Is Syphilis The Reason Behind Mona Lisa's Enigmatic Smile?

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For centuries, from art historians to critics, academics to curious tourists, a lot of people have been trying to discover the secrets of Leonardo Da Vinci’s most famous work Mona Lisa. And now there’s a new theory...

This mysterious figure, portrayed by Da Vinci in the 16th century, has always been a matter of debate; who was she? Why was she smiling like that?

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The art critic Jonathan Jones, from the Guardian, has put forward a new theory on that last question. He thinks Mona Lisa was smiling (or not really smiling) like that because she had a sexually transmitted disease: syphilis!

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“The lives of women in Renaissance Italy are lost in the shadows. Only in Leonardo’s portraits and a handful of other works of art do Florentine women of this period come back to life.” Jones writes.

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So what does Jones base his theory on? Well, syphilis is not an illness you can look at someone’s face (or better, a hand-drawn portrait) and diagnose.

Jones' most important evidence is “a handful of documents that have survived that give glimpses of Del Giocondo’s life.”

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Apparently, she bought snail water (acqua di chiocciole) from a Florentine convent’s apothecary.

Yes. Snail water. But what does that mean?

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Snail water was being used in the 18th century to treat sexually transmitted diseases, including syphilis.

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"When Del Giocondo posed for Leonardo in 1503, syphilis was shaking Europe to its core." Jones writes.

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Some says this disease was brought from the new world by Columbus’s sailors in 1492 and it spread quickly.

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Is this why Del Giocondo needed snail water? If so, it is possible she wanted it for someone other than herself. In any case, her recorded purchase was more than a decade after she posed for Leonardo. But suppose she already had a sexually transmitted disease in 1503. What would that say about Leonardo’s most famous painting? he writes.

"The Mona Lisa is shown in front of a hilly landscape through which a road snakes towards distant water and mountains."

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"Perhaps the far-off mountains across wide, blue water represent the new world – the source of the Mona Lisa’s secret." Jones thinks.

However, Jones admits that this theory may not be a hundred percent true.

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Many people agree that there are shadows of mortality in this painting. But the mystery remains unsolved, no matter how plausible Jones’ theory is.

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