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Secret Behind Mona Lisa Smile

July 17, 2010

French scientists from Center for Research and Restoration of the Museums of France equipped with an X-ray Fluorescence instrument might now be able to reveal the secrets behind the charming, enigmatic, life-like Mona Lisa smile. Since 1519, Mona Lisa painting has captivated all of us for such a realistic portrayal of facial expressions and people have been trying to understand the painting style used by Leonaro Da Vinci to achieve those features in the painting. There is a long history for Mona Lisa starting from 1503 when Leonardo first started painting it. Mona Lisa is a half length portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, wife of wealthy merchant in Tuscany, Italy. He painted it for four years and then left it unfinished until he started painting it again later when he moved to France in 1516. Finally, he finished the painting before he died in 1519. Since then Mona Lisa has changed many hands and places, finally ending up in Louvre museum in Paris. The painting was not that famous and known until middle of nineteenth century. The fame of the painting also brought notoriety.It was stolen in 1911 and was unfounded for two years. The painting was stolen by an Italian citizen who believed that the painting’s real place is in Italy not France and did it as an act of patriotism. He kept the painting at his place for two years and then tried to sell it to Florence gallery and was caught. Time and again various attempts have been made to vandalize the painting sometimes to garner attention, sometimes to show anger and sometimes just out of craziness. The painting now is protected in a bullet-proof containment to prevent any damage from such vandalism.

Coming back to recent study by French scientists to understand Leonardo’s style of painting that made this painting as well others so special, they used a non-destructive analytical technique called X-ray Fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) method to understand chemical composition of various layers in the painting. The technique involves a X-ray excitation source which illuminates the sample, which in this case is the painting. This incident x-ray when absorbed by the electrons in the innermost shell of the atom can excite them enough to be ejected from the innermost shell creating a vacancy. This creation of vacancy makes the atom unstable, thereby an electron from the outer shell jumps back to fill in the void and releasing a photon in the process. The wavelength of the photon released is typical to particular element determined by the energy difference between the shells and thus the element composition in the sample can be determined without destroying the sample.

Scientists analyzed seven of the museum’s paintings all creations of Leonardo– Virgin of the Rocks, Saint John the Baptist, Annunciation, Bacchus, Belle Ferronniere, Saint Anne and the Virgin and the Child. XRF analysis revealed that Leonardo used 30 layers of paints, total thickness amounting to about 40 micrometers, to produce special shades and features which gave these paintings amazing realistic features. This technique of shading to provide subtle features in the painting is called sfumato which has been in use since Renaissance period and Leonardo used this technique quite often. Photographers can probably better understand this concept by relating it to the idea of low contrast in photography. As Leonardo describes sfumato- “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” Scientists analyzed various layers in the painting and they found each layer had specific amount of pigmentation used which consisted of Magnesium oxide, copper and glazes. Further work using this technique can provide more information about the exact mix of pigments used in various layers to get different kinds of shadings. This could further give information about when and how these paintings were created.

I get pumped up when spectroscopic techniques are put to use in different fields for various applications whether it be precise measurements for fundamental discoveries or for finding cure for diseases or understanding mysteries of stars and planets or just for understanding the secret behind enigmatic Mona Lisa smile… I couldn’t resist myself posting about it.

Mona Lisa Picture credit: Flickr user dystopos| Used under Creative Commons License

XRF setup picture and Reference article: Revealing the sfumato Technique of Leonardo da Vinci by X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy, Laurence de Viguerie et al., Angewandte Chemie, 2010, doi: 10.1002/anie.201001116

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