February 21, 2024

Why Is the Mona Lisa So Famous?

Everyone has heard or seen of the famous Mona Lisa, a painting done by the Italian painter, Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa from 1503 until 1519, not being finished for 16 years. Currently, the painting is located at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. The Mona Lisa is also a real person. Her real name was Lisa Gheradini, and the painting is said to be a commission from her husband, Francesco del Giocondo. But, how did this commission portrait become so famous around the world? Its appeal lies in the paintings technique, smile, and the technical advancement that Da Vinci showed while painting the Mona Lisa.

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci.

Technique

While painting the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci used a technique call sfumato. Sfumato comes from the Italian meaning of  “to tone down” or “to evaporate like smoke”. Paintings that use this technique are painted with very soft transitions between colors and tones, which makes sense as the meaning of the word is similar. Da Vinci is largely regarded as the creator of this style of painting because he was the first to use it. Traditional paintings usually have sharp lines or brush strokes that you can see with your own eye, but this factor is missing from the Mona Lisa. Her skin is very blended into her shadows, and Da Vinci used many layers to soften the look of her skin. He also used this technique with many of his other paintings.

Other paintings that use the sfumato technique.

Smile

The Mona Lisa’s smile has been a topic of debate for years. Some say that her smile has a meaning behind it, while others say it is an optical illusion; she’s not smiling at all. But, why is there such a huge discussion over her smile? Margaret Livingstone, a professor at Harvard University who studies neurobiology explains: “Every time you look directly at her mouth, her smile disappears, because your central vision does not perceive low spatial frequencies very well… like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.” To put it simply, when you looked directly at the smile, it looked very dim, and you might think that she is not smiling at all. However, when your eyes go somewhere other than her smile, it deepens. This is because your peripheral vision can see things more clearly than your center vision. Mona Lisa’s smile can only be seen by lower spatial frequencies, which your peripherals can detect.

The Mona Lisa.

Technical Advancement

In 2007, engineers studied the Mona Lisa and scanned it under multiple types of cameras to get an idea of what it looked like under the aged varnish. After these scans, it revealed that the Mona Lisa had a hidden version underneath it, commonly known as “The Other Mona Lisa”.

“The Other Mona Lisa”.

The cameras the engineers used were about to pick up this image by using a series of light reflections to see beneath the layers of the paint. The technology used to find this out is called the Layer Amplification Method (LAM).

Other than it’s appeal, the painting is also famous for the amount of times it has been stolen and vandalized at it’s exhibit. Here are the years and the people who stole or tried to harm the painting:

  • 1911: Stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia
  • 1956: Hugo Unjaga Villegas tossed a stone at it
  • 1974: Tomoko Yonezu tried to spray paint the canvas
  • 2009: Russian woman smashed a teacup against the painting
  • 2022: Smeared with cake by a man

Sources

https://www.artnews.com/list/art-news/artists/mona-lisa-vandalism-1234630407/mona-lisa-teacup-2009/

https://www.britannica.com/art/sfumato

https://www.pbs.org/treasuresoftheworld/mona_lisa/mlevel_1/m3technique.html?scrlybrkr=f724b01f#:~:text=In%20a%20break%20with%20the,colors%2C%20he%20blended%20everything%20%22without

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2003/feb/18/arts.science

https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-35031997