guardian.co.uk, Sunday 12 December 2010 19.49 GMT
Tom Kington in Rome
Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of Mona Lisa contains several clues as to the model’s identity, Vinceti claims. Photograph: Gianni Dagli Orti/Corbis
An Italian researcher has sparked new controversy over the world’s most famous painting by claiming Leonardo da Vinci painted tiny letters into the eyes of the Mona Lisa which may finally reveal the disputed identity of his model.
To arrive at a theory worthy of The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown’s 2003 bestseller, researcher Silvano Vinceti avoided the Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile and instead gazed deep into her eyes with the help of high-resolution images.
“Invisible to the naked eye and painted in black on green-brown are the letters LV in her right pupil, obviously Leonardo’s initials, but it is what is in her left pupil that is far more interesting,” said Vinceti, the chairman of the Italian national committee for cultural heritage.
Vinceti said that the letters B or S, or possibly the initials CE, were discernible, a vital clue to identifying the model who sat for the Renaissance artist. She has often been named as Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant, but Vinceti disagreed, claiming Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa in Milan. He said he would announce his conclusions next month.
“On the back of the painting are the numbers ‘149’, with a fourth number erased, suggesting he painted it when he was in Milan in the 1490s, using as a model a woman from the court of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan,” said Vinceti, who claimed earlier this year that he had identified the lost remains of the painter Michelangelo da Caravaggio.
In The Da Vinci Code, Brown suggests Mona Lisa is an anagram for Amon l’Isa, referring to ancient Egyptian deities.
“Leonardo was keen on symbols and codes to get messages across, and he wanted us to know the identity of the model using the eyes, which he believed were the door to the soul and a means for communication,” said Vinceti.
He said that while researching the model’s identity he had been inspired by a 1960s book by a French art historian, which mentions the letters in her eyes.
“Under the right-hand arch of the bridge seen in the background, Leonardo also painted 72, or L2, another possible clue,” he added. “Two expert painters we consulted on this tell us that all these marks, painted using a tiny brush and a magnifying glass, cannot be an error.”
Enigmatic smile of Leonardo da
Vinci’s Mona Lisa a sign of ill
Medical inspection of Da Vinci’s masterpiece reveals model’s high cholesterol
John Hooper in Rome
guardian.co.uk, Tuesday 5 January 2010 19.51 GMT
The Mona Lisa may have an enigmatic smile. But she – or rather Leonardo’s model – also had worryingly high levels of cholesterol. As for her triglycerides, well, they were simply off the dial.
The conclusions are those of an Italian academic who has been pioneering learning at the hitherto unsuspected point at which art history overlaps anatomical pathology. Studying Da Vinci’s masterpiece with the eye of a medical scientist, Vito Franco of the University of Palermo noted a so-called xanthelasma – a subcutaneous accumulation of cholesterol – in the hollow of the Mona Lisa’s left eye, and a tell-tale lipoma, a fatty tissue tumour, on one hand.
“The people depicted [in art] tell us about their vulnerable humanity, independently of the awareness of the artist”, Franco told the Italian daily La Stampa.
Among his other findings are that two of the most iconic figures in Renaissance art had a rare condition that may also afflict Osama Bin Laden. One is the young man with a red cap and distinctly sardonic expression who is the subject of Botticelli’s Portrait of a Youth, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.
The other is the sinuous and sinewy lady who modelled for Parmigianino in the 1530s when he painted his Madonna with Long Neck. The unfinished work, on which Parmigianino laboured for six years, is now in the Uffizi in Florence.
The subjects of both paintings have unnaturally long fingers and slender hands. Franco believes they had a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome, named after the French paediatrician who first identified it in the 19th century. Al-Qaida’s tall and bony founder is also suspected to suffer from Marfan syndrome, which affects the connective tissues.
Over the centuries, millions of words have been written about the enigmatic iconography of Piero della Francesca’s Madonna del Parto: his rendering of a pregnant Mary. It has been argued that the tent in which she is standing is an allusion to the Ark of the Covenant and, five years ago, a Florentine author linked the painting to the suppression of the Knights Templar in the 14th century.
The contribution of what Franco calls “icono-diagnostics” is to point out that the swollen Madonna with one hand on her hip was probably a local peasant girl who would soon have looked a lot less attractive than the saintly mother-to-be in the painting. There are signs of an incipient goitre on her slender neck – typical of country-dwellers who contracted the ailment by drinking nothing but rain water.
The Spanish infanta, Margarita, in Velázquez’s court masterpiece, Las Meninas, may also have been developing a goitre. But Franco puts that down to McCune-Albright syndrome, another genetic disorder associated with premature puberty.
In one celebrated painting, it is an artist who serves as both model and sufferer. Raphael’s The School of Athens in the Vatican includes a depiction of a glum-looking Michelangelo in the left foreground. Well he might look dejected, said Franco.
His swollen knees “appear to indicate an excess of uric acid, typical of those afflicted by renal calculosis. There again, for months and months he had been living off nothing but bread and wine as he worked day and night on his masterpiece, the Sistine Chapel”.
One of the most complete examples of the evolution of a medical condition traceable in art comes, not from the Renaissance of Spain’s Golden Age, but from the 20th century.
The Dutch magical realist Dick Ket, who died in 1940 at the age of only 37, suffered from a congenital heart defect, thought to have been Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF).
An unusually high proportion of Ket’s works – some 40 out of about 140 – were self-portraits, and they chronicle the evolution of the disorder. One, completed in the year before he died, shows him with the clubbing of the fingers that is typical of several heart and lung complaints.
“In a painting seven years before, his fingers are less deformed,” said Professor Franco. “But it shows an abnormal swelling of the veins on his neck – a sign of the same syndrome, but in its initial phase.”