fearful she was at the time of the modeling (or how happy Da Vinci decided to make her.) What else can we find out? While Lisa Gherardini’s body is being exhumed in Florence maybe a team of scientists are slaving away somewhere to determine, I don’t know, just how unhappy her 16th-century childhood was?
Tell us what you think of all of this sound and fury below…