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The mysteries of the Mona Lisa

23 mars 2017

In the rich and long history of painting, a number of artworks have aroused, and always aroused, the interest of experts who strive to reveal the mysteries and to clarify the shadows. A canvas intrigues more than others and its many secrets make it the most popular artwork of the world. Dive into the gaze of the Mona Lisa.

A mute artwork

Every day, there are 20,000. After having waited nearly two hours, they start, they push, they crowd, and sometimes they even get lost in the labyrinth of museum corridors, finally arriving in front of a woman of 511 years old. The Mona Lisa, the invaluable work of the genius Leonardo da Vinci, attracts tens of thousands of visitors every day in its hall 6 in the Louvre. 


This picture, estimated at nearly one billion Euros, the most visited and most photographed in the world is no longer, for a long time, a simple art object but a monument of world culture. So much so that it happens that visitors leave the room without looking at other works, not even for Les Noces de Cana, by Paul Veronese, the most imposing canvas of the museum, which faces him. Some of them burst into tears or faint before her. With curiosity, recollection and “selfies”, contemplators give themselves bodies and souls before a work whose insolent smile and glance have never, however, given up any secret.

Do not strip the woman of her mystery

The Mona Lisa is filled with mysteries. Who is this woman with bewitching eyes? Is she really a woman? What does her little smile mean? Is not this perfectly oval face finally coming straight from the dreams of Leonardo da Vinci? Several Giocondas would have even been discovered...  Since the sixteenth century, the Mona Lisa remains an enigma for the historians of Art.

How many reports or how many studies say they found the identity of the character without convincing the artistic or scientific community? The common assumption is that the model was originally a certain Lisa Maria Gherardini, who became Lisa del Giocondo - from where the Mona Lisa - after marrying a rich silk merchant named Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. If Lisa did indeed exist, a death certificate dated 15 July 1542 is kept at the Parish Church of San Lorenzo in Firenze, and Leonardo da Vinci was in the entourage of her husband, none can assert with certainty that the model is indeed Lisa del Giocondo. Other hypotheses in vogue suggest that the face of Mona Lisa would be perfectly superimposable to the one of Catherine Sforza, princess of Forli, in a portrait realized by Lorenzo di Credi. According to Roberto Zapperi, an Italian historian, the portrait was in fact commissioned by Julien de Medicis and reproduced one of his mistresses, Pacifica Brandini of Urbino or Isabella d'Este. It has even been possible to read here and there that the Mona Lisa was only a memory of the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, or a divine representation of a person who never finally existed. 

The last conjecture is the work of the fantastic Silvano Vincenti. At the head of an Italian Committee for the Valorization of Cultural Properties, he is famous for having begun excavations in the basements of the convent of Santa Ursula in Florence in order to uncover the remains of Lisa Gherardini, but gave up in front of the madness of the process. No matter, he proclaims that the model of the Mona Lisa was actually a man. Between two cracks, he claims to have spotted a secret code in the eyes of the portrait: in the left eye, he identified the letter L, for Leonardo, and in the right the letter S, for Salai, the faithful pupil and possible lover of the master. For Pascal Cotte, director of scientific research at Lumière Technology, the hypothesis of the presence of letters in the eyes of the Mona Lisa is rather "fanciful". "There are cracks on the canvas, and, with a lot of imagination, they could make you think of letters" he says. In addition, he recalled that Silvano Vincenti is not a scientific expert but a television presenter and a writer by profession who strives to unravel the mysteries of the Mona Lisa. A bit like everyone else.

Volatile smile and fleeting look

A moment ago, he was still there, this smile, enigmatic and impenetrable... But now it seems to have flown away. Changing smile, fleeting perception, these are only a few facets of the mysterious character of the Mona Lisa. Served by a play of prodigious shadow, this smile, precisely, is one of the most mysterious elements of the painting. Suspended, ready to die, when fixed directly, it disappears and resurfaced as soon as the view is carried elsewhere. "If you look at her mouth from a distance or from the corner of her eye, she looks smile but if you look more closely at her lips, she no longer smiles" explains Alessandro Soranzo researcher at Sheffield Hallam University. Behind the smoky and obscure theories that speak of facial paralysis, missing teeth, syphilis, liver problems and even post-traumatic stress, a plausible hypothesis sweeps these fantasies. For Margaret Livingstone, a neurologist at Harvard, before determining the cause of this smile, it is first necessary to know whether or not Mona Lisa smiles. When we look at the top of the face, when we look Mona Lisa in the eyes, the shadows of the rest of the face are perceived by our peripheral vision which then believes to detect a smile. But when we look directly at the lips, we do not really see it. For us, then appeal to the central region of vision, the one that attaches itself to details and colors. It is the pure essence of the technique of Leonardo da Vinci that induces hesitation. This famous sfumato (like the smoke in Italian), which consists of "a manner of painting extremely soft, which leaves a certain uncertainty as to the termination of the contour and the details of the forms when one looks closely at the work, causes no indecision, when one takes a fair distance" according to Louis-Etienne Watelet.


The other important element of Mona Lisa’s face that excites uncertainty is her gaze. Why does the Mona Lisa follow my eyes? This optical phenomenon has found a scientific explanation only very recently. The University of Ohio has shown that a painting appears to us in the same way, regardless of the angle under which it is viewed. This phenomenon is partly related to the play of shadows and light that determine perspective and depth. Unlike real life, these shades are fixed on a painting. "What is very interesting in the picture of the Mona Lisa is that she does things different from what she looks like to do, it is believed that she looks at the viewer. Little later "notes Florent Aziosmanoff, creator of Living Joconde. Perpetual researchs on the work of Leonardo da Vinci continues even today on all the elements of the painting.

A hidden portrait?

Looking at Mona Lisa, Pascal Cotte, a French engineer and founder of Lumiere Technology, discovered a portrait hidden behind that of Mona Lisa. His discovery was revealed in the documentary "The secrets of Mona Lisa" broadcast on the BBC in December 2015. Through the show, the specialist explains to have identified the portrait of another woman, hidden under the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa. The incredible conclusion stems from ten years of research. During this time, Pascal Cotte studied the painting in its smallest recesses using a technique known as the Layer Amplificator Method. The technique consists in projecting intense beams of light at 13 different wavelengths on the work in order to measure the quantities of light sent back. "We can now analyze exactly what happens inside the layers of painting and we can peel them like an onion." We can reconstruct the entire chronology of the painting's creation." The results indicate the presence of four different phases or images under the surface of the Mona Lisa. Among these, the third presents the portrait of a woman different from Mona Lisa. Apparently younger, the latter presents finer features, a look in the void and shows no smile. "I was confronted with a totally different portrait of today's Mona Lisa, not the same woman" he said. According to him, it could be the real Lisa Gherardini, the young woman supposed to serve as a model for de Vinci. A hypothesis that questions even the identity of Mona Lisa. "These results explode many myths and change our vision of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece." And then, again, they revive innumerable hypotheses about a work whose mysteries of gaze have not finished turning heads.

Carole Jeulin, the message by the look

Carole Jeulin instinctively paints the story that the canvas tells her, and most often looks at the world through the prism of femininity. The faces of her women reflect the human soul in its most beautiful and their eyes testify to the passage of time.

The artist was born in Paris in 1970. To the question "how did you become an artist", she replied that the mystery remains. Eclectic, the artist is close to singular art and appreciates the work of a multitude of great painters. From Van Gogh to Klimt via Modigliani. Carole Jeulin always taught her "heavenly essence", whose living matter whispers to our ears.