IT’S a mystery which has confounded art critics across the ages.
But could Sunderland University academics have discovered the secret behind the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile?
Professors claim an earlier portrait by Leonardo da Vinci showed the subject with a similar enigmatic expression as Mona Lisa’s.
Working alongside members of Sheffield Hallam University, the art experts studied a lesser-known painting by the Renaissance master which shows evidence of the artistic skill that would later give his most famous portrait her mysterious allure.
The study reveals the subject of La Bella Principessa, painted by da Vinci before the Mona Lisa in the late 15th century, also has an “uncatchable” smile, in which the shape of her mouth appears to change according to view point.
When viewed directly, the slant of the mouth is distinctly downwards but as the eye moves elsewhere to examine other features, the mouth appears to take an upward turn, creating a smile that can only be seen indirectly, much like Mona Lisa’s, say the academics.
La Bella Principessa is thought to depict 13-year-old Bianca Sforza, the daughter of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan, who was to be married to a commander of the duke’s Milanese forces and died within months of the marriage, having suffered a possible ectopic pregnancy.
Prof Michael Pickard, from the University of Sunderland, who co-authored the study, said: “It is not difficult to believe that Leonardo would have seen below the surface and wanted to capture the subtle essence of the girl, using a technique he would so famously master in the Mona Lisa.”
Alessandro Soranzo, from Sheffield Hallam’s department of psychology, said: “The results from the experiments support the hypothesis that there is a gaze-dependent illusory effect in the portrait of La Bella Principessa.
“Although it remains a question whether the illusion was intended, given Leonardo’s mastery of the technique and its subsequent use in the Mona Lisa, it is quite conceivable that the ambiguity of the effect was intentional, based on explicit artistic skill and used in line with Leonardo’s maxim that portraits should reflect some ‘inner turmoil of the mind’.”