Art: Under Mona Lisa’s smile : Nature : Nature Research

Martin Kemp & Giuseppe Pallanti Oxford University Press: (2017).

ISBN: 9780198749905

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Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

Engineer Pascal Cotte in front of scans of the Mona Lisa made using his ‘layer amplification method’.

Like Michelangelo’s David or the music of The Smiths, Leonardo da Vinci’s sixteenth-century masterpiece Mona Lisa is one of those cultural icons that leave me cold. I can think of a dozen Renaissance portraits I’d rather spend time with. So Mona Lisa, a new analysis by Leonardo authority Martin Kemp and economist and amateur historian Giuseppe Pallanti, presented a challenge. Could it persuade me that the fuss is justified?

Kind of. Like the painting itself, the story of the Mona Lisa has many layers, and as more are revealed, one is drawn deeper into those appraising eyes and that dreamlike landscape. You begin to understand that in creating it, Leonardo performed an act in some ways baffling even now, with a technique verging on the miraculous. “He knew that no one had ever done anything like it before,” Kemp and Pallanti write. “We now know that no one has ever done anything quite like it since.” To probe that feat, they marshal meticulous research into the family histories of painter, patron and subject; deep knowledge of the traditions and allusions of Renaissance art; and scientific analyses of the venerated object.

What results is something of a jigsaw puzzle. Pallanti has diligently traced the stories of the people behind the portrait, although there’s nothing particularly striking about…

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