• France edition
 
Historian 'reveals' secret of Mona Lisa's smile
Was Mona Lisa a 16th century feminist? Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

Historian 'reveals' secret of Mona Lisa's smile

Published: 10 Mar 2014 08:20 GMT+01:00
Updated: 10 Mar 2014 08:20 GMT+01:00

In a just-published book, "The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa," William Varvel argues that La Gioconda was a 16th-century feminist who favored a greater role for women in the Catholic church.

"La Gioconda was trying to get people to see that the New Jerusalem would be here as soon as you recognize women's theological rights," Varvel, 53, a former mathematics professor, told AFP in a telephone interview.

"La Gioconda may be a grand statement for women's rights," he added.

His theory joins many others -- some serious, others fanciful - surrounding what is perhaps the world's most famous painting, which draws legions of tourists every day to the Louvre museum in Paris.

History remembers the Mona Lisa as Lisa del Giocondo, a mother of five born into an aristocratic Florentine family whose husband, a cloth and silk merchant, commissioned the portrait.

Da Vinci, who had already painted The Last Supper for a Dominican convent, toiled on the oil-on-poplar painting from 1503 to 1506 and perhaps several years after.

In his 180-page book that's not always an easy read, Varvel explains that, in the course of his career, Da Vinci had painted "each and every verse" of the final chapter of the Old Testament's book of Zechariah, which anticipates the rise of an ideal society within a New Jerusalem.

He did so, Varvel contends, "in order to state that women's rights to the priesthood should be recognized."

What's more, the author said, "Leonardo constructed and placed a total of 40 separate symbols taken from chapter 14 into the background, middle ground and foreground of the composition of the Mona Lisa."

Religious clues?

Thus, Calvary rises from behind the Mona Lisa's right shoulder, while the Mount of Olives is on the other side. And folds on the arms of her robe suggest a yoke - a reference to Biblical texts and women's oppression.

For Da Vinci, the idea of a New Jerusalem "was based upon a universal recognition of both men and women of the laity to have recognized rights of the priesthood of Jesus Christ," Varvel said.

He added: "The perception of the New Jerusalem is the secret that her smile reflects."

Fascination with the Mona Lisa endures: over the years, some viewers claim to have sensed mysterious signs in her eyes, her voice has been reconstructed by Japanese enthusiasts, and a doctor once diagnosed her as having an excess of cholesterol.

"It's even been said that she's a man, even the portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself," art historian Laure Fagnart told AFP.

"In my mind, there's nothing that's really hidden from us," added Fagnart, a specialist in Renaissance art at the University of Liege in Belgium who has not read Varvel's book.

"This is the portrait of a bourgeois woman like dozens of others from that time, albeit perhaps more difficult to read than other works," she said.

"Da Vinci was an artist who put thought into his painting, he did nothing in an innocent fashion."

For all the years he's committed to studying the Mona Lisa, Varvel has never actually seen it up close.

"I'm not going to fight the crowd to see La Gioconda," he said. "If I go to Paris, the Louvre is going to give me a private showing -- and if they don't, I won't go."

Don't miss stories about France, join us on Facebook and Twitter

AFP/The Local (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

Don't miss...X
Left Right

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Hollande unveils reforms to help France's hard-up
François Hollande has announced a raft of reforms imed at boosting the country's most hard-up. Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

Hollande unveils reforms to help France's hard-up

President François Hollande on Wednesday vowed to go "faster and further" with reforms as he announced a raft of measures to bolster France's stagnant economy including fairer income tax levels and a relaxation of Sunday shopping rules. READ  

Future of Paris 'not promising', study says
Paris is among the world's most influential cities, but for how much longer? Photo: La Defense.

Future of Paris 'not promising', study says

A new study says Paris is in the top three of the world's most influential cities, but its position is under threat and the city's future is apparently "not promising". READ  

Northern France hopes beer will boost tourism
Nord-Pas-de-Calais hopes to take advantage of its beer heritage to boost tourism. Photo: Thomas Huguen/AFP

Northern France hopes beer will boost tourism

It already has wine, champagne and cider and but a hard-up region of northern of France, is hoping to boost its local tourism industry by tapping into another drink which forms part of its proud heritage – locally brewed beer. READ  

Hollande calls for summit on Islamist threat
President François Hollande said the threat posed by Islamic extremists is the most since 2001. Photo: Pascal Pavani/AFP

Hollande calls for summit on Islamist threat

French President François Hollande plans to set up an international conference to tackle the question of what to do about Islamic extremists in Iraq. He views the situation as the most serious since the rise of Al Qaeda in 2001. READ  

Interview: Liberation of Paris
'Three years underground and then the call came'
David Leiba was a Jewish French resistance fighter who helped liberate Paris from the Nazis. Photo: Joshua Melvin/The Local

'Three years underground and then the call came'

David Leiba lived underground as a French resistance fighter for years before resurfacing in the rebellion that forced the German army out of Paris. He tells The Local of his memories of the ecstatic and terrifying final moments of the Nazi occupation READ  

Hollande returns to work as problems mount up
President François Hollande and his PM Manuel Valls discuss their return to work. Photo: Bertrand Langlois/AFP

Hollande returns to work as problems mount up

The French president returns to the front line on Wednesday for his first cabinet meeting. On his packed agenda will be the stagnant economy, the threat of deflation, unemployment and more in-fighting within his own party. READ  

France tries to take sting out of Asian hornets
France is fighting back against the Asian hornet, using rods, chickens and drones. Photo: T-Mizo/Flickr

France tries to take sting out of Asian hornets

After slipping into southwest France 10 years ago in a pottery shipment from China Asian hornets have since invaded more than half the country. Now France is fighting back, using drones, poisoned rods and even chickens. READ  

Liberation of Paris: Ten things you need to know
Ten facts you didn't know about the liberation of Paris, including how many female collaborators were "purified". Photo: Critical past/YouTube

Liberation of Paris: Ten things you need to know

From the "purifying" of thousands of women, to pool room surrenders, here's ten facts about a momentous moment in French history that you might not have known about. READ  

VIDEO: Paris in time lapse
Beauty of Paris captured in time lapse video
"I wanted to capture Paris in all it's glory". Photo: Screengrab Paul Richardson

Beauty of Paris captured in time lapse video

On his first trip to Paris, filmmaker Paul Richardson vowed to capture the city in all its glory. And he did just that, as this impressive time lapse video, called "J'adore Paris" shows. Watch it for yourself. READ  

Air France staff object to flying to Ebola countries
Air France staff want flights to Ebola hit countries to be suspended. Photo: AFP

Air France staff object to flying to Ebola countries

Air France cabin crew are so concerned about the threat of the Ebola epidemic that unions have started a petition calling for flights to be stopped to those West African countries most affected by the disease. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Travel
Watch this impressive time lapse video and you'll want to move to Paris
National
Veiled Muslim woman on a French beach prompts politician's angry rant
Travel
Forget Paris and Provence where are the least touristy areas of France?
Gallery
IN PICTURES: The battle to liberate Paris from the Nazis
National
What France means to you in just one tweet
National
15 French 'false friends' you need to watch out for
International
12 reasons to invest in Paris and seven not to
National
French hamlet 'Death to Jews' mulls name change
National
French tourist caught in Pompeii brothel romp
International
'Forget the Anglo-media's image of France, the reality is much different'
Culture
VIDEO: Francophile Robin Williams enjoyed poking fun at the French
Travel
Six reasons why France is the world's top tourist destination
International
Remembering the 'forgotten campaign' in the liberation of France
Gallery
VIDEO: French bucket list - The 12 best things to do in France
International
Do three French cities deserve to be in top 10 "World 's Most Unfriendly"?
Gallery
Don't make a faux pas! Ten things not to do when working in France
Health
Ebola: What is the risk of it coming to France?
Health
Are the French really a nation of smokers?
Culture
Frightened by the prospect of long French dinners? You're not alone
National
'Stay in Paris in August? You'd have to be crazy'
International
Calais migrant crisis: 'People will be killed if nothing is done'
Culture
Paris is closed for August, but will it always be like that?
Culture
Paris: The not-so-Grande Arche has fallen into a sorry state
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

Latest news from The Local in Sweden

More news from Sweden at thelocal.se