The Mona Lisa is ready for her close-up – on the molecular level.
Italian investigators are just about to start DNA tests on bones that could belong to Lisa Gherardini, a Florentine noblewoman believed to be the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting. And in a few months, there might be some of the strongest proof yet for the identity of the woman with the mysterious smile.
Gherardini, known as Lisa del Giocondo after her 1495 marriage to cloth and silk merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, is thought to have died in the Sant’Orsola convent around 1551.
Historian Silvano Vinceti is leading the charge to conduct DNA tests on a skeleton thought to be del Giocondo’s. The team plans to test samples taken from a skeleton at the convent and compare them to DNA from the bones of some of del Giocondo’s confirmed relatives, who are buried at the Basilica Santissima Annuziata. If there’s a positive match, Vinceti plans to use the convent skeleton’s skull to create a computer-generated reconstruction of the face – and see how that matches up with da Vinci’s painting.
“If we don’t find her, art historians can continue to speculate about who the model really was,” Vinceti said, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The results from the analysis should be ready by May or June, Vinceti said, according to the WSJ.
Lisa del Giocondo is thought to have posed for the painting between 1503 and 1506 – notes taken by a Florentine official confirm that da Vinci was working on a portrait of her at the time. Her husband is thought to have commissioned the painting to celebrate either the conception or birth of their second child.
But da Vinci never delivered the painting to del Giocondo’s husband, giving priority to more valuable commissions. The painter took it with him on his travels, working on the painting until as late as 1517.
Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile and pose have inspired a host of theories throughout the centuries: That the sitter’s hidden teeth were stained black after she was treated for syphilis with mercury, or that she suffered from a congenital palsy that left her with large hands and affected her face. Scholars and theorists have also offered alternate possible models for the painting: other Italian noblewomen, a feminized self-portrait of da Vinci himself, or one of the painter’s male lovers in disguise.
Vinceti was one of those who compared some of Mona Lisa’s features to those of Salai, also known as Gian Giacomo Caprotti, da Vinci’s apprentice and rumored lover.
"Salai was a favorite model for Leonardo," Vinceti said at a press conference in 2011. "Leonardo certainly inserted characteristics of Salai in the last version of the Mona Lisa."
Even if the skull in the convent matches up with the face of the “Mona Lisa,” there will still be lingering mysteries surrounding the painting and its hidden meanings.
"The 'Mona Lisa' must be read at various levels, not just as a portrait,” Vinceti says.