On the Trail of Da Vinci's Mystery Woman: 7 New Theories About the Mona Lisa

On the Trail of Da Vinci's Mystery Woman: 7 New Theories About the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa has intrigued its admirers for hundreds of years, leading generation after generation to hypothesize what secrets lie behind the side-glancing eyes of Leonardo da Vinci's muse. Of late, however, the ever-steady flow of supposed revelations about the enigmatic painting has swelled into a deluge — with scientific advancements adding potentially legitimate discoveries to the regular slew of crackpot claims. As a result, every new finding or da Vinci-code theory gets snapped up by the international press, from the bizarre to the notable to a mix of the two (and the Italians are indeed enamored of shooting laser beams and the like at artworks to solve centuries-old mysteries). To review the latest crop of Mona Lisa breakthroughs and/or crackpot claims, see ARTINFO's roundup below, where we puzzle over who and where the Mona Lisa is, and whither her eyebrows.




Leonardo da Vinci supposedly depicted the lovely lady not on just any luminous, mountainous backdrop, but in a specific geographic locale: Bobbio, a medieval town astride the Trebbia valley in northern Italy that boasted a famous library the artist may have visited. Carla Gloria, who authored a book on the painting that is due to be published this year, told the Guardian that "the twisting road from the painting can be found there, as is the arched bridge that Da Vinci would have seen from the windows of the town's castle."



According to Italian researcher Silvano Vinceti, there are miniscule letters painted onto the Mona Lisa's peepers that may offer a clue as to the identity of da Vinci's sly-countenanced model. The Guardian reports that Vinceti and his crew found the letters "LV" written, invisible to the naked eye, on the right pupil of the subject of Leonardo's painting. These are the artist's initials, clearly, but on the left pupil the researcher found the letters "BS" (ha), or maybe "CE." On the back of the work, Vinceti discovered the number "149" with a fourth number erased, leading him to believe that the work was made in the 1490s, rather than the early 1500s, as is commonly agreed. Under a bridge in the background of the painting, Vinceti noticed "72" or "L2," which he thinks is another clue toward understanding the portrait of, as he claims, someone from the court of Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan. Other experts assert all of this sleuthing is merely inspired by cracks that have appeared in the painting over time. Meanwhile, British critic Jonathan Jones argues that the identity of the Mona Lisa is incontestable, and that the 2007 discovery of a note describing Leonardo's progress in 1503 on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo confirms that the unremarkable middle-class woman, by whose name the painting is universally known in Paris, was the sitter.


Last week, a Canadian Classics professor decided that the Mona Lisa was one example of a Renaissance tradition of translating a literary passage into a work of art. Ross Killpatrick claims that Leonardo's painting is an interpretation or "invention," of passages from love poems by both Horace (Ode 1.22, about how singing of his smiling lover protects the poet from beasts while traveling through the wilderness) and Petrarch (Canzoniere CXLV and CLIX, both anguished love poems about a woman). Kilpatrick also believes that the bridge portrayed in the background of the painting is the same as the one found in Petrarch's hometown of Arezzo, according to Science Daily.


Philippe Walter and his fellow conservators used X-ray florescence on the Mona Lisa over the summer and learned about the cutting-edge sfumato techniques Leonardo da Vinci applied to the face of his portrait to produce the shadowing effects, which are shockingly fine and well-blended, and lack evidence of brushstrokes or fingerprints. The team was able to reconstruct the "recipes" Leonardo used — combinations of glaze, thinned paint, pigment, and additives, the BBC reported.


In late 2009, the question of the Mona Lisa's eyebrows was raised once again. While many had long asserted that the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's portrait was missing arched brows because it was common practice for wealthy noblewomen to pluck their eyebrows bare, a high-resolution photograph revealed that Leonardo had originally painted eyebrows. Using a highly light-sensitive camera that can depict underlayers of paint, Pascal Cotte discovered that the artist had laid down coats of pigment for the eyebrows. According to Cotte, the brows were likely wiped away during restorations, which also changed the hue of the Mona Lisa's skin. 


If you don't think researchers are digging deep enough to uncover the secrets of the Mona Lisa, look no further than the effort by Giorgio Gruppioni to obtain permission to unearth da Vinci's remains. Why? To create a reconstruction of the artist's face to compare to the visage of the Mona Lisa, and settle, once and for all, if the painting is actually a self-portrait.


An easier way to find out Mona Lisa's back story may be to probe the Renaissance master's diary. A manuscript in the hand of Leonardo da Vinci — and composed right-to-left in his frequent mirror-writing style — was discovered in early December 2010 in a library in the French city of Nantes, according to the BBC. While this document may just be chock-full of shocking news about the Renaissance artist and his work, for the moment such tidbits remain beyond our grasp, as the text is written in yet-to-be-deciphered code.