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Scientists Analyze Mona Lisa Painting Technique

July 15, 2010

The Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece the Mona Lisa has once again become the subject of scientific research, joining a half-dozen other works by the Italian Renaissance painter in a new study that applied X-ray technology to study the artistic shading technique known as sfumato.

Sfumato is one of four canonical painting modes utilized during the Renaissance period, is similar to the low-contrast concept used in photography. It is formed from the Italian word meaning “to smoke” and works using this method generally appear to be somewhat hidden through a veil of fog.

A team of researchers, led by Philippe Walter, used non-destructive X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectrometry to investigate the shading of the Mona Lisa’s face. Their findings have been published in Angewandte Chemie, the journal of the German Chemical Society.

According to a July 15 BBC News report, “Their investigation describes the ultra-thin layers of glaze and pigment used to achieve seamless transitions from light to dark… The scientists were able to detail the different recipes used by the master to make the shadows in the faces. These recipes were characterised by a technique–the use of glaze layers or a very thin paint–and by the nature of the pigments or additives.”

“It is clear from the analysis that Da Vinci was able to apply glazes in layers just a couple micrometers (thousandths of a millimeter) thick, building up to a total thickness of no more than 30 to 40 micrometres,” the BBC News story added.

Walter’s study was conducted at the Louvre Museum in Paris, and also included an analysis of the Da Vinci paintings Virgin of the Rocks, Saint John the Baptist, Annunciation, Bacchus, Belle Ferronnire, Saint Anne, the Virgin, and the Child.

In January, an analysis from Dr. Vito Franco of Palermo University uncovered that the Mona Lisa likely suffered from high cholesterol due to the apparent presence of fatty acids located under her skin. Franco also told reporters that he believed that she had a lipoma, or benign fatty-tissue tumor, in her right eye. Those findings were reported during a medical conference in Florence.

“Illness exists within the body, it does not have a metaphysical or supernatural dimension,” Dr. Franco told La Stampa newspaper, according to a January 6, 2010 BBC News article. “The people depicted in art reveal their physicality, tell us of their vulnerable humanity, regardless of the artist’s awareness of it.”

In October 2007, a French inventor named Pascal Cotte performed a 240-megapixel scan of the Mona Lisa, and discovered that Da Vinci made several changes to the painting over time. According to Cotte’s findings, which were displayed at the Metreon complex in San Francisco, California, the Mona Lisa originally had both eyebrows and eyelashes. Furthermore, two fingers on the left hand changed position, her face was made thinner, and her smile toned down. Cotte reportedly spent 3,000 hours studying scans made using infrared and ultraviolet sensors.

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