A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


la Gioconda

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 3

16 March 2012

Artists from around the world go to the Louvre in Paris to copy the masterpieces, one of which happens to be the Mona Lisa.


In Part 1 of this entry, after noting the constant supply of media consideration allotted to the Mona Lisa, we briefly traced the intriguing history of this portrait.  En route, we mentioned some perplexing questions that have given rise to extensive speculation:


What’s going on with her eyebrows? Which region of Italy laying claim to the sfumato landscape that is featured in the background are we in fact looking at?  Had Lisa suffered from high cholesterol?  Were there originally columns on either side of her in the painting that were subsequently lopped off?  Exactly how many versions are there underneath the painting that we see now?  Are those really letters and numbers and what are they doing in her eyes?  Who, indeed, was Lisa, and if she is who some think she is, is she really buried in a dump?  Or, was she Leonardo’s mother, or even Leonardo himself?  What’s this about a lion, an ape and a buffalo lurking in the painting?  And the biggest question of all, to which psychologists, scientists, engineers, art historians, and other scholars return regularly: what is it about that famous, enigmatic smile?


After considering in Part 2 some of the more resolute parodies of the Mona Lisa — which heap ever more attention onto this shy girl —it might be worthwhile now to find out what current research says about those bewildering questions.


What’s going on with her eyebrows? 

Mona Lisa clearly has no eyebrows or eyelashes, giving her a certain extraterrestrial attractiveness, or at least a slight aerodynamic advantage.  What is curious is that Leonardo’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari, had written that she had heavy eyebrows in the painting.  However, some historians say that it’s possible that Vasari had never actually seen the portrait himself, and that, with fashions always having been as inexplicable as they are today, it was common at the time for women to pluck their eyebrows.


Detail of the Mona Lisa showing her eyebrows, or lack thereof.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


 But, along came a Parisian engineer who spent 3,000 hours assiduously examining the portrait, and an answer finally arrived in 2007.  Using ultra-high resolution (240-megapixel) scans of the painting, Pascal Cotte found evidence that Mona Lisa was originally painted with eyelashes and eyebrows, but that these had gradually disappeared over time.  He thinks it was a result of over-cleaning, which might be worth bearing in mind for anyone who spends too much time in the shower.


Which region of Italy laying claim to the sfumato landscape that is featured in the background are we in fact looking at?

This one isn’t so easy.  Some historians are content to think that the painting was innovative in that it portrays a subject seen from straight on, in front of a landscape that is both imaginary and seen from an aerial perspective.

Others through the centuries have been searching for a landscape that matches that of the painting and have refused to give up.  In 2011, the Italian art historian Carla Glori, based on what she says are numbers in Mona Lisa’s eyes (more about this later), proposed that the three-arched bridge peering over the left shoulder of the Mona Lisa was located in the village of Bobbio, south of Piacenza in northern Italy.

However, eight years earlier, Dr Carlo Starnazzi and Dr Carlo Pedretti were sure that the bridge in the painting was the Ponte Buriano near Arezzo, some 350 kilometers away from the one in Bobbio, but maddeningly, the geography around the bridge didn’t quite fit.  Then, in a 2011 article in the journal Cartographica, Donato Pezzutto demonstrated that if the painting of the Mona Lisa were jigsawed down the middle and the halves reversed (let’s not really try this), the landscape would correspond to a topographic map that Leonardo had been drawing at the same time as he was painting the Mona Lisa — that is, of the Val di Chiana, where the bridge is located.

Pezzutto suggests that the Italian title of the painting, la Giocanda, might be taken as an allegory.  The Italian word giocanda, meaning playful or jocular (for example, giocando a pallone means to play football), whatever the identity of the woman in the painting, could simply denote a prank, considering the way the landscape is assembled like a puzzle.  The Italians like to say ogni bel gioco dura poco, (every good game lasts a short while, or, in other words, all good things come to an end), but in this case Leonardo’s game has lasted over 500 years.


Had Lisa suffered from high cholesterol?

In 2010, Vito Franco, a professor of pathological anatomy at University of Palermo, speculated that Mona Lisa shows signs of a build up of fatty acids around the eyes, an indication of “very high cholesterol.”  On the other hand, maybe all of those numbers and letters (to be addressed in the next part of this entry) could be producing eye-strain.


Were there originally columns on both sides of her in the painting that were subsequently lopped off?

Early copies, including one now at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, show columns on both sides of Mona Lisa.  In the original, the edges of the bases of columns can be seen.  For centuries it had been thought that both sides had been removed from the original painting at some point after Leonardo had died.


Detail of the Mona Lisa showing the base of a column on the left side of the painting.

(photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) {{PD}}


When an international team of 39 specialists examined the Mona Lisa in 2004 and 2005, they found beneath the frame a "reserve" around all four edges of the panel (this is the area of bare wood surrounding the painted area), showing that none of the paint had been trimmed.  Now it is assumed that the columns in early copies must have been added by those artists.

However, while the painting has not been trimmed, it has shrunk.  Because Leonardo was careful to employ the sectio divina (divine proportion or golden section) in the portrait, he began with what is called a harmonic rectangle — in which the diagonal of the square of the rectangle is equal to the height of the rectangle — for the poplar wood panel.  Due to the direction of the wood’s grain, the width of the panel has shrunk from 55.5 centimeters to 53.2 centimeters, and what we see today is Mona Lisa on a diet of sorts.


Exactly how many versions are there underneath the painting that we see now?

Infrared images of the Mona Lisa show that there are three completely different versions of the same subject, all painted by Leonardo, under the final portrait.  Many other details have emerged as well.  Pascal Cotte (mentioned above under “eyebrows”) was curious about the position of Mona Lisa’s right arm, which lies across her abdomen.  He found that the pigment behind the right wrist matched the cover that drapes across Mona Lisa's knee, indicating that she is holding the cover with her wrist.  He also learned through infrared images of the preparatory drawings that lie behind the layers of paint, that Leonardo changed his mind about the position of the left index and middle finger. In case you are wondering, no, she was not holding up 'rabbit ears' behind the Vitruvian Man's head while his picture was being drawn.

Apropos our discussion of technological probes of paintings, in January 2012 Madrid’s Museo del Prado announced that their replica of the Mona Lisa was not only painted in Leonardo's workshop, but it may have been done at the same time as Leonardo had been working on the original. The Museo del Prado copy had a coat of black varnish that had been added most likely in the 18th century, obscuring the original background.  With infrared technology they discovered a landscape similar to Leonardo's original hiding underneath the varnish.

After removing the varnish on the copy, the Prado conservators had an impression of what the original Mona Lisa must have looked like when it was painted, as the varnish covering the original is now cracked and yellowed with age.

The real surprise came when, by comparing reflectography images taken of the original Mona Lisa with the copy, the specialists realized that the copy was painted by one of Leonardo’s apprentices — possibly Andrea Salai or Francesco Melzi  — while Da Vinci himself was still painting the original. The layers of paint in the copy manifested the same changes, in the same order, that Leonardo had made in the landscape over time. Think stereo Mona Lisas.

In fact, both paintings will be displayed side-by-side at the Louvre from 29 March through 25 June 2012.


The copy of the Mona Lisa in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, is seen before restoration.  By rolling your cursor over the image you can compare the unrestored copy with the same copy after the varnish was removed during restoration.  By clicking on the image you will see the original Mona Lisa which hangs in the Musée du Louvre.


Next:  what is it about that smile? — and other questions.




This blog entry, due to its equal relevance to Italy and to Paris, France, has been posted under both of those thread headings.

The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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