Visual Art

Mona Lisa: still mysterious after all these years

The Globe and Mail

This picture made available Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2011, by the Italian National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environment Heritage, shows a detail of the right eye of Leonardo da Vinci's 16th century masterpiece the "Mona Lisa" painting. Italian researcher Silvano Vinceti, president of the Italian National Committee for Historical, Cultural and Environment Heritage, claims he has found the letter "S" in the woman's left eye, the letter "L" in her right eye, and the number "72" under the arched bridge in the backdrop of Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting. According to the researcher, the symbols, not visible to the naked eye, open up new leads to identifying the model, dating the painting, and attesting to Leonardo's interest in religion and mysticism. (AP)

THE FAME GAME

Lampooned, cartooned, dragooned and adored, the Mona Lisa remains the world's most famous work of art 500 or so years after its creation by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). Its persistence as such may, in fact, be the greatest of the painting's supposed mysteries - mysteries that seem to have been imagined more by its beholders than embedded by Leonardo himself. Certainly, as visitors to the Louvre, primary home of Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo since the late 18th century, can attest, it's a rather unprepossessing painting to enjoy such monumental popularity - just 77 centimetres by 53, and virtually impossible to appreciate in situ given the touristic hordes that swarm its perimeter.

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Seeing the painting in person, in fact, is pretty much unnecessary given the sheer familiarity of its semi-smiling face. Yet for all that, the Mona Lisa seems nowhere close to being exhausted as both pilgrimage destination and person of interest to historians, conservators, connoisseurs and, pace Dan Brown, novelists.

THE SECRETS IN HER EYES

Well-known for his love of mathematics, geometry, mechanics and much else, Leonardo also had a fondness for concocting codes, purportedly to cover up work for which he felt especially proprietary or that he deemed unfit for public consumption. Unsurprisingly, the man's paintings have been scrutinized over the centuries for signs, symbols and codes. Just last month Silvano Vincenti, an amateur art historian, chair of the Italian national committee for cultural heritage and a TV host, claimed that the eyes of the Mona Lisa are codes of some sort. "Invisible to the naked eye," but detectable through hyper-magnification, "are the letters LV in her right pupil," painted "in black on green-brown," he says. In the left eye, Vincenti claims to have found the letter S or B, or maybe the letters C and E - clues, he believes, to the sitter's identity. So far Vincenti hasn't provided any evidence for his conclusions, while Leonardo scholars haven't hesitated to pooh-pooh his alleged findings, noting extensive scientific testing that began in the spring of 2008, including X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy, has revealed no letters and numbers

A BRIDGE IN TUSCANY?

It has long been thought that the Mona Lisa's smoky backgrounds - plural because the setting behind the sitter's right doesn't align with the one on the left - were either imaginary or renderings of two milieus in Tuscany: Lake Chiana (to the sitter's right) and a bridge over the River Arno at Arezzo (to the left). Just this month, however, an Italian art historian, Carla Gloria, moved the three-arched bridge almost 300 kilometres to the northwest, to the town of Bobbio, about 70 km south of Milan. Gloria believes Leonardo's sitter wasn't, as most scholars believe, Lisa del Giocondo but Bianca Giovanna Sforza, the daughter of a Milanese duke named Ludovico. Gloria says her belief has been strengthened by the purported discovery of the numbers 72 heretofore concealed in the bridge's span - a reference, she says, to the year 1472 when the Bobbio bridge was almost destroyed by severe floods. "Ludovico controlled Bobbio and da Vinci likely visited the famous library there," she says.

INSPIRED BY POETRY

It's generally believed that Leonardo started to paint the Mona Lisa circa 1503, only finishing it in France mere months before his death there in 1519. Like many close observers of the painting, Ross Kilpatrick, classics professor emeritus at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has long wondered why Leonardo seated his attractive subject on a balcony while the background "is an entirely different world . . . an inhospitable landscape, vast and barren." He thinks the answer may be found, in part, in literary sources, namely two sonnets by Petrarch (1304-1347) and an ode by Horace (65 BC-8 BC). In an article published late last year in the Italian journal Medicea, Kilpatrick asserts that Leonardo, who was familiar with the writings of Petrarch and Horace, "transfused" imagery from their poems to the Mona Lisa's background as an act of "self-presentation." The poems "celebrate a [male's]devotion to a smiling young woman, with vows to love and follow her anywhere, from damp mountains to arid deserts." Kilpatrick goes on to note that many Leonardo scholars think the bridge in the Mona Lisa references one in Arezzo, which was Petrarch's birthplace.