Every year, about 6 million people visit the Musée du Louvre in Paris to see Leonardo Da Vinci's famous portrait, Mona Lisa. An oil painting on poplar wood, the portrait was started by Da Vinci in 1503 and took about four years to complete, although he is believed to have continued working on it even after that. For centuries afterward, his talent and ingenuity sparked many debates and a multitude of theories in an effort to uncover the mysteries behind the Mona Lisa. The two biggest mysteries are her identity and the nature of her smile.
Who is Mona Lisa?
Many questions arose over the years as to the true identity of the woman in the portrait. The Italians call her La Gioconda, which means "the lighthearted woman." The French version, La Joconde, carries a similar meaning, provoking many thoughts and theories about the Mona Lisa. Most experts now believe that she is Lisa del Giocondo, the third wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo.
The title Mona Lisa is discussed in Da Vinci's biography, written and published by Giorgio Vasari in 1550. Vasari identified Lisa del Giocondo as the subject of the painting and pointed out that mona is commonly used in place of the Italian word madonna, which could be translated into English as "madam." Hence, the title Mona Lisa simply means "Madam Lisa." In addition, a note written by an Italian government clerk named Agostino Vespucci in 1503 identified Lisa del Giocondo as the subject of the painting.
Still, some experts believe that Lisa del Giocondo actually was the subject of another painting, leaving the identity of the woman in Mona Lisa in question. One popular theory suggests that she is the Duchess of Milan, Isabella of Aragon. Da Vinci was the family painter for the Duke of Milan for 11 years and could very well have painted the Duchess as the Mona Lisa.
Other researchers have stated that the painting could depict a mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, who reigned in Florence from 1512 to 1516, or various other women. A more recent thought is that it is the feminine version of Da Vinci himself. Digital analysis has revealed that Da Vinci's facial characteristics and those of the woman in the painting are almost perfectly aligned with one another.
How Does She Smile?
The enigmatic smile of the woman in the painting has been the source of inspiration for many and a cause for desperation in others. In 1852, Luc Maspero, a French artist, jumped four floors to his death from a hotel room in Paris. His suicide note explained that he preferred death after years of struggling to understand the mystery behind the woman's smile.
When discussing the mystery behind the smile, art experts often refer to a painting technique called sfumato, which was developed by Da Vinci. In Italian, sfumato means "vanished" or "smoky," implying that the portrait is ambiguous and blurry, leaving its interpretation to the viewer's imagination. This technique uses a subtle blend of tones and colors to produce the illusion of form, depth and volume.
The human eye consists of two regions: the fovea, or central area, and the surrounding peripheral area. The fovea recognizes details and colors and reads fine print, and the peripheral area identifies motion, shadows and black and white. When a person looks at the painting, the fovea focuses on her eyes, leaving the peripheral area on her mouth. Peripheral vision is less accurate and does not pick up details, so the shadows in her cheekbones augment the curvature of her smile.
When the viewer looks directly at the woman's mouth, however, the fovea does not pick up the shadows, and the portrait no longer appears to be smiling. Therefore, the appearance and disappearance of her smile really is an attribute of viewers' vision. This is one of the reasons why the painting has remained an enigma to art enthusiasts and perhaps the most famous painting in the world.