Did The Mona Lisa Ever Smile? How a Pair of 14th C. Artists Skewed Her Description

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What lies behind the smile of Leonardo da Vinci’s famed Mona Lisa?

A pair of 14th century artists may have altered the famous woman’s expression, a new study suggests.

Leonardo likely made two versions of his portrait of Lisa del Giocondo — Mona Lisa’s real first name — but only one is thought to have survived, according to the study published today (March 10) in the journal Open Arts. In it, she looks straight at the viewer with a smile on her lips. The other, created by a follower of Leonardo’s named Francesco Melzi d’Eril, shows her looking slightly downward with a more pensive expression. [The 25 Most Influential Artworks Ever]

Researchers think Melzi d’Eril may have made changes to the painting because he thought it looked too happy and didn’t fit with what was considered an ideal depiction of a woman at that time. It also could be that he was trying to make sure he captured what Leonardo had been aiming for. “It is conceivable that Francesco wanted to make sure that he produced a faithful copy and not something out of keeping with the original,” study author Erica Morley, an art history lecturer at University College London said in a statement.


A few years ago, the Louvre in Paris unveiled a new exhibit: The Secrets of the Mona Lisa. The room was designed to look like a Renaissance workshop. In an adjoining room were replicas of Leonardo’s notebooks, including his famous “mirror writing.”

But the most startling revelation came on a video screen. It ran through the history of the Mona Lisa and its creator, Leonardo da Vinci.

The video claimed that in 1479 — almost 20 years before da Vinci painted her — two artists named Filippo Lippi and Andrea del Verrocchio created a painting they called La Gioconda (the happy woman). The exhibit said that after da Vinci painted his version of the same woman, she became known as La Joconde (the lady), or simply the Mona Lisa.

In other words, the Mona Lisa was born centuries before Leonardo painted her smile. And it wasn’t until much later that people started calling her by that name.

“This is one of those stories you hear and say to yourself, ‘I never knew that,'” said Andrew Graham-Dixon, a British art critic. “And then you think back over what you’ve learned about this painting over time and think, ‘Actually,

The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. But what do we know about her? Very little. The popular image of her is…

…that she never smiled. Da Vinci’s portrait, say many people, is a “sad painting.”**

But did she really never smile? What do the descriptions of her say? And what did Leonardo’s contemporaries think about her?

Leonardo took pains to describe his work, and he described La Gioconda as smiling: “She is laughing at me.”** But later writers decided she wasn’t. A 17th century biographer even wrote that Leonardo took back his description: “the mouth not appearing to him to be so well executed as he wished, he wished it had been painted again.”

Over the centuries, her smile has come to be known as enigmatic, mysterious and even sultry, but the real Lisa was likely just missing a front tooth.

That is the finding of a pair of art detectives who have used forensic methods to peer behind layers of repainting and offer a new reading of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

They say that the subject of the painting was most likely Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a 15th century cloth and silk merchant in Florence, Italy, and that she was probably not much more than 25 years old when da Vinci began work on what would become one of the world’s most recognizable paintings.

A study by Maurizio Seracini and Roberto Fornisieri published this week in the online journal Plos One suggests that da Vinci was not aiming for an impression of timelessness. In fact, he may have created an image that intentionally changed as Lisa aged. The researchers said that her face appears smoother and rounder in early copies of the painting than in later ones – possibly because she had lost her front tooth or suffered from smallpox.

“Our data allow us to state unequivocally that Lisa del Giocondo had different facial features at different ages

The Mona Lisa was a beautiful woman, with a beautiful smile. But the world’s most famous painting of her has her face fixed in an enigmatic half smile. What happened?

The answer is that Leonardo da Vinci painted her picture twice, separated by about 15 years. The first time around, he used colored chalk to make a cartoon – a full-scale drawing on paper – from which he created a smaller painting (the one we all know). The second time around, he redid his cartoon, this time in oils and on a larger scale. It is the second version that has survived.

What happened to the original cartoon? As so often happens with masterpieces, it was not treated like a valuable work of art; it was treated like wallpaper. The cartoon was reused as part of a mural in another castle, where it deteriorated and was eventually destroyed. In fact, it wasn’t until 1750 that anyone realized what had happened to the original drawing.*

In the first place, it wasn’t considered important enough to be worth preserving: Leonardo’s cartoons were literally disposable works.* But there was another reason: Leonardo’s original drawing showed Lisa del Giocondo with quite a different expression from her iconic smile.* So why did Giuliano de’ Medici

As the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is a familiar sight to most art lovers. But how much do they know about the painting itself? If you asked them what the title means, they might say “girl” or “lady.” And if you asked them where the Mona Lisa was painted, they might say “at Leonardo’s house.”

In fact, Mona Lisa was a nickname that came after the painting was finished and had nothing to do with its subject. And the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo was painted not at Leonardo’s house but in the home of Francesco del Giocondo, her husband.

The only reason we’re talking today about Leonardo’s relationship with this particular woman is because two painters – one a century before him and one a century after – decided that he did and made sure that everyone else believed it too.

The first artist to puzzle over this painting and wonder who she was was Giorgio Vasari. He knew that Leonardo had worked for Francesco and his wife Lisa, who may have been related to Leonardo’s landlord. The fact that their last name was del Giocondo suggested that she might have been part of a family of artists. He must have known

The secret of a Leonardo is that he painted smiles. When you look at the Mona Lisa, you don’t see this right away. You see her enigmatic smile, but you don’t notice that it isn’t the only one in the painting. There are several other faces in the picture that have what the French call “la petite joconde” — a little bit of Mona Lisa.

But there’s one face that has more than a little bit of Mona Lisa — it has her whole smile. This is a man who, from the moment he steps into the frame, is having fun. It’s clear from his posture, from his grin, and even from his haircut (which was unusual for its day). He’s got some kind of story to tell, and he’s anxious to get going and tell it. He wants to tell it so badly, in fact, that he’s got his hand up in front of his mouth as if to hold back a laugh. In life he would have been hard to resist; in art he can’t be resisted at all.

It is a thoroughly amazing smile — not only because it comes from a man no one can identify with any certainty (who he was remains one of the great mysteries of Western art

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