Mona Lisa: All Things to Some Researchers

How researchers see a much looked- upon lady

by Alice Shirrell Kaswell, Improbable Research staff

Leonardo da Vinci's painted portrait of the Mona Lisa entices researchers of many kinds to spring into action of some sort. Alerted to the possible presence of a newsworthy mystery, quite a few people want to define and then solve it.

On December 15, 2005, the painting popped up in the news in the company of scientists -- again. An Associated Press report explained that Harro Stokman, Nicu Sebe, and colleagues had gotten the Mona Lisa's number. They did so with precision, though with little claim to accuracy:

The mysterious half-smile that has intrigued viewers of the Mona Lisa for centuries isn't really that difficult to interpret, Dutch researchers said Thursday.

She was smiling because she was happy -- 83 percent happy, to be exact, according to scientists from the University of Amsterdam.

In what they viewed as a fun demonstration of technology rather than a serious experiment, the researchers scanned a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece and subjected it to cutting-edge "emotion recognition'' software, developed in collaboration with the University of Illinois.

The result showed the painting's famous subject was 83 percent happy, 9 percent disgusted, 6 percent fearful and 2 percent angry. She was less than 1 percent neutral, and not at all surprised.

The team has yet to publish a formal scientific report. If and when they do, it will join a growing heap of studies that are as difficult to categorize as the famous Mona Lisa smile. That smile, some scientists imply, may not really be a smile.

Here is a sampling of Mona Lisaean studies.

Mona, Ailing (1)

Much of the world celebrates Mona Lisa as an iconic perfect woman. But Dr. Joseph E. Borkowski of the Georgetown University School of Dentistry in Washington, D.C., put forth a disturbing conjecture. In his study "Mona Lisa: The Enigma of the Smile" (Journal of Forensic Sciences, vol. 37, no. 6, pp. 1706-11), he explains that:

The Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503, pictures a smile that has been long the subject of conjecture. It is believed, however, that the Mona Lisa does not smile; she wears an expression common to people who have lost their front teeth. A close-up of the lip area shows a scar that is not unlike that left by the application of blunt force. The changes evident in the perioral area are such that occur when the anterior teeth are lost. The scar under the lower lip of the Mona Lisa is similar to that created, when, as a result of force, the incisal edges of the teeth have pierced the face with a penetrating wound.

(Thanks to Mark Benecke for bringing Dr. Borkowski to our attention.)

(Image credit: gilad at Worth1000)

Mona, Ailing (2)

K.K. Adour, at the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland, California, diagnoses a more debilitating ailment: Bell's palsy. Adour's study, "Mona Lisa Syndrome: Solving the Enigma of the Gioconda Smile" (Annals of Otology, Rhinology, and Laryngology, vol. 89, no. 3, March 1989, pp. 196-9) reports that:

The Mona Lisa smile is presented as a possible example of facial muscle contracture that develops after Bell's palsy when the facial nerve has undergone partial wallerian degeneration and has regenerated. The accompanying synkinesis would explain many of the known facts surrounding the painting and is a classic example of Leonardo da Vinci as the compulsive anatomist who combined art and science.

Mona, Ailing (3)

The truth may have been, or included, worse. J. Dequeker, E. Muls, and K. Leenders at the University Hospitals, Leuven, Belgium, say the lady was in deep trouble. Their report "Xanthelasma and Lipoma in Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa" (Israeli Medical Association Journal, vol. 6, no. 8, August 2004, pp. 505-6) warned that:

The painting Mona Lisa in the Louvre, Paris, by Leonardo da Vinci (1503-1506), shows skin alterations at the inner end of the left upper eyelid similar to xanthelasma, and a swelling of the dorsum of the right hand suggestive of a subcutaneous lipoma. These findings in a 25-30 year old woman, who died at the age of 37, may be indicative of essential hyperlipidemia, a strong risk factor for ischemic heart disease in middle age. As far as is known, this portrait of Mona Lisa painted in 1506 is the first evidence that xanthelasma and lipoma were prevalent in the sixteenth century, long before the first description by Addison and Gall in 1851.

Mona, Mentally

Psychiatrists, psychologists, and other mental specialists have tried to give the woman -- and the artist who painted her -- a good working over. Some go so far as to say that the woman is really a man, perhaps Leonardo's depiction of himself as a transvestite. But little or none of that particular line of reasoning has appeared prominently in the scholarly literature. Instead, one can find more staid analyses such as H.P. Blum's "Psychoanalysis and Art, Freud and Leonardo" (Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, vol. 49, no. 4, Fall 2001, pp. 1409-25). Blum dives deep into the psyche:

Freud was the first to apply psychoanalysis to art, choosing for his subject the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci. Observing Leonardo's partly fused image of the Virgin and St. Anne, he inferred that the artist had depicted his two mothers, his biological mother and his stepmother. This very early analytic discourse on parent loss and adoption changed the course of the interpretation of art. Freud explored the psychology of art, the artist, and aesthetic appreciation. Confronting the age-old enigma of the Mona Lisa, he proposed a daring solution to the riddle of the sphinx like smile of this icon of art. His paper prefigures concepts of narcissism, homosexuality, parenting, and sublimation. Lacking modern methodology and theory, Freud's pioneering insights overshadow his naive errors. In this fledgling inquiry, based on a childhood screen memory and limited knowledge of Leonardo's artistic and scientific contributions, Freud identified with this Renaissance genius in his own self-analytic and creative endeavor.

Durward J. Markle of Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital in New York City dives deeper still. His paper "Freud, Leonardo and the Lamb" (Psychoanalytic Review, vol. 57, no. 2, 1970, pp. 285-8) makes confident assertions:

In his study of Leonardo da Vinci, Freud states that the famous Mona Lisa smile is explainable in the light of Leonardo's mother-child relationship, and represents Leonardo's memory of the satisfaction he received as a child at his mother's breast and the love he found in her smiling gaze. Further he attributes the retained childhood feelings toward the mouth as also evident in other paintings, e.g., "The Holy Family." Freud's analysis is critically reviewed in light of Leonardo's childhood condition, with Leonardo being viewed as the child in "The Holy Family."

These are dark waters. Some psychoanalytic researchers aim for a shallower dip into the mind of Leonardo. Wayne Anderson, Professor Emeritus of History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a journal article, and later a full book called "Freud, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Vulture's Tail: A Refreshing Look at Leonardo's Sexuality." The book was published by Other Press, in 2001. The article appeared in Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, vol. 50, no. 4, Fall 2002, pp. 1376-82.)

Attempting to rise far above surface level, Donald Capps, at the Princeton Theological Seminary, offers a study called "Leonardo's Mona Lisa: Iconic Center of Male Melancholic Religion" (Pastoral Psychology, vol. 53, no. 2, November 2004, pp. 107-37). Capps speaks boldly:

In the present essay, I argue that Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is the iconic center of the religion of male melancholia, and thus displaces the Virgin Mary of traditional Christianity in this regard. I provide evidence in support of this argument by focusing on Walter Pater's essay on Leonardo da Vinci, and interpreting Vincent Peruggia's theft, Hugo Villegas's stoning, and Marcel Duchamp and others' humorous assaults on the dignity of Mona Lisa as expressions of male melancholia. I conclude that the painting aids in the difficult task of transforming melancholia into mourning.

Physics and You, the Viewer

These matters may be only partially medical, mental, or mystical. Several scientists see the painting as an example of one or another pure physics effect. Others see the mysteries, if mysteries there be, as being largely about physiology -- the physiology of anyone who gazes at the painting.

Some reports take one or another ophthalmological approach. L.L. Kontsevich and C.W. Tyler of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco, do just that in "What Makes Mona Lisa Smile?" (Vision Research, vol. 44, no. 13, 2004, pp. 1493-8.) They explain that:

To study the ability of humans to read subtle changes in facial expression, we applied reverse correlation technique to reveal visual features that mediate understanding of emotion expressed by the face. Surprising findings were that (1) the noise added to a test face image had profound effect on the facial expression and (2) in almost every instance the new expression was meaningful. To quantify the effect, we asked naive observers to rank the face of Mona Lisa superimposed with noise, based on their perception of her emotional state along the sad/happy dimension. Typically, a hundred trials (with 10 or more samples for each rank category) were sufficient to reveal areas altering the facial expression, which is about two orders of magnitude less than in the other reverse correlation studies. Moreover, the perception of smiling in the eyes was solely attributable to a configurational effect projecting from the mouth region.

Margaret S. Livingstone of Harvard Medical School published a brief article called "Is it Warm? Is it Real? Or Just Low Spatial Frequency?" (Science, vol. 290, no. 5495, November 2000, p. 1299) . She writes that:

The spatial resolution of the human visual system changes dramatically with distance from the center of gaze (1), due to the fact that both the retina and the visual cortex devote disproportionately more neuronal machinery to the fovea....

[I]f you look at the painting so that your gaze falls on the background or on Mona Lisa's hands, your perception of her mouth would be dominated by low spatial frequencies, so it would appear much more cheerful than when you look directly at her mouth.... [H]er smile is more apparent in the low spatial frequency range, and therefore more apparent to peripheral vision than to central vision. Hence the elusive quality -- you can't catch her smile by looking at her mouth. She smiles until you look at her mouth, and then it fades, like a dim star that disappears when you look directly at it.

Mona, Sfumato

Diogo Queiros-Conde, a physicist at the Ecole des Mines de Paris, offers up both physics and a keen, discovering eye in his paper "The Turbulent Structure of Sfumato within Mona Lisa," published in MIT's journal called Leonardo (vol. 37, no. 3, June 2004, pp. 223-8.) The early pages bring to bear several kinds of knowledge:

The author describes a particular way of looking at the Mona Lisa whereby evidence of a turbulent structure (based on underlying sfumato) that reveals an infinity of hidden faces behind the famous figure can be seen. When light is progressively reduced by a "squinting process," the effect is especially striking in the last face on the edge of the painting's dark areas. The author interprets this visual phenomenon in the context of entropic skins geometry, which he has developed to describe the geometry and statistics of turbulent flows.

But Queiros-Conde's report includes, about two-thirds of the way through, a most curious passage, one likely to inspire visits to see the original painting for a good, careful look:

I advise the reader to pay attention to the luminous form just under Mona Lisa’s left shoulder and to look at it (again, due to the Claparède effect, it helps to close one eye) from the upper right almost tangentially to the surface painting and from an angle corresponding to 45° in relation to the vertical. Redressed by this new angle of vision, one should recognize a form that can be interpreted as a human skull.

Mona and Quantum Mechanics

But for advanced physics, the field seems dominated by Slobodan Prvanovic of the Institute of Physics in Belgrade, Serbia. His recent study is so very advanced that it leaves many physicists perplexed. Here is the full citation, and a tantalizing excerpt:

"Mona Lisa -- Ineffable Smile of Quantum Mechanics," arXiv:physics/0302089, vol. 1, February 2003, Institute of Physics, P.O. Box 57, 11080 Belgrade, Serbia The author explains:

The portrait of Mona Lisa is scrutinized with reference to quantum mechanics. The elements of different expressions are firstly recognized on her face. The contradictory details are then classified in two pictures that, undoubtedly representing distinct moods, confirm dichotomous character of the original. Consecutive discussion has lead to conclusion that the mysterious state Mona Lisa is in actually is coherent mixture -- superposition, of cheerfulness and sadness.


This article is republished with permission from the March-April 2006 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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A Frenchman once opined that Mona Lisa has that smile because she is pregnant.

An American then opined that Mona Lisa has that smile because she has just discovered that she is NOT pregnant.
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All the conjecture about the Mona Lisa's smile seems silly to me. I think she's just displaying a natural but relaxed smile that she can maintain for long periods of time while being painted.
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The infamous "Mona Lisa smile" occurs in a lot of other da Vinci pieces, but you don't see tedious medical dissertations on, say, A Study For "Madonna With The Yarnwinder".
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There was a photographer who pointed out something interesting about the smile. If you frame just the mouth and rotate it 90 degrees counter clockwise, you see a very nicely defined back and ass.
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