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The subject of centuries of scrutiny and debate, Mona Lisa’s famous smile is routinely described as ambiguous. But is it really that hard to read? Apparently not.

La Mona Lisa from the renown artist Leonardo Da Vinci

In an unusual trial, close to 100 percent of people described her expression as unequivocally ‘happy’, researchers revealed on Friday.

‘We really were astonished,’ neuroscientist Juergen Kornmeier of the University of Freiburg in Germany, who co-authored the study, told AFP.

Kornmeier and a team used what is arguably the most famous artwork in the world in a study of factors that influence how humans judge visual cues such as facial expressions.

Known as La Gioconda in Italian, the Mona Lisa is often held up as a symbol of emotional enigma.

The portrait appears to many to be smiling sweetly at first, only to adopt a mocking sneer or sad stare the longer you look.

Using a black and white copy of the early 16th century masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci, a team manipulated the model’s mouth corners slightly up and down to create eight altered images – four marginally but progressively ‘happier’, and four ‘sadder’ Mona Lisas.

A block of nine images were shown to 12 trial participants 30 times.

In every showing, for which the pictures were randomly reshuffled, participants had to describe each of the nine images as happy or sad.

‘Given the descriptions from art and art history, we thought that the original would be the most ambiguous,’ Kornmeier said.

Instead, ‘to our great astonishment, we found that Da Vinci’s original was… perceived as happy’ in 97 percent of cases.

A second phase of the experiment involved the original Mona Lisa with eight ‘sadder’ versions, with even more nuanced differences in the lip tilt.

In this test, the original was still described as happy, but participants’ reading of the other images changed.

‘They were perceived a little sadder’ than in the first experiment, said Kornmeier.

The findings confirm that ‘we don’t have an absolute fixed scale of happiness and sadness in our brain’ – and that a lot depends on context, the researcher explained.

‘Our brain manages to very, very quickly scan the field.

‘We notice the total range, and then we adapt our estimates’ using our memory of previous sensory experiences, he said.

Understanding this process may be useful in the study of psychiatric disorders, said Kornmeier.

Affected people can have hallucinations, seeing things that others do not, which may be the result of a misalignment between the brain’s processing of sensory input, and perceptual memory.

A next step will be to do the same experiment with psychiatric patients.

Another interesting discovery was that people were quicker to identify happier Mona Lisas than sad ones.

This suggested ‘there may be a slight preference… in human beings for happiness, said Kornmeier.

As for the masterpiece itself, the team believe their work has finally settled a centuries-old question.

‘There may be some ambiguity in another aspect,’ said Kornmeier, but ‘not ambiguity in the sense of happy versus sad.’

Previously researchers examining an earlier painting by the Renaissance master claim to have unravelled the painter’s secret to creating an ‘uncatchable smile’.

The study reveals how La Bella Principessa, painted by da Vinci before he completed the Mona Lisa in the late 15th Century, uses a clever trick to lure in the viewer.

Researchers found that by expertly blending colours to exploit our peripheral vision, the shape of the subject’s mouth appears to change according to the angle it is viewed from.

When viewed directly, the slant of the mouth is distinctly downwards, according to the research by scientists at Sheffield Hallam University and Sunderland University.

As the viewer’s eye wanders elsewhere to examine other features, however, the mouth appears to take an upward turn, creating a smile that can only be seen indirectly, much like the Mona Lisa’s.

The technique is called sfumato, and can be seen in both the Mona Lisa and La Bella Principessa.

And while other artist’s have attempted to use the same technique,  none have done so as expertly as da Vinci, the researchers claim.

‘As the smile disappears as soon as the viewer tries to ‘catch it’, we have named this visual illusion the ‘uncatchable smile,’ researchers Alessandro Soranzo and Michelle Newberry of Sheffield Hallam University wrote in a paper published in the journal Vision Research.

To find out how da Vinci’s illusions worked, the researchers set up test in which people either viewed the portraits from a distance or saw blurred versions, according to a report in Discover magazine.

The researchers used a series of experiments to examine how different points of view and levels of blur in the images themselves could alter a viewer’s perception.

The researchers asked volunteers to look at La Bella Principessa, Mona Lisa and another typical painting from the same era Portrait of a Girl, painted in 1470 by Piero del Pollaiuolo.

First they conducted a number of tests to see how a viewer’s distance from the portrait would influence their perception.

They found that when viewed from further away, both the Bella Principessa and Mona Lisa appeared to be smiling more than the portrait by del Pollaiuolo.

They also used digital manipulation to alter the level of blur in each of the paintings. They found as blur in the two da Vinci paintings was increased, the smiles appeared to increase.

In del Pollaiuolo’s painting the perception of the girl’s smile remained broadly the same, and actually decreased slightly as the blur worsened.

This suggests da Vinci’s technique specifically relies upon the viewer seeing the mouth with unfocused eyes in order for the smile to appear.

In a final experiment, the researchers tested whether the mouth or the eyes were responsible for the mysterious smile illusion by masking the features with black rectangles.

They found when the mouth was obscured, the illusion did not appear to work, but when the eyes were obscured, viewers still detected the hint of contentment in La Bella Principessa’s smile.

Soranzo told Discover, ‘Given da Vinci’s mastery of the technique, and its subsequent use in the Mona Lisa, it is quite conceivable that the ambiguity of the effect was intentional.’

La Bella Principessa is thought to depict 13-year-old Bianca Sforza, the daughter of Ludovico Sforza, duke of Milan, who was to be married to a commander of the duke’s Milanese forces.

But, she would be dead within months of the marriage, having suffered a possible ectopic pregnancy, adding poignancy to her expression in her portrait.

He added that da Vinci may have first attempted the technique even earlier in his 1483 work ‘Virgin of the Rocks.’

Michael Pickard, from the University of Sunderland co-authored a 2013 study by the same team.

‘With his knowledge of the turbulence surrounding the Court of Milan at that time, Leonardo would have been aware of inner tensions between the fresh innocence of a young girl on the threshold of womanhood and her impending marriage and courtly destiny,’ he said.

‘It is also not difficult to believe that Leonardo would have seen below the surface and wanted to capture the subtle essence of the girl, using a technique he would so famously master in the Mona Lisa.’

Daily Mail