• Italy's news in English
 
app_header_v3

Historian 'reveals' secret of Mona Lisa's smile

AFP · 10 Mar 2014, 09:01

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.

Story continues below…

"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
Migrant crossings to Italy - what do we know?
A report this month said there were around 800,000 migrants in Libya waiting to attempt the journey across the Mediterranean. Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP

With 13,000 people rescued in one week and hundreds presumed drowned, what do we know about migrant flows across the Mediterranean to Italy?

Italian gran drives wrong way along motorway...for 7km
The 80-year-old was heading home after going for pizza in Alghero, Sardinia. Photo: Cost of Living/Flickr

The 80-year-old was returning home – in pouring rain - to Sassari after spending the evening with friends at a pizzeria in Alghero, Sardinia, but took the wrong direction on the SS 291.

Video
Severe storms and flash floods wreak havoc in Milan
Severe storms caused flash floods in Milan on Monday. Photo: YouReporter

A hospital accident and emergency unit was flooded, while the River Lambro burst its banks.

Rome risks rubbish pile-up as binmen strike
An overflowing bin in front of the Pantheon, Rome. Photo: Andreas Solaro/AFP

Rome residents fear a national rubbish collection strike will cause the city's waste problems to spiral out of control.

Quiz
Quiz: Silvio Berlusconi versus Donald Trump - who said it?
Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi have much in common: Photos: Ethan Miller/AFP (L) and Tiziana Fabi/AFP (R)

With their perma-tans, riches and love of women, Donald Trump and Italy’s three-time prime minister Silvio Berlusconi are strikingly similar.

Ex-boyfriend of Rome student found burning to death probed
Prosecutors in Rome have opened a murder investigation. Photo: The Local

The student's burning body was found by her mother in the early hours of Sunday.

Italy hunts for more foreign directors in museum shake-up
A new director is wanted for the Roman ruins at Ostia Antica, among other sites. Photo: Sergio e Gabriella trentanni/Flickr

Do you fancy overseeing one of Italy's top cultural sites?

Migrant who survived boat wreck drowns in Italian lake
The migrant died after diving into Lake Sirio in Piedmont. Photo: Ilaria Coradazzi

A 24-year-old from the Ivory Coast who survived a shipwreck in the Mediterranean has drowned in a lake in northern Italy.

Dozens of kids die as boat tragedies claim up to 700 lives
A bout of good weather as summer arrives has kicked off a fresh stream of boats attempting to make the perilous crossing from Libya to Italy. Photo: Gabriel Buoys/AFP

A week of shipwrecks in the Mediterranean culminated on Sunday with 700 migrants feared dead and survivors giving harrowing testimony of dozens of small children drowned.

Dozens missing in fresh migrant shipwreck: rescuers
Dozens more migrants are reported missing after a fishing boat sank on Friday. Photo: AFP

The Italian coastguard is searching for survivors after an overloaded fishing boat sank off the coast of Libya.

Sponsored Article
Eat, learn, live: unforgettable holidays in France
National
Crew who sunk with WWII sub 'wanted to be found': relative
Sponsored Article
Why you should attend an international job fair
Culture
Why the average ancient Roman worker was dead by 30
Did a Nazi official save Ponte Vecchio from destruction?
National
How the brutal murder of an anti-mafia hero altered Sicily
Travel
These are the best beaches within easy reach of Rome
National
Why Italians are falling out of love with the EU
Business & Money
Foreign, female and a self-made success in arduous Italy
National
How Italy's richest region is feeling the migrant strain
Culture
Rome mulls 'metro museum' after new line unearths ruin
National
Why Italy's facing a birth rate apocalypse
National
Why talk of barriers is opening up old wounds in South Tyrol
Culture
Huge Roman villa found under Amalfi church set to open
Travel
Two men kicked off plane in what captain calls 'racist act'
Meet the expats making a career out of Italian food
Society
'Staying single is why I'm the world's oldest person'
Travel
Where can you find the best beaches in Italy?
The ultimate guide to the insanity of driving in Italy
Travel
Eight of Rome's most tantalizing foreign food gems
Migrant arrivals in Italy top 30,000 for 2016: navy
Italy’s deadliest earthquakes over the last 100 years
Travel
US passports now need six months validity for Italy
Travel
Six incredible ways Italy profoundly changed my life
2,520
jobs available