X-rays of the Mona Lisa

Two views of Davinchi's Mona Lisa in x-rays and other medical images.

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Radiology gives Mona Lisa a revealing facelift.

Artists, historians and scientists alike have been baffled for centuries. How did Leonardo da Vinci create such subtle shadows and intricate lighting on the Mona Lisa’s face?

Well it looks like the scientists may have been the first to discover the answer to her flawless skin by giving her a facelift of sorts.

In 2004, thirty-nine specialists began what is considered the most comprehensive scientific examination of a painting ever conducted.

Using radiology’s most advanced noninvasive and nondestructive techniques, the Mona Lisa was examined from the macro to the nano scale. And they did so without taking the 500-year-old painting down from the wall of the famous Louvre Gallery in Paris.

The process of fluorescence spectrometry allowed scientists to see each layer of paint that were stroked on by the artist. These x-rays gave scientists direction to reinstall the Mona Lisa in a new glasscase, but maybe more importantly, revealed some entirely new information about Leonardo's famous painting.

Scientists discovered that da Vinci used a well known painting technique during the renaissance called 'sfumato'. For those who didn’t go to art school, sfumato is the mixing of thin layers of pigment, glaze, and oil to create incredibly lifelike shadows. The difference with Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa was just how intricately he painted every one of those layers.

According to those reading the x-rays, Da Vinci used 30 layers of paint that amazingly only added 40 micromemters of paint. That's half the width of a human hair.  Before the x-ray was taken, most everyone who has ever seen the masterpiece in person will tell you it’s nearly impossible to see any brushstrokes on the canvas.

Many people wonder, wouldn't X-rays hurt the painting somehow? According to monalisa.org, "X-rays are absorbed by the white that contains lead and other dense pigments. They do not reveal pigments not containing lead, but they do show the sum of dense paint of all the superimposed layers. In an early examination of the painting, no other image was discernable below the surface image. In fact, the X-ray plates showed almost all the surface details, including the figure, the balustrade, and the columns with the bases. Only the background was not present, likely due to the amount of lead white."

The organization goes on to say, "In a later 2005 examination the X-radiography revealed the order in which the painting was executed. First the figure and columns, then the sky, and finally, the landscape. In an X-radiography detail of the head, the barely radiopaque materials used to paint the hair were outlined by the more radiopaque materials used in the sky."

Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in Florence around 1503, withsome estimating that he worked on it for another decade. In 1516 he brought the not yet iconic painting to France and sold it to the king.

“Mona” is an Italian contraction for “madonna,” meaning  “my lady.”  The subject is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine businessman.





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Mona Lisa xray

This 2005 X-ray procedure on the ‘Earlier Version‘ of ‘Mona Lisa‘, revealed the sequence in which the painting was executed. It also shows the stretcher behind the canvas, and the nails used to secure the canvas to it. source

Mona Lisa getting xray

Image: C2RMF/D. VIGEARS
Out of the box and ready for her close-up: the Mona Lisa undergoes examination by X-ray fluorescence.. source

Mona Lisa Face xray

Copyright: C2RMF/D. VIGEARS
Photo taken during the measurements on the Mona Lisa : X-ray fluorescence spectrometry was done directly on the paintings in the Louvre Museum.. source

MonaLisaShield

The Mona Lisa paiting hanging behind protected glass in the Louvre.




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