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 4

23 March 2012

Architect I. M. Pei’s glass pyramids, completed in 1989, stand in the Cour Napoléon over the entrance to the Musée du Louvre, where the Mona Lisa is on display.


Read Part 1

Read Part 2


In Part 3 of this entry, we pondered some questions that over the centuries have baffled many that are curious about the Mona Lisa, taking into account the illumunation, if any, that recent research has brought to bear on the painting.  An inexhaustible stream of theories concerning multiple Mona Lisa issues swirls through newspapers, magazines, peer-reviewed academic journals, scientific papers, internet sites, television specials, and documentary films.  As you might expect, some researchers can be fiercely tendentious, but then, as the Italians might say, Il mondo è bello perché è vario (the world is beautiful because it is varied), or as the French put it more succinctly, Vive la différence!  The more theories about the Mona Lisa there are, the more mind-bogglingly contradictory ones seem to be hatched.

In case you are wondering about the above two foreign expressions, they were appropriated precisely because the Mona Lisa, like Carla Bruni — singer, actress, former model, and wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, to cite a handy example — was born in Italy but now lives in France.  Both Mona Lisa and Carla Bruni, coincidentally, are also marvelously adept at generating media maelstroms despite their best intentions.

Ever since the Romans made their first incursions into Gaul, peripatetics from the Italian peninsula have habitually traveled north and remained in France for varying lengths of time.  France’s transalpine roll call includes, in addition to our Mona Lisa, who arrived in Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452 –1519) luggage, scholar and poet Petrarch (1304-1374), writer Christine de Pizan (1364 - 1431), architect Giovanni Giocondo (ca. 1433 – 1515), artist Rosso Fiorentino (1494 –1540), sculptor Benvenuto Cellini (1500 –1571), daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici and wife of King Henry II of France, Catherine de Médicis (Caterina de' Medici; 1519 – 1589), philosopher, mathematician and astronomer Giordano Bruno (1548 –1600), composer Jean-Baptiste Lully (Giovanni Battista Lulli; 1632 –1687), decorator, architect, and scene-painter Jean-Nicolas Servan (Giovanni Niccolò Servandoni; 1695 – 1766), playwright Carlo Goldoni (1707 –1793), mathematician and astronomer Joseph-Louis Lagrange (Giuseppe Lodovico Lagrangia; 1736 –1813), Italian adventurer Alessandro Cagliostro (1743 –1795), composer Luigi Cherubini (1760 –1842), botanist Alexandre Henri Gabriel de Cassini (1781 –1832), architect Louis Tullius Joachim Visconti (1791 –1853), composer Gioachino Rossini (1792 –1868), composer Vincenzo Bellini (1801 –1835), statesman Léon Gambetta (1838 –1882), author Émile Zola (1840 –1902), artist Giovanni Boldini (1842 –1931), artist Gino Severini (1883–1966), painter and sculptor Amedeo Clemente Modigliani (1884 –1920), actor and singer Yves Montand (Ivo Livi; 1921 –1991), writer Italo Calvino (1923 –1985), actor Jean-Paul Belmondo (b. 1933), and Formula One racing driver Jean Alesi (Giovanni Alesi; b. 1964).

Even Emperor of France Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 – 1821), from Corsica, was ethnically Italian, having Genoese and Tuscan ancestry.  “All Italians are plunderers,” Napoleon once said, to which a woman is reported to have replied, “Non tutti, ma buona parte.” (Not all, but a good part — cunningly indicting the emperor’s name, as you may have detected.)


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


So, even if we do know that the Mona Lisa originated in Italy and now resides in France, we’ll be perplexed for a long time about every other aspect of the painting.  Now, on to the rest of those questions.


Are those really letters and numbers and what are they doing in her eyes?

In 2010 Silvano Vinceti reported that he had found the letters LV (which he thinks are the painter's initials) in Mona Lisa’s right pupil, and either the letters B or S — or possibly the initials CE, he’s not sure  — in her left pupil.  He claims that the letters, painted in black on green-brown, are not visible to the human eye but can only be seen with a microscope.  He also says that he sees the number 72 — or possibly the letter L and the number 2 — in the arch of the bridge in the background.  A 50-year-old book found in an antique shop got him started on this quest.

Vinceti, who in 2002 organized the National Committee of Cultural Heritage, a private volunteer group with the purpose of “solving the great enigmas of Italy’s past,” believes that these letters and numbers are clues to the identity of Mona Lisa.  According to The Daily Telegraph (United Kingdom), “Vinceti is no scientist — the University of Bologna’s (Unibo’s) science and anthropology departments carry out all tests and analysis for him — but he is press-savvy.”

Officials at the Louvre, however, mentioned that, press-savvy or not, Vinceti had had no access to the actual painting.  They plainly stated that "no inscriptions, letters or numbers, were discovered” during their own tests in 2004 and 2009.  "The ageing of the painting on wood has caused a great number of cracks to appear in the paint, which have caused a number of shapes to appear that have often been subject to over-interpretation,” they declared.


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?

There are several competing theories concerning Mona Lisa’s identity.  Leonardo’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari, stated merely that the sitter was Lisa Gherardini (del Giocondo), wife of the Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.  The evidence tends to tilt in the direction of Vasari's statement.

In 2004, researcher Giuseppe Pallanti claimed to have found verification of Vasari’s statement.  After spending 25 years researching Florence 's archives, he learned that Leonardo's father and Lisa Gherardini’s husband knew each other before she was painted.  Records show that she had five children, including two daughters who became nuns.

In 2008, researchers at Heidelberg University found scribbled notes in the margin of a 500-year-old book that also confirm Vasari’s statement.  The notes were written by an acquaintance of Leonardo’s, Agostino Vespucci, who was a Florentine chancellery official, an assistant to Niccolò Machiavelli, and a cousin of the cartographer Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the Americas are named.

Assuming for a moment that the Mona Lisa is in fact Lisa Gherardini, records discovered by Giuseppe Pallanti show that she died in Florence in 1542, at the age of 63, and was buried in the grounds of Sant'Orsola Franciscan convent.

In the 1980s, before anyone knew that Lisa Gherardini was buried there, the convent was converted it into a barracks for Italy's tax police, la Guardia di Finanza.  During the construction of an underground car park, the excavated material was removed and dumped in a municipal landfill site on the outskirts of Florence. Alas, the remains of the woman who posed for the Mona Lisa may in fact now be in a garbage dump.

Nevertheless, there are still many who debate Mona Lisa’s identity, saying she is the wife of the duke of Milan, Beatrice d'Este; or Italian society figures Isabella Gualanda and Cecilia Gallerani; or Leonardo’s mother; or even a self-portrait.  Silvano Vinceti (mentioned above under ‘letters’) says that, based on the depiction of mouths and noses in other works by the master, it was an apprentice of Leonardo’s.  But Pietro Marani, author of several books on Leonardo, said this theory was “groundless.”

Yet another researcher, Maike Vogt-Lüerssen, contends that the Mona Lisa is Isabella of Aragon, the Duchess of Milan, because the pattern on her dress indicates that she was a member of the house of Sforza.  Leonardo was the court painter for the Duke of Milan for 11 years, and Vogt-Lüerssen says that this would date the painting to 1489, not 1503.


What’s this about a lion, an ape, and a buffalo lurking in the painting?

In 2011, artist and graphic designer Ron Piccirillo tipped the Mona Lisa on its side and saw hidden images of animals.  He claims to have discovered the heads of a lion, an ape, and a buffalo hovering in the background, as well as a crocodile or snake coming out of the left hand side of Mona Lisa’s body.

Piccirillo connects these images to Leonardo’s journals, in which a passage instructs that an artist trying to paint envy must "give her a leopard's skin, because this creature kills the lion out of envy and by deceit."  The modern artist believes that the Mona Lisa is actually a representation of envy.


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?


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


If you happen to be the number-crunching sort, you will be interested to know that the Mona Lisa is 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, and 2% angry.  This is according to the University of Amsterdam’s “emotion recognition” software.

On the other hand, if your pedilection is for pathogenesis, the Mona Lisa possibly suffered from bruxism, an unconscious habit of grinding the teeth during sleep or times of stress.  Her bruxism, the Italian physician Dr. Filippo Surano claimed in 1999, resulted from a serious anxiety neurosis, and affected her smile.

Others have the poor girl suffering from asthma — or from high cholesterol, as we've mentioned before.  The again, perhaps she was pregnant.

Maybe her smile was simply Leonardo’s masterful sfumato technique, according to Dr. Philippe Walter and other scientists at Laboratoire du Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility in 2010, who used x-ray fluorescence spectroscopy to study the painting.

In an even simpler explanation, some say that during this era women smiled with only one side of their mouths in order to appear charming and sophisticated.

However, by far the best explanation yet seems to be one proffered in 2000 by Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a neuroscientist at Harvard University.  She is an authority on visual processing and says that the enigmatic smile is due to the way the human visual system is designed.

Dr. Livingstone noticed that Mona Lisa's smile is not constant, but seems to appear and disappear.  The reason for this, she says, is that the human eye has two distinct regions for seeing the world, a central area, called the fovea, and a peripheral area, which surrounds the fovea.  With the central area we see colors and discern details, and with the peripheral area we see black and white, motion and shadows.  Thus, different cells in the retina transmit these different categories of information to the brain.

She explained that Mona Lisa’s smile is mostly drawn in low spatial frequencies and is best seen from a distance or with peripheral vision.  Because one’s peripheral vision is not interested in detail, it easily picks up shadows from Mona Lisa's cheekbones and a smile is registered — usually when we are looking at her eyes.  However, when we focus on Mona Lisa's mouth, the shadows are not distinguished by the central vision and the smile . . . disappears.

Thus the enigma is unraveled.  Or not?  Perhaps you may someday go to Paris and visit the Louvre yourself and come up with yet another theory.


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



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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