• Italy's news in English
 

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
Chinese snap up bulk of Milan Expo tickets
Milan Expo commissioner Giuseppe Sala predicts the event will bring "added value" for Italy of around €10 billion. Photo: Olivier Morin/AFP

Chinese snap up bulk of Milan Expo tickets

Three months from opening day, organizers of this year's World Expo in Milan said on Thursday they had sold eight million tickets, a third of the projected total. READ  

Greece to bring anti-austerity battle to Rome
Yanis Varoufakis will arrive in Rome on Tuesday, after visiting London and Paris. Yanis Varoufakis photo: Shutterstock

Greece to bring anti-austerity battle to Rome

Greece's new left-wing Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis will visit Rome and two other European Union capitals next week to push the government's agenda for a renegotiated deal on its multi billion-euro bailout, his office said on Thursday. READ  

Milan probes Syrians for international terrorism
A man in the Syrian town of Kobane on January 28th 2015. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP

Milan probes Syrians for international terrorism

Prosecutors in Milan have accused six Syrians of international terrorism and other charges, following a series of violent incidents in northern Italy, national media reported on Thursday. READ  

Renzi backs judge to be next Italy president
Sergio Mattarella, 73, will be backed by Matteo Renzi's ruling Democratic Party (PD). Photo: Gerry Penny/AFP

Renzi backs judge to be next Italy president

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Thursday backed a Constitutional Court judge whose brother was slain by the mafia to be Italy's next president. READ  

Homeless to get haircut and shave at the Vatican
Showers, toilets and a barber service will be provided for the homeless under the colonnades of St Peter’s Square. Photo: Sneaker Dog

Homeless to get haircut and shave at the Vatican

Homeless people will soon be able to get a free shave and a haircut at the Vatican as part of a papal charity initiative. READ  

Rome defies ban to register gay civil unions
A woman celebrates Gay Pride in Rome. Gay Pride photo: Shutterstock

Rome defies ban to register gay civil unions

Councillors in Rome have agreed to start registering gay civil unions, despite same-sex relationships having no legal status in Italy. READ  

Giglio island wants €20m over Concordia tragedy
The Costa Concordia sunk off Giglio island in January 2012, killing 32 people. Photo: Giglio photo: Shutterstock

Giglio island wants €20m over Concordia tragedy

The Italian island of Giglio is seeking at least €20 million in compensation for the damage caused to the island by the sinking of the Costa Concordia. READ  

'Taking selfies with dead patients was wrong'
Investigators have estimated that there were 87 more deaths than average during a two-year period. Hospital photo: Shutterstock

'Taking selfies with dead patients was wrong'

An Italian nurse has admitted that taking photographs of herself with dead patients was “wrong” but has denied multiple murder charges in a case which has gripped the country. READ  

Six Nations Championship
Proud Parisse confident of Italy rugby revival
Italy's captain Sergio Parisse (L) and head coach Jacques Brunel pose with the new Six Nations trophy. Photo: Ben Stansall/AFP

Proud Parisse confident of Italy rugby revival

Italy captain Sergio Parisse expects his side to more than justify their place in the forthcoming Six Nations Championship following a lacklustre campaign last year. READ  

Italy artisan crafts guitars for musicians in need
Roberto Ceretti makes between five and six guitars a year. Photo: Marco Bertorello/AFP

Italy artisan crafts guitars for musicians in need

Offer Roberto Ceretti a fortune for one of his coveted hand-made guitars and he'll likely turn you down: the Italian craftsman may be in demand among collectors, but only plies his trade for top musicians in need. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
National
10 Italian words used differently in English
Business & Money
FATCA: 'The age of financial privacy is over'
National
26-year jail term sought for Concordia captain
Vatican
What did you think of the Pope's rabbit rant?
Culture
Italy seizes more than 5,000 looted artefacts
International
How can an American get Italian citizenship?
Travel
Italian hotel named best in world for families
Culture
Top 15 English words reinvented by Italians
Culture
Top 10: The best Italian inventions
Politics
Deputy Senate chief in Syria hostage sex row
National
A portrait of modern Italy in 10 stats
National
Muslims in Italy react to new Charlie Hebdo
National
Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Culture
Rome's Trevi pays tribute to late La Dolce Vita star
Politics
Paris attacks: Knock-on effects across Europe
National
Should Italy spy more after the Paris attack?
National
Italy moves to widen smoking ban
National
New mosque ban in Padua after Paris attacks
Business & Money
Italy banks on a future with foreign investors
National
Sicily bridge collapses within days of opening
Business & Money
Italy's luxury brands defy economic crisis
International
Why migrant smugglers are using 'ghost ships'
National
The Local's aspirations for Italy in 2015
National
Italy's top ten news stories in 2014
National
Doggy love works wonders at Italian prison
National
Russians line up to buy Italy's fairytale castles
Vatican
Artisans cry foul as Pope shuts down scrollmakers
Society
Condemned horses given new lease of life in Italy
National
Why has The Local got a new logo?
National
Top 10: 'Untranslatable' Italian words
Politics
Two Italian parties call for exit from euro
Culture
10 'Italian' dishes that don't exist in Italy
National
Disastrous olive oil harvests drive up prices
Culture
Top 10: One-hit wonders from Italy
National
Anti-mafia probe shakes Italian capital
National
'Mona Lisa was a slave from China': historian
Business & Money
Will Renzi really kick-start sclerotic Italy?
International
Italian man leaves million euro artwork on TGV
National
Italians post breast selfies 'for science'
Society
10 tips for men's winter fashion in Italy
Culture
Rome wins cameo role in new Bond film
Health
Cancer survival rates climb in Italy
National
Russian craft takes Italian astronaut to space
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

430
jobs available