Timeless and Time Consuming

12 April 2006

French Scholar May Have Cracked Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” Code

Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa” is the most famous painting in the world in part because of the “sfumato” or “smoky finish” it bears. Jacques Franck, an acknowledged Da Vinci expert with a rather controversial reputation, says he has figured out how it was done. Surprisingly, it wasn’t done with a roller in a single stroke.

“The fundamental problem with ‘sfumato’ is knowing how shadow and light were linked in such an imperceptible way," said Mr. Franck, who is consultant to the Armand Hammer Center for Da Vinci Studies at the University of California. “I believe that Leonardo used a technique which I call micro-division. Over a base coat -- called the imprimatura -- in pale yellow, Leonardo da Vinci started by creating contrasts by using very diluted, reddish tones. Then he went over the shadows very finely with a system of hatching.” Then, another coat of imprimatura was applied to “mask or abolish the sharp outlines of her form.” The Romans had done this centuries before, but Mr. Da Vinci wasn’t finished.

“When it came to Mona Lisa's face, I believe that Leonardo must have applied 30 layers. He must have worked with a magnifying glass, getting down to brushstrokes no longer than one-thirtieth or one-fortieth of a millimeter.” That means the head of a pin would dwarf the smallest brush-strokes. Given the materials of the time, he would have had to wait several days between layers. This means the work would have taken years.

Mr. Franck’s approach has put some noses out of joint. Some say that because the masterpiece’s brush strokes are “invisible” it is impossible to figure out how they were made. Still, Jean-Pierre Mohen of the French national art laboratory C2RMF, which has been doing similar work on the painting. “He has moved knowledge forward, not in an analytical way, but experimentally," he said. “The Mona Lisa was a work which was accomplished slowly, meticulously, with enormous power of thought and experience of life. And all that to re-create a smile which must originally have lasted for only a quarter of a second.”

Even though tastes here run more to Canaletto and the Venetian School, one can’t help but agree with Marcel Duchamp. LHOOQ, indeed.

© Copyright 2006 by The Kensington Review, Jeff Myhre, PhD, Editor. No part of this publication may be reproduced without written consent. Produced using Fedora Linux.


WWW Kensington Review

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More