Space-age technology allowed restorers to see details of the Mona Lisa they never could before.
Newspaper headlines recently gave the Louvre’s most famous resident a new name. Maybe, they suggested, we should call her “Mama Lisa,” because a team of researchers who examined Leonardo’s masterpiece last September concluded that the Mona Lisa was pregnant. Under her thick coat of dirty varnish, the researchers said, she is wearing not a shawl but a fine, gauzy veil attached to a white bonnet that is no longer visible. Such garments were typically worn by Italian Renaissance women when they were pregnant.
Leonardo’s portrait of the young wife of a Florentine silk merchant, painted between 1503 and 1506, is so famous and popular that the Louvre has given it its own gallery and keeps it in a special humidity- and temperature-controlled box, protected from harm—and its admirers—by a double layer of triple-laminated, fireproof, and bulletproof glass.
The work is removed from its case once a year so that the poplar panel on which it is painted can be measured for warping or expansion, and the silica gel used to maintain the box’s humidity can be changed. Over the past two years, a team of French and Canadian researchers also undertook the first major study of the painting in half a century. Using a state-of-the-art three-dimensional high-resolution laser scanning system, the scientists carried out the most precise and extensive analysis of the portrait to date. Their results, along with the findings of 39 researchers contributing to the project, were recently published in Mona Lisa: Inside the Painting (Harry N. Abrams), written by Bruno Mottin, Jean-Pierre Mohen, and Michel Menu, from the team of researchers at the French Museums’ Center for Research and Restoration, located in the Louvre.
The scans were made by researchers from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC), who were invited by the Louvre to travel to Paris in the fall of 2004 with a portable version of the apparatus, which is capable of creating 3-D images at a depth of ten micrometers (roughly one-tenth of the diameter of a strand of human hair) and is also used by NASA to check space shuttles for damage during flight.
NRC researchers produced the scans in two nighttime sessions last October to make a “virtual model of the Mona Lisa, so we could zoom in and look at features on the surface and back in great detail, in a way you really can’t see on the real picture,” John Taylor, an NRC imaging applications specialist, told ARTnews. Under tight security, with groups no larger than four—one restorer, one expert from the French team, and two of the Canadian technicians—allowed near the painting in order to maintain temperature and humidity conditions, the 3-D laser scanned the painting’s entire surface—back, front, and sides—in bands some 11?2 inches wide, never in direct contact with the canvas. The team then digitally stitched the scans together to construct a model that would allow them to study the painting’s color, relief, and craquelure.
Their main objective was to record the warping of the support; the portrait is painted on a thin panel of poplar, a soft wood that is particularly vulnerable to variations in humidity. A small split, about 4.7 inches long, located at the top of the painting and repaired a century ago, was monitored, as was the craquelure, the network of fine cracks in the paint surface, which can give clues as to how well paint layers adhere to the support. The researchers concluded that the painting will remain stable if it stays in its temperature- and humidity-controlled box. The scans also showed that the paint layers are still firmly attached to the panel.
But the most surprising conclusions came from Bruno Mottin, whose close observation of the subject’s clothing and hair convinced him that the sitter, identified by Vasari as Lisa Gherardini, wife of the wealthy, socially prominent silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, was pregnant or had recently given birth.
Her faded bonnet and the attached veil draped around her shoulders had been obscured by the thick, dark varnish that covers the painting. The new scans make these elements much easier to read. “Until now, the fabric around her shoulders was considered a shawl, but no one wore shawls at the time,” Mottin explains. “Scans uncovered evidence that it was in fact a gauzy veil. Da Vinci loved geometry; he was fascinated by regularity. I started out by studying the pattern. When I saw that the movement in the fabric was different, I asked myself what it meant. Da Vinci was so meticulous that I felt it had to be intentional.”
The veil reminded Mottin of a garment worn by the subject of Botticelli’s Portrait of a Lady (ca. 1470–75), in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, who is pregnant. It was, he says, typically worn by “nursing mothers during the Italian Renaissance.” This accorded with the findings of scholarly research suggesting that Leonardo’s painting was commissioned to commemorate the birth of Lisa Gherardini’s second child (she ultimately had five). “This helps us date the painting more precisely, to around 1503,” Mottin explains.
Mottin’s studies of the Mona Lisa’s coiffure revealed that her hair is not unbound and flowing freely, as was once believed—an idea that “surprised historians, because wearing your hair loose at the time was typical of young girls or women of little virtue,” Mottin says. In fact, her hair is pinned into a chignon and covered by her bonnet.
Scans also showed that Leonardo changed his composition: he had initially painted one of her hands clenched, rather than in a relaxed position, suggesting that she may originally have been depicted in the process of rising from a chair rather than seated. According to Matthew Landrus, a Renaissance and Baroque scholar who has taught Renaissance and medieval history at Oxford University and is currently an art history professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, Leonardo “changed hand positions in a lot of paintings, including Christ’s in The Last Supper—information that came out in the recent cleaning of the painting.”
Landrus, author of The Treasures of Leonardo da Vinci (HarperCollins, 2006), is also researching a copy of the Mona Lisa in a private collection that was once owned by Sir Joshua Reynolds. In an article by Michael Burrell in last September’s Apollo magazine, the copy (on view at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London through February 11) is compared with other early copies that reveal details no longer visible in Leonardo’s painting. Reynolds’s Mona Lisa was executed in the early 17th century, probably by a French copyist who seems to have had access to the French court at Fontainebleau. It may even have been traced from the original, Landrus believes. It “retains many of the original colors of the Mona Lisa,” he says, “and almost the same proportions. It has aged less than the original. In particular, it shows that the original colors included a deep blue sky, yellow sleeves, and dark green gown.”
The Mona Lisa, Landrus adds, is a “very dirty painting in very good condition, despite the fact that it was in the steamy atmosphere of the French king’s bathroom for a while, and even stolen.”
He continues, “But the painting attracts more than 6 million visitors a year, 90 percent of whom come to see the painting, more than half from out of the country. Taking it out of the box to clean it for even a day might be disastrous.”
Considering the controversy that erupted when the museum undertook a cleaning of Leonardo’s The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne in 1994, the Louvre is unlikely to attempt to clean the Mona Lisa anytime soon.
Laurie Hurwitz is the Paris correspondent for ARTnews.