Warping Mona Lisa Nothing to Smile About, Experts Say

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
April 30, 2004

Her unknown identity has plagued art historians for centuries. Her enigmatic smile has seduced millions of art lovers. Now the mystery of the Mona Lisa is deepening.

Earlier this week the Louvre Museum in Paris, where the Renaissance masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci is housed, warned that "the thin panel of poplar wood, on which this mythical image is painted, is more warped than it was previously." Its deterioration, they said, has aroused "some worry."

Repairing the world's most famous artwork is no easy task, especially since da Vinci has an uncanny way of making life difficult for conservationists. Experts are unsure of the materials the Italian artist used and their current chemical state.

"Basically nobody wants to touch it, because nobody wants to mess it up," said Henri Zerner, a French art history professor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachussetts. "What if you—oops!—lost the ear of the Mona Lisa?"

Sfumato

Da Vinci painted the portrait in Italy over a long period beginning in 1505. The painting was immediately celebrated as a great work of art, and da Vinci himself loved it so much that he always carried it with him, until it was eventually sold to France's King François I.

The identity of the subject has long been fiercely debated. The most likely candidate is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo.

Another, many say outlandish, theory—revisited in novelist Dan Brown's hugely popular bestseller The Da Vinci Code—is that the painting was an androgynous self-portrait. Some see similarities between the facial features of the Mona Lisa and those of a da Vinci self-portrait painted years later.

Da Vinci used a technique known as sfumato—the blurring of sharp edges by blending colors—to leave the corners of the eyes and the mouth in shadow.

"It's an extraordinarily rich portrait. That is what portraiture is about: an effort to stop time," said David Rosand, an art history professor at Columbia University in New York. "The beauty of that face will last forever, but in life it will not."

Mocking Quality

According to Margaret Livingstone, a professor of neurobiology at Harvard University, the Mona Lisa's smile is so elusive that it disappears when looked at directly.

Continued on Next Page >>


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