Behind Closed Lips
More than five centuries after Leonardo painted the world’s most famous portrait, Mona Lisa continues to fascinate the world. Is she beaming or brooding? Do her lips curl in a smile or a sneer? Is her expression sultry, seductive, melancholy—or merely mysterious?
Scientists at the University of Freiburg in Germany recently announced the latest—although certainly not the last—word on the subject. If, like beauty, happiness lies in the eye of the beholder, Mona Lisa lives up to her Italian name of La Gioconda, which translates as the jovial or merry lady.
In their study, the German neuroscientists made a black-and-white copy of the portrait and then distorted the corners of the mouth to create eight altered images—four with somewhat downturned lips, four with upturned ones. They then showed the twelve participants in the study nine images—the original plus the eight modified ones-- shuffled and reshuffled thirty times so they appeared in random sequences.
Much to the researchers’ surprise, almost all—97 percent—of the viewers perceived Mona Lisa’s original expression as happy. “We were astonished,” said the study’s coauthor.
They shouldn’t have been. In 1550 the art historian Giorgio Vasario, in the first analysis of Mona Lisa’s charms, described her expression as a “ghigno,” a word that means both “grin” and “mocking smile.” To his eyes, it seemed “a wondrous thing, as lively as the smile of the living original…so sweet that while looking at it one thinks it rather divine than human.”
Several years ago, when researching Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, I asked Marco Cianchi, a professor of art history at the prestigious Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, about Lisa’s enigmatic gaze. Dismissing centuries of conjecture, he explained that the smile represented nothing more—or less—than a technical tour de force, a triumph of painterly skill.
Until the 16th century, artists hadn’t figured out how to paint a smile. Their attempts at grins ended up looking like grimaces. Leonardo himself spent years experimenting with similar expressions until, with the gentle slope of Lisa’s mouth, he elevated his skills to an incomparable new level.
“If you asked Leonardo what the smile meant,” Cianchi told me, “he would have said, ‘What are you talking about? Why are you asking? I was painting her face.’”
Some 500 years later, it still looks like a happy face.
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and the New York Times best-selling LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.