• Italy edition
 
Historian 'reveals' secret of Mona Lisa's smile
Photo: Wikipedia

Historian 'reveals' secret of Mona Lisa's smile

Published: 10 Mar 2014 09:01 GMT+01:00

In a just-published book, "The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa," William Varvel argues that La Gioconda was a 16th-century feminist who favored a greater role for women in the Catholic church.

"La Gioconda was trying to get people to see that the New Jerusalem would be here as soon as you recognize women's theological rights," Varvel, 53, a former mathematics professor, told AFP in a telephone interview.

"La Gioconda may be a grand statement for women's rights," he added.

His theory joins many others -- some serious, others fanciful - surrounding what is perhaps the world's most famous painting, which draws legions of tourists every day to the Louvre museum in Paris.

History remembers the Mona Lisa as Lisa del Giocondo, a mother of five born into an aristocratic Florentine family whose husband, a cloth and silk merchant, commissioned the portrait.

Da Vinci, who had already painted The Last Supper for a Dominican convent, toiled on the oil-on-poplar painting from 1503 to 1506 and perhaps several years after.

In his 180-page book that's not always an easy read, Varvel explains that, in the course of his career, Da Vinci had painted "each and every verse" of the final chapter of the Old Testament's book of Zechariah, which anticipates the rise of an ideal society within a New Jerusalem.

He did so, Varvel contends, "in order to state that women's rights to the priesthood should be recognized."

What's more, the author said, "Leonardo constructed and placed a total of 40 separate symbols taken from chapter 14 into the background, middle ground and foreground of the composition of the Mona Lisa."

Religious clues?

Thus, Calvary rises from behind the Mona Lisa's right shoulder, while the Mount of Olives is on the other side. And folds on the arms of her robe suggest a yoke - a reference to Biblical texts and women's oppression.

For Da Vinci, the idea of a New Jerusalem "was based upon a universal recognition of both men and women of the laity to have recognized rights of the priesthood of Jesus Christ," Varvel said.

He added: "The perception of the New Jerusalem is the secret that her smile reflects."

Fascination with the Mona Lisa endures: over the years, some viewers claim to have sensed mysterious signs in her eyes, her voice has been reconstructed by Japanese enthusiasts, and a doctor once diagnosed her as having an excess of cholesterol.

"It's even been said that she's a man, even the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself," art historian Laure Fagnart told AFP.

"In my mind, there's nothing that's really hidden from us," added Fagnart, a specialist in Renaissance art at the University of Liege in Belgium who has not read Varvel's book.

"This is the portrait of a bourgeois woman like dozens of others from that time, albeit perhaps more difficult to read than other works," she said.

"Da Vinci was an artist who put thought into his painting, he did nothing in an innocent fashion."

For all the years he's committed to studying the Mona Lisa, Varvel has never actually seen it up close.

"I'm not going to fight the crowd to see La Gioconda," he said. "If I go to Paris, the Louvre is going to give me a private showing -- and if they don't, I won't go."

Don't miss stories about France, join us on Facebook and Twitter

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Bra shop offers best prices for biggest busts
The advert on Lovable's website.

Bra shop offers best prices for biggest busts

The bigger the breast size, the bigger the discount. That’s the special offer an Italian lingerie chain gave to women to mark its 50th anniversary. READ  

Intesa Sanpaolo may buy Queen's bank: report
Zurich-based Coutts International has been valued at up to $1 billion (€805 million). Photo: Odd Andersen/AFP

Intesa Sanpaolo may buy Queen's bank: report

Shares in Intesa Sanpaolo leapt on Monday following a report the Italian bank is mulling a bid for Coutts, the British private bank that counts Queen Elizabeth II among its clients. READ  

Italian doctor contracts Ebola in Sierra Leone
An Italian doctor has contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone. Photo: Seyrellou/AFP

Italian doctor contracts Ebola in Sierra Leone

UPDATED: An Italian doctor has contracted Ebola in Sierra Leone and is being repatriated for treatment, the health ministry said on Monday. READ  

Foreigners more at risk of poverty than Italians
Locals in other European countries fare better than Italians do at home. Europe map: Shutterstock

Foreigners more at risk of poverty than Italians

Foreigners in Italy are more at risk of poverty and social exclusion than Italians, new figures from the EU show. READ  

Poll win for Renzi but voters fire warning shots
Matteo Renzi said the results were a "clear victory" for his Democratic Party. Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP

Poll win for Renzi but voters fire warning shots

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Monday celebrated his centre-left Democratic Party's victory in two regional elections, despite a record low turnout as disenchanted voters stayed away from the polls. READ  

Egypt's Sisi in Rome on first European visit
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi arrives in Rome on Monday for talks with Pope Francis and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Photo: Khaled Desouki/AFP

Egypt's Sisi in Rome on first European visit

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi left for Rome on Monday on his first European trip since ousting his Islamist predecessor and overseeing a crackdown that has killed hundreds. READ  

Italian goalkeeper Perin caught drink driving
The incident came only days after Perin made his Italy debut. Mattia Perin photo: Shutterstock

Italian goalkeeper Perin caught drink driving

Genoa goalkeeper Mattia Perin is facing a fine and having his driving licence suspended after being caught driving under the influence of alcohol, reports in Italy said on Sunday. READ  

Russian craft takes Italian astronaut to space
Samantha Cristoforetti is on her way to the International Space Station. Photo: Kirill Kudryavtsev/AFP

Russian craft takes Italian astronaut to space

A Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying Italy's first female astronaut safely blasted off on Sunday to begin its journey to the International Space Station. READ  

Pope to address EU parliament amid criticism
European Parliament chief Martin Schulz (left) has been criticized for inviting Pope France to address a secular body. Photo: Andrew Medichini/AFP

Pope to address EU parliament amid criticism

Pope Francis is expected to take Europe to task over racial and religious intolerance during a visit to the European Parliament on Tuesday, as the crisis-hit continent battles growing populism and the spectre of radicalization. READ  

Italian regional polls test Renzi's popularity
Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's popularity has been strained by economic strife and social tensions. Photo: Andreas Solaro

Italian regional polls test Renzi's popularity

Two Italian regions voted on Sunday in elections seen as a test of popularity for youthful centre-left Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
Russian fined €20,000 for defacing Colosseum
National
Mafia use tigers and parrots to wield power
National
Top ten: Italy's weirdest place names
National
Mafia 'cashes in' on Sicily's migrant influx
National
Dozens of foreigners vie for €1 homes in Sicily
Sponsored Article
Ever wanted to try out home exchange?
International
Italy: Crimean Russians won't get visas from us
National
Wild bears spark fear in Italy's north
National
Italy's immigration crisis moves to the streets
Society
Italy under pressure over Roma camps squalor
International
VIDEO: Greenpeace activist injured in Canary Islands oil clash
Vatican
Topless feminists target 'political' Pope
Education
Italy's 'rigid' education system stifles job market
Education
Italians speak better English than the French
Education
How Turin is defying Italian austerity
Travel
Top ten: great late autumn escapes in Italy
National
Quake experts cleared in 'science on trial' case
Culture
10 things you should never say to an Italian
Travel
Italy tops world favourite destination list
Gallery
Top 10: The best Italian proverbs
Opinion
Why foreigners in Italy are happier than Italians
Opinion
'Forget the baby bonus, we need investment'
National
UN fears for migrants as Italy ends rescue mission
Politics
Quiz: How well do you know Italian politics?
Culture
Ten Rome baristas who brighten your day
Business & Money
Italy bows to EU pressure over budget
Travel
Ten of the best students bars in Rome
National
'Italy is the real sick man of Europe'
Society
Semi-clad tourists dance in priceless fountain
National
Singing nun picks Like a Virgin for debut album
National
Where's the best place to live in Italy?
National
Amorous Italian couple get stuck in frolic at sea
Culture
Test your Italian history with The Local's quiz
Travel
Top ten: Travel warnings for Italy
International
Revealed: The cost of home comforts in Italy
Health
Nurse 'killed 38 patients for being annoying'
Culture
Breaking Balsamic: See US writer's potent parody
Opinion
Is Italy a desirable place for foreigners to work?
Culture
Top ten: Things Italian mothers say
Society
Mayors vow to defy gay marriage registration ban
Travel
How well do you know Italy's geography?
National
Ten Italian 'false friends' you need to watch out for
International
Italian student tipped to win British X-Factor
Business & Money
Italy ranked ninth most desirable place to work
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se

511
jobs available
The Local Spain is hiring!
The Local is seeking a new editor for our site in Spain to join our growing team of internationally-minded, driven, ambitious and clued-up journalists
Click here for the full job description