The mystery of the Mona Lisa smile is that the mystery has finally been solved.
Lisa del Giocondo is amused watching Leonardo da Vinci’s head pop out from behind the easel as he paints her portrait and smiles that illusive smile.
‘Yes, yes, lovely, dear. Keep your head still. Don’t move your lips…’
‘I’ll try not to,’ she says, moving her lips.
It’s hardly surprising the Mona Lisa smile has been the subject of speculation – and adoration – for centuries. Lisa on those warm days in the studio must have looked into the future and realised her likeness would always give others something to talk about.
Leonardo painted the young Italian noblewoman in oil on a wooden panel between 1503 and 1506. He was fascinated by the portrait. He never surrendered it to the Giocondo family and kept going back to make minor changes as poets do with their lines of verse. He finally bequeathed the work in his will to his favourite apprentice, the handsome Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, whom he called ‘Salaí’ – Little Devil.
The mystery of the Mona Lisa smile gathered interest through the columns of art critique thanks to the apparent movement of her Lisa’s lips. According to the light, or a minute change of angle, the viewer sees a momentary glimpse of that enigmatic smile, only for it to disappear with a blink of the eye.
Mona Lisa and the Uncatchable Smile
For years – centuries – the effect was thought to have been happenstance or the whim of imagination. That was until scientists at Sheffield Hallam University in 2015 made an extraordinary discovery.
After studying the master’s earlier La Bella Principessa, the team found that the vaguely trembling mobile lips was intentional, a second attempt at creating an optical illusion they called the ‘uncatchable smile.’ It was achieved by using the sfumato – soft or pale in Italian – technique, using colour and shading to create an appearance of motion around the mouth, a momentary look of contentment.
La Bella Principessa is the portrait of 13-year-old Bianca, the illegitimate daughter of Milanese Duke Ludovico Sforza, commissioned on the eve of her marriage in 1496. The painting was believed to have been the work of an anonymous 19th century German artist imitating the Renaissance style, but radio carbon dating showed the vellum from a much earlier time and in 2010 the work was attributed to Leonardo.
Until 1911, the Mona Lisa was displayed among various Renaissance paintings in the Louvre and was largely ignored. Its celebrity grew when it was stolen and an international hunt with a 25,000 francs reward failed to recover the portrait.
The police, after a tip off, finally found the painting hanging on the wall in the bohemian apartment of Guillaume Apollinaire, socialite, poet, adventurer, he produced some of the most important art criticism of the 20th century and, like the Mona Lisa, was little known except in art circles. As her renown flourished – so did his.
Apollinaire claimed he removed the work as a demonstration that the guards did not do a good job protecting the Louvre’s collection. He spent a week in the jailhouse and wrote without punctuation the celebrated poem A la Prison de la Sante, published in the volume Alcools. He is credited with coining the term ‘Cubism’ in 1911 to describe the emerging art movement led by Picasso, the term Orphism in 1912, and the word ‘Surrealism’ in 1917 to describe the works of Erik Satie.
One man who lived through and contributed to all those movements was the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, who clearly believed in the mystery of the Mona Lisa smile and added on a print of the painting a playful addition – using a pencil, he gave Giocondo a moustache and goatee beard. He titled the piece L.H.O.O.Q., which in French sounds like the phrase ‘elle a chaud au cul,’ roughly translated as ‘she’s got a hot ass.’ At a sale of the collection of surrealist works owned by American Arthur Brandt at Sotheby’s in Paris in 2017, with 110 pieces fetching $3.9 million, Duchamp’s meddling with the Mona Lisa smile fetched $632,500.
Filmmaker Neil Jordan borrowed the name Mona Lisa to title his 1986 box office hit about an ex-convict who becomes entangled in the dangerous life of a high-class call girl. In 2003, Julia Roberts took the lead role in Mike Newell’s Mona Lisa Smile, earning a record $25 million for her performance, the highest ever earned by an actress at that time.
No wonder Mona Lisa is still smiling. Her portrait attracts millions to the Louvre each year and is now displayed behind bulletproof glass. She is insured for $1 billion.