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Why is the Mona Lisa smiling? You asked Google – here’s the answer

David Colman - The Guardian - Tue, Feb 20th 2018

Every day millions of people ask Google life’s most difficult questions. Our writers answer some of the commonest queries 

People look at the Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo Da Vinci at its new home in the Louvre museum, in Paris.

Of all the world’s enigmatic works of art, it is probably the Mona Lisathat people are the most curious about. And indeed, it is hard to imagine why a 77x53cm painting on a piece of wood might be worth more than double the £340m paid for Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi last year. So – why is she worth so much? Why is she so famous? Why is she smiling? There are answers – but they only tell you so much.




It’s excellent 
The best known of Leonardo’s few known works (less than 30 exist today), the Mona Lisa may also be the most complete, realising several key signatures. There’s his apparent use of the famed “golden ratio” to sketch out the composition. There’s his mastery of spatial geometry meandering toward the punto di fuga, or “vanishing point”. And there’s his sfumato, trademark painting technique (Italian for “veiled” or “shaded”), a sort of smoky softness over the whole composition. Combined, these effects pull in the viewer’s eye, giving the painting an almost hypnotic power at odds with its humble size and subject. And most famous of all is her faintly amused smile. As the 16th-century writer Giorgio Vasari described it: “A smile so pleasing that it was more divine than human.” 



Leonardo died in France in 1519; the painting went to its owner, King Francis I of France, Leonardo’s last great patron; it remained with the French monarchy until the revolution. After briefly hanging in Napoleon’s bedroom in the early 1800s, the painting went to the country’s new art museum, the Louvre, where interest in her (and her smile) caught on and built slowly over the next century.

It’s got drama

Then, in the 20th century, the Mona Lisa went from painting to pop idol. First, the journal of a visitor to Leonardo’s workshop in 1517 came to light, clearly implying he saw not one but two very similar Mona Lisa paintings, which suggested that the portrait in the Louvre might not be of Lisa del Giocondo, but a mysterious someone else. Then, in 1911 the painting was stolen from the Louvre; among the suspects questioned were poet Guillaume Apollinaire and … Pablo Picasso. The Mona Lisa was finally recovered in 1913 – the same year that the “second” Mona Lisa was discovered in an English estate. (Appearing to be an earlier portrait of del Giocondo, the “Isleworth Mona Lisa” still has experts bickering over authenticity a century later.) The 21st century (and the novel The Da Vinci Code) has only amped up her supposed enigmas, making her an occult mystery, shrouded in conspiracy theories and buried in fake news.

That’s the gist. But that doesn’t really explain the painting’s appeal – she doesn’t really symbolise the breadth of Leonardo’s interests and ideas (about mechanics, astronomy, architecture, optics and more). To really understand the true importance of the Mona Lisa, you have to go back to the old question: why is she smiling? But the only way this works is by contemplating it not as a question, but as an answer.

The reason we ask why she is smiling is actually because all the other portraits aren’t. Before, during and long after the Renaissance, artists did not paint their subjects smiling. Leonardo made a definite decision, though, even hiring people to come and, wrote Vasari, “make her remain merry, in order to take away that melancholy which painters are often wont to give to the portraits that they paint”. 




What this little gesture did was huge: it brought art to life. In the centuries leading up to the Renaissance, paintings were generally created as idealised images, often religious, to be contemplated and revered. The Mona Lisa was a real woman who with a smile initiated a dialogue with the viewer that had not existed before; it changed the very nature of the relationship between art and audience. With that one smile, Leonardo had imbued a work of art with a conceptual stroke of what’s now called “genius”. 



So, it’s not why she’s smiling that’s important, it’s that she’s smiling. Not as exciting as a code in her clothing, but more useful: the trick of using a question as a clue and a key can be surprisingly useful. Take one of the queries that has vexed humanity for centuries. What is the meaning of life? Inspiring films, self-help books and clever cartoons have all taken a crack at it, to no avail. So if we consider the question as an endless, fruitless quest, we might reasonably assume that meaning is something we care an awful lot about.

The Isleworth Mona Lisa. Photograph: Denis Balibouse/Reuters

And it is. We need meaning urgently; we seek it out, from the physical environment we negotiate all day long to the facial expressions in those we encounter, and it labels thousands or even millions of things before you even know it’s happened. The human brain is in a constant state of what Travis Proulx, a senior lecturer at Cardiff University, has called “meaning maintenance”. All these meanings gets instantly arranged in a staggeringly huge personal cosmology of meanings that make up your reality (just like in The Matrix). The perceptual psychologist James Gibson called all these labelled meanings “affordances”, since they all afford you different experiences and relationships. The more they afford you, the more meaning they hold for you. That is why we love a nice, juicy mystery that engages us with a tantalising trail of un-affordances all leading up to the killer’s climactic unveiling.

Things that don’t add up get our attention; we want everything to square. The train is oddly late. Why? Your coworker made a weird remark. Why? Questioning something as big as the meaning of life just shorts out the system. Pushing “all of life” and “your life” into one concept is way too massive and nebulous to be coherent – so the system freezes. Meanwhile, all your emotions about your life and yourself – what you could be, what you could have been. Together, the freeze and the feelings give the illusion that something is really missing.





“Why?” People often asked her.

She told them: “You have to live with the mystery.”

• David Colman is a freelance journalist 

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