The Secret Behind Mona Lisa's Smile

by Ray Setterfield

Event Date: January 29, 1987
Location: Paris, France

It’s a smile that has beguiled art lovers for nearly 600 years and made the Mona Lisa probably the most famous work of art in the world. But the lady in the painting was not being coy or enigmatic, according to the views of a doctor published on this day: she was suffering from Bell’s Palsy.

Those afflicted by the temporary condition find that a weakness on one side of the face causes the corner of the mouth to droop and that it is difficult or even impossible to close the eye on the affected side. Smiles are distorted. It happens because a nerve controlling specific facial muscles has become swollen or pinched.

And that, Dr. Kedar Adour was reported in Physicians’ Weekly as saying, is precisely what happened to the subject of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. The condition would explain why her smile is a little higher on the left side of her face and why her left eye is narrower than her right, he said.

The Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, was Lisa Gherardini, the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Aged 24 when da Vinci began painting her in 1503, she outlived her husband and had five children. The painting is displayed at the Louvre in Paris.

In 1959, British doctor Kenneth Keele reported that the woman in the painting had a "puffy neck" caused by an enlarged thyroid gland, a sure sign that she was pregnant. And in 2011, Canadian scientists who had subjected the painting to extensive three-dimensional laser and infra-red scans, concluded that if not pregnant, Mona had just given birth.

Nobody, of course, knows for sure. If she were alive today, would the lady tell? Or just smile enigmatically?

Published: April 25, 2016

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