• 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

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)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
Le Pen forced to justify €9m loan from Russia
France's far right has turned to a Russian lender to beef up its war chest ahead of next year's local elections. Photo: AFP

Le Pen forced to justify €9m loan from Russia

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s cash-strapped far-right National Front (FN), on Sunday justified her party's €9 million loan from a Russian Bank saying it was needed to beef up their war chest ahead of local elections, saying “French banks won’t lend to us”. READ  

Recognising Palestine?
Israel warns France of 'grave mistake'
Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu (right) has warned France of a 'grave mistake' if it recognises Palestine in a parliamentary vote. Photo: AFP

Israel warns France of 'grave mistake'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned France that its parliament would be making a "grave mistake" if it recognises a Palestinian state in a vote on December 2. READ  

Ligue 1 round-up
Gignac helps Marseille retake top spot from PSG
Marseille win to retake top spot in Ligue from PSG. Photo: AFP

Gignac helps Marseille retake top spot from PSG

Marseille regained top spot in Ligue 1 on Sunday thanks to a 3-1 win over Bordeaux. The victory keeps Marcelo Bielsa's side just one point ahead of PSG, who also won. READ  

French city bans billboards from streets
Grenoble in south-eastern France has banned all street advertising. Photo: AFP/Pierre Andrieu

French city bans billboards from streets

The eastern French city of Grenoble has become the first city in Europe to ban all commercial street advertising. The city's Green mayor says the commercials will be replaced with trees and community noticeboards. READ  

Down's syndrome man gets 30k birthday cards
Manuel Parisseaux was sent an incredible 30,000 birthday cards from all around the world, thanks to his mother. Photo: Screengrab Facebook

Down's syndrome man gets 30k birthday cards

When the French mother of a man with Down's syndrome put out a call on Facebook for her friends to send her son a card for his 30th birthday, she could never have imagined what happened next. READ  

Armed Isis Islamist 'grew up in French village'
Demonstrators protesting against Isis. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP

Armed Isis Islamist 'grew up in French village'

One of three Kalashnikov-wielding Islamists seen burning their French passports in an Islamic State propaganda video this week grew up in a small village in southern France, the mayor said Saturday. READ  

Tactical Argentina stun France in Paris
Photo: Frank Fife/AFP

Tactical Argentina stun France in Paris

Argentina produced a tactical masterclass to beat France 18-13 at the Stade de France in Paris on Saturday. READ  

French PM Valls arrives in Chad on regional trip
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls with President Francois Hollande. Photo: Philippe Wojazer/AFP

French PM Valls arrives in Chad on regional trip

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls arrived in Chad late Friday at the start of a two-day regional visit, in a show of support for a French-led anti-jihadist force. READ  

Sanofi still has a 'driver' despite shakeup
Photo: Jacques Demarthon/AFP

Sanofi still has a 'driver' despite shakeup

The temporary head of French drugmaker Sanofi insisted the firm still had a bright future Thursday, declaring there was still "a driver in the seat" despite a sudden change in leadership. READ  

EU could give France until 2015 on budget
France's Finance Minister Michel Sapin. File photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

EU could give France until 2015 on budget

The EU could delay a decision on France's budget overshoot until early 2015 instead of making a ruling next week as expected, sources said on Friday. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Politics
France's 'first ladies': A look back at the other halves
Sponsored Article
Win your Christmas list: €250 at Marks & Spencer
National
Would background music make the RER in Paris feel safer?
National
Trierweiler to break her silence... in the UK
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Winter is coming to the French Alps
Gallery
Don't confuse France with Paris: Here's ten reasons why
Sponsored Article
Live like a local - anywhere in the world
Sponsored Article
Shop Christmas gifts at Debenhams international store
National
From the homeless to migrants: A portrait of modern France in ten stats
Culture
Are you brainy enough to be Miss France? Take the quiz
Gallery
France's most notorious celebrities. How many do you know?
Society
City of Love? Seven Paris myths debunked
Education
Why is France worst in the EU at English?
Sponsored Article
Offer: Unlimited airmiles from British Airways
National
C'est pas possible! Paris is 'world's cheapest city for young people'
National
Looking to save space? France allows toilets in kitchens for first time
National
Find out how women in France are getting stung for a hidden tax
Culture
Which one is your favourite? The top 10 heartiest French winter dishes
Face Of The Week
Nabilla - 'France's Kim Kardashian' held for attempted murder
National
So who's scaring everyone by flying drones over France’s nuclear plants?
Education
Whoever thinks French was a dying language should read this
Politics
OPINION: 'One day France will be grateful to François Hollande'
Gallery
IN IMAGES: A history of France's most controversial architecture
National
How to make an 8-square-metre Paris apartment perfectly liveable
Gallery
VIDEO: France's raunchiest TV ads, including that infamous Perrier one
National
Five reasons why you should work a ski season in France and five not to
National
10 art exhibitions not to miss this autumn in Paris
Culture
What's on in France: 11 things to do this November
National
How French have you become? Take our quiz to find out
National
10 things to never say to a French person
National
Top 10: When French translations go wrong
National
Parisian bars that serve drinkers free meals
National
France falls to Germans in nude swim tourney
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Nowhere combines sex and art quite like France
National
Why you should never turn down an invitation to a French wedding
Sport
Discover the route of the 2015 Tour de France. There are a few surprises
Gallery
Ten changes that would make learning French so much easier
Culture
IN PICTURES: 'Glass ship' Vuitton ready to set sail in Paris
International
How a giant 'sex toy' earned an American artist a slap in Paris
National
'Unlike in the US the French don't put the blame on the poor'
Gallery
Cover up and don't be too Latin: French travel warnings for the US
Society
Macholand: The online uprising against sexism in France
Gallery
In pictures: The daily life of the 2,000 migrants in Calais
Culture
Erotic promo video earns the Musée d'Orsay our "Only in France" award
National
Seven reasons why everyone should work in a bar in France
National
The cost of expat home comforts: How France compares to Europe
International
Why don't Calais migrants stay in France? The Local went to find out
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