83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, 2% angry, less than 1% neutral, and 0% surprised The title of this paper is the output of the "emotion recognition" software test ran to La Gioconda.

It seems that it had been destined before that I should occupy myself so thoroughly with the vulture, for it comes to my mind as a very early memory, when I was still in the cradle, a vulture came down to me, he opened my mouth with his tail and struck me a few times with his tail against my lips. – Leonardo da Vinci.[1]


What fascinates the spectator is the demoniacal charm of this smile. Hundreds of poets and writers have written about this woman, who now seems to smile upon us seductively and now stares coldly and lifelessly into space, but nobody has solved the riddle of her smile, nobody has interpreted her thoughts. Everything, even the scenery is mysterious and dream-like, trembling in the sultriness of sensuality.”[2] These are the few lines, which once read, embedded a malevolent desire in me: a sort of brain-burn called ‘curiosity’.

After many years of looking, traveling, reading and asking hundreds of different questions to myself and many other people, I finally reached my destination; I found my answer. For the surprise and disappointment of many, her smile doesn’t mean anything in itself: it is in fact an incredible copy of another smile. A smile, which I rediscovered in the sculpted bust of a rather renown character.

There are many popular smiles but without hesitation, that the most puzzling of all belongs to the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world-[3]: La Gioconda, (The Joyful One).

How many people and how long have they tried to understand her smile? Anyone who sees this image is immediately confronted by the questions: why and at what is she smiling? We certainly all find different meanings and answers and that is, because among many other reasons, her smile seems to change all the time.[4]

Daniel Arasse, a preeminent scholar on Leonardo da Vinci, answer this riddle quite beautifully. After a life-time dedicated to the reading of the artist’s symbols, Professor Arasse thinks that her smile is connected to Leonardo’s obsession with temporality. The ephemeral La Gioconda’s smile leads us from time immemorial’s chaos to the fugitive and present moment of grace, but we will return to the endless time of chaos and the absence of form.[5]

But if is not hers, to whom does the smile belong to? Even if you won’t find the right answer or answers, it is at least the right way to set your compass. It is the same type of question that allowed Sigmund Freud to find unique answers in his 1916 publication, “Leonardo da Vinci: A Psychosexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence”.[6] Freud’s theory predicates, that all his life Leonardo was passionately in love with his mother, from whose arms he was torn at an early age, and that in his fantasy, he formed and image of her smiling upon him with a return of passionate devotion.[7] Sigmund Freud was almost right when he thought her smile was “borrowed” from another person, but it is not precisely from Leonardo’s mother.

Often strangers look familiar, but sometimes some strangers look too familiar and when that happens to a curious mind, the reality that unfolds in front of his eyes stops; it goes blank and then the desperate search begins inside him:, a search through millions of faces and endless situations. This is a monumental search that only a curious mind can see. Maybe this is the biggest punishment for a curious mind: one of not finding the name for a familiar face.

This looks so familiar -I said to myself- while walking slower and slower and getting closer and then suddenly farther and farther from the Tusculum bust.[8] My curiosity was already like a gigantic black cloud, moving in dramatically slow motion and covering the museum’s entire room, leaving only the lips of the bust illuminated.

I was standing there, alone in front of Gaius Julius Caesar’s finely ground marble lips, which hours later became the answer to the riddle of La Gioconda’s smile. La Gioconda’s lips are those of Julius Caesar and vice versa. Her lips are borrowed from the Roman dictator, who in 45 BC established the Egyptian calendar and set the length of the year to 365.25 days.[9] In the end, Arasse’s reflections on temporality were correct. We will return to the endless time of chaos and the absence of form. Last time I visited La Gioconda’s room in the Louvre, I didn’t know what to think when I saw hundreds of people admiring, adoring and worshiping the smile of a dictator. The ultimate meaning of Leonardo’s creative/artistic strategy seems to be, that we never quite know what we are looking at.

Diango Hernández
Edited by Jade Niklai



[1] Translated by Abraham Brill 1916, chapter II. at bartleby.com. Freud’s original German (p. 21 archive.org):
«Es scheint, daß es mir schon vorher bestimmt war, mich so gründlich mit dem Geier zu befassen, denn es kommt mir als eine ganz frühe Erinnerung in den Sinn, als ich noch in der Wiege lag, ist ein Geier zu mir herabgekommen, hat mir den Mund mit seinem Schwanz geöffnet und viele Male mit diesem seinen Schwanz gegen meine Lippen gestoßen.»
«Questo scriver si distintamente del nibio par che sia mio destino, perchè nella mia prima ricordatione della mia infantia e’ mi parea che, essendo io in culla, che un nibio venissi a me e mi aprissi la bocca colla sua coda e molte volte mi percuotesse con tal coda dentro alle labbra.» (Cod. atlant., F. 65 V. nach Scognamiglio.). Cf. Nino Smiraglia Scognamiglio: Ricerche e documenti sulla giovinezza di Leonardo da Vinci, Napoli, 1900, capitulo II.1. p. 22.
[2] Richard Muther (1860–1909) was a German critic and art historian born at Ohrdruf in Germany. He studied at Heidelberg and at Leipzig, where he took his doctor’s degree.
[3] John Lichfield: “The Moving of the Mona Lisa”, The Independent, 02-04-2005, p. ??  (retrieved 9 March 2012)
[4] Countless theories have expounded on this phenomenon. A Communist art expert called the expression ‘agonised’, claiming the Mona Lisa identified with the sufferings of the working classes. An ear, nose and throat surgeon suggested the look on the woman’s face was because the Mona Lisa had tonsillitis. One dentist claimed her lips were drawn together in such a way that she must have lost her front teeth in a brawl. While one early 20th-century expert thought the so-called smile was the embodiment of all the evil the painter could think of.
More serious, surely, were the early theories that the figure is lost in grief for a dead child, which is why she is dressed soberly and wears no jewels, which were more commonly associated with Renaissance paintings.
Roberts, Glenys: , Daily Mail (London), April 7, 2003, p.??
[5] Daniel Arasse, né le 5 novembre 1944 à Oran (Algérie) et mort le 14 décembre 2003 à Paris, est un historien de l’art français, spécialiste de la Renaissance et de l’art italien.
[6] Sigmund Freund, “Leonardo da Vinci, A Psychosexual Study of an Infantile Reminiscence”, PLACE< PUBLISHER, 1916. Translated by A. A. Brill. Moffat, Yard & Co., CITY? 1916
[7]  Gustav Kobbé, “TITLE OF ARTICLE”, The Lotus Magazine, vol. 8, no. 2 (Nov 1916), pp. 67-74
[8] The Tusculum Portrait or the Tusculum Bust is one of the two main portrait types of Julius Caesar. The bust dats from 50–40 BC and it is housed in the permanent collection of the Museo d’Antichità in Turin, Italy. Made of fine ground marble, the bust measures 33 cm in height. According to several scholars, the Tusculum Portrait is the only existing portrait of Caesar made during his lifetime. Today it is exhibited at the Castello Reale di Agliè in Turin, Italy.
[9] The most important change by Caesar was his reform of the calendar. The previous calendar was regulated by the movement of the moon, which made the measurement of time a mess. Caesar replaced this calendar with the Egyptian calendar, which was regulated by the sun. He set the length of the year to 365.25 days by adding a leap day at the end of February every fourth year. To bring the calendar in alignment with the seasons, he decreed that three extra months be inserted in 46 BC (the ordinary leap month at the end of February, and two extra months after November). Thus, the Julian calendar launched on 1st January 45 BC. This calendar is almost identical to the current Western calendar.
*The title of this paper is the output of the “emotion recognition” software test ran to La Gioconda. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/10484224/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/scientists-dissect-mona-lisas-smile/#.VqOc6fGaq1s