OTTAWA: Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa originally wore a delicate maternity garment, her hair gathered up in a bun, details that have disappeared under varnish but are now visible under 3D imaging, scientists have revealed.
“This is the Mona Lisa as we have never seen her before,” said Pierre Coulombe, president of the National Research Council of Canada (NRC).
A team of NRC researchers had traveled to Paris in October 2004 to conduct the research on the Louvre Museum’s most viewed painting, at the request of the French state museum agency Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musees de France (CRRMF).
Using a complex laser scanner, they created the first 3D images of the masterpiece. These revealed that the woman with the enigmatic smile was originally painted with her hair tied back in a bun, even though today it appears loose on her shoulders.
The revelation settles an old controversy because only girls or women of bad virtue wore their hair loose in 16th century Italy, said CRRMF project leader Bruno Mottin, and the real Mona Lisa was a woman of social stature.
One of her garments, similar to fashions that pregnant or nursing women wore in this period, was also lost under yellow varnish and no longer visible to the naked eye, infrared scans showed. “This is something that had never been seen until now,” Mottin said.
The real Mona Lisa had three children. Da Vinci was commissioned by wealthy Florentine businessman Francesco del Giocondo to paint his wife between 1503 and 1506 after the birth of their second child, but he kept it and worked on it until his death, likely changing her hair and other features.
In the original Mona Lisa, the subject gripped her chair more tightly, and she is not resting against the back of her chair, as some believed, but sitting upright, the scans showed. Researchers also gleaned insights about the Da Vinci’s painting technique, including his sfumato or smoke technique of soft, heavily shaded modeling, said Mottin.
“There is no special mystery in the painting like in [Dan Brown's book] The Da Vinci Code,’” he said. “But, in that painting, Leonardo tried to capture the essence of life … It embodies all his skills … That is the true mystery we’ve uncovered.”
Researchers identified a lack of brushstrokes, suggesting that Da Vinci may have used his fingers to paint, except there are no fingerprints on the artwork.
The scans also revealed that darker areas, such as the eyes and corners of Mona Lisa’s famous smile, are thicker and “composed of a succession of thinly applied glaze layers,” said NRC scientist Francois Blais. However, how Da Vinci actually applied his layers of pigment and oil medium remains a mystery, he said.
“It’s extremely thinly painted and extremely flat, and yet the details of the curls of hair, for example, are extremely distinct. So, the technique is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before,” said John Taylor of the NRC.
A 12-centimeter split at the top of the painting, which had worried curators, appears to be stable, NRC scientists said. It was likely caused by the removal of the original frame and repaired between the middle of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, they said.
Also, the poplar wood panel on which Da Vinci painted his masterwork has a convex warp on the middle right side that is 12 millimeters higher than its surroundings, researchers said, but it does not threaten the Mona Lisa smile.
The 3D scans were done over two nights in October 2004 before the painting was placed in a new glass display case at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Mottin said although the Mona Lisa is seen by seven million visitors to the museum annually, scientists have had few opportunities to study her in a laboratory – only once in the 1930s, in 1952 and now. “She suffers from her celebrity,” he said.
The new images will allow curators to continue their research without touching the canvas, as well as try new restoration techniques on the 3D model before applying them to the actual portrait, said Taylor.
The Canadian camera technology has been used previously to scan Michelangelo’s statue “David” and paintings by artists like Renoir and Corot.
It was also used to create animation for Hollywood movies such as Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and, onboard the U.S. Space Agency NASA space shuttle Atlantis, to examine the changing state of the shuttle’s heat tiles during a mission.