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Was feminism behind the Mona Lisa smile?

  • “La Gioconda,” or as English-speakers know her, the Mona Lisa.(Photo courtesy of WikiMedia Commons)

WASHINGTON: It’s taken him 12 years, but an amateur art historian from Texas reckons he’s solved the mystery of the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile, five centuries after it was immortalized by Leonardo da Vinci.

In a recently published book, “The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa,” William Varvel argues “La Gioconda” was an early 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, said in a telephone interview.

He speculated that La Gioconda, which draws legions of tourists to the Paris Louvre every day, “may be a grand statement for women’s rights.”

His theory joins many others – some serious, others fanciful – surrounding what is perhaps the world’s most famous painting.

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

Da Vinci had already painted “The Last Supper” for a Dominican convent when he began toiling on the oil-on-poplar painting. He worked on it from 1503 to 1506 and perhaps for several years after.

In his 180-page book, Varvel explains that, in the course of his career, Da Vinci painted “each and every verse” of the final chapter of the Old Testament Book of Zechariah, which anticipates the rise of an ideal society within a New Jerusalem.

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.

“The perception of the New Jerusalem is the secret that her smile reflects,” he adds.

Varvel concludes that Da Vinci painted the work “in order to state that women’s rights to the priesthood should be recognized.”

What’s more, the author continues, “Leonardo placed a total of 40 separate symbols taken from chapter 14 into the background, middleground and foreground of the composition of the Mona Lisa.”

Thus, Calvary rises from behind the Mona Lisa’s right shoulder, while the Mount of Olives is on the other side.

Folds on the arms of her robe suggest a yoke – an apparent reference to the Bible and women’s oppression.

Fascination with the Mona Lisa endures. Over the years, Japanese enthusiasts have reconstructed her voice, a doctor has diagnosed her with an excess of cholesterol and some viewers have even claimed that they sensed mysterious signs in her eyes.

“It’s even been said that she’s a man,” observed art historian Laure Fagnart, “even the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself.”

A specialist in Renaissance art at Belgium’s University of Liege, Fagnart has not read Varvel’s book – which, it should be noted, is not always an easy read.

“In my mind,” Fagnart added, “there’s nothing that’s really hidden from us. This is the portrait of a bourgeois woman like dozens of others from that time, albeit perhaps more difficult to read than other works.

“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. If they don’t, I won’t go.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 11, 2014, on page 16.
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Summary

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

Da Vinci had already painted "The Last Supper" for a Dominican convent when he began toiling on the oil-on-poplar painting.

Thus, Calvary rises from behind the Mona Lisa's right shoulder, while the Mount of Olives is on the other side.

Fascination with the Mona Lisa endures.

A specialist in Renaissance art at Belgium's University of Liege, Fagnart has not read Varvel's book – which, it should be noted, is not always an easy read.

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


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