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Arts

Italian researchers argue the Mona Lisa model was male

"She" is known the world over for her enigmatic smile, but Italian researchers claim they have something to add to the mystique of the Mona Lisa: She may have been modeled after a man.

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa's eyes may hold the key to her model's identity, researchers say

Italian researchers who specialize in resolving art mysteries said Wednesday they have uncovered the long-discussed identity of the model for Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Silvano Vinceti, chairman of the Italian national committee for cultural heritage, said the Florence-born artist's male apprentice and possible lover Salai was the main inspiration for the picture.

But his claim was immediately disputed by experts at the Louvre in Paris, where the painting is on display.

Apprentice and lover

Salai, whose real name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti, was an effeminate young artist who worked with da Vinci for 25 years. He is thought to have served as a model and muse for several of his paintings. The pair had an ambiguous relationship and were probably lovers, according to Vinceti.

St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vinci

Salai was the model for da Vinci's "St. John the Baptist," also in the Louvre

Comparisons between the facial characteristics of figures from several of da Vinci's works based on Salai - like "St. John the Baptist" and the "Angel Incarnate" - reveal striking similarities with Mona Lisa's nose and mouth, he said.

Furthermore, da Vinci may have left one intriguing hint as to his model's identity, said Vinceti. The Italian researchers claim to have found the tiny letters L and S painted into the eyes of the Mona Lisa.

"Close examination of a high-quality digital copy of the portrait revealed an L for Leonardo and an S for Salai," he said.

Vinceti's theory is just one of many hypotheses about the identity of the woman whose mysterious smile is known the world over. The theories range from the painting being a self-portrait to a depiction of a Florentine merchant's wife. It's also not the first time Salai's name has been mentioned as a possible model.

Louvre is skeptical

But the Louvre museum in Paris remains thoroughly unconvinced by Vinceti's research.

The museum said it had carried out "every possible laboratory test possible" on the picture in 2004 and then again in 2009, and insisted that "no inscriptions, letters or numbers, were discovered during the tests."

A close-up of the Mona Lisa's mouth

Cracks and other marks of aging can be seen in the 500 year old canvas

"The aging of the painting on wood has caused a great number of cracks to appear in the paint, which have caused a number of shapes to appear that have often been subject to over-interpretation," the Louvre told AFP new agency.

The museum also said Vinceti had made his claims without having access to the painting itself.

The Italian team gained notoriety with their claims surrounding detective work they did on the death of Caravaggio last year, said he felt sorry for the embarrassment the museum must feel on having missed the clues all these years.

"I can understand their incredulity and amazement - after all, this must be the most studied picture on earth," he told AFP. "They have to be serious and accept that they didn't see what was right in front of their eyes."

In order to clear up any lingering doubt over his theory, Vinceti said he would be willing to take his team to France and collaborate on further tests with the Louvre.

"We're ready to go to Paris and extract a tiny bit of paint from the numbers and see whether they match the rest of the painting, to see if they were done at the same time or are marks that have appeared over time," he said.

Whether the prestigious art museum will take Vinceti up on his offer is yet to be seen.

Author: Greg Wiser (AFP, AP)
Editor: Kate Bowen

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