How Leonardo da Vinci engineered the world’s most famous painting
Leonardo da vinci liked to think that he was as good at engineering as he was at painting, and though this was not actually the case (nobody was as good at engineering as he was at painting), the basis for his creativity was an enthusiasm for interweaving diverse disciplines. With a passion both playful and obsessive, he pursued innovative studies of anatomy, mechanics, art, music, optics, birds, the heart, flying machines, geology, and weaponry. He wanted to know everything there was to know about everything that could be known. By standing astride the intersection of the arts and the sciences, he became history’s most creative genius.
His science informed his art. He studied human skulls, making drawings of the bones and teeth, and conveyed the skeletal agony of Saint Jerome in the Wilderness. He explored the mathematics of optics, showing how light rays enter the eye, and produced magical illusions of changing visual perspectives in The Last Supper.
Video: “How Da Vinci Augmented Reality”
During the years when he was perfecting Lisa’s smile, Leonardo was spending his nights in the depths of the morgue at the Hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, near his Florence studio, peeling the skin off cadavers and studying the muscles and nerves underneath. He became fascinated by how a smile begins to form, and he analyzed every possible movement of each part of the face to determine the origin of every nerve that controlled each facial muscle.
Other movements of the lips involve different muscles, including “those which bring the lips to a point, others which spread them, and others which curl them back, others which straighten them out, others which twist them transversely, and others which return them to their first position.” He sketched head-on and profile drawings of retracted lips with the skin still on, then a row of lips with the skin layer peeled off. This is the first known anatomical drawing of the human smile.
Another piece of science that augments the Mona Lisa’s smile comes from Leonardo’s research on optics: He realized that light rays do not come to a single point in the eye, but instead hit the whole area of the retina. The central area of the retina, known as the fovea, has closely packed cones and is best at seeing small details; the area surrounding the fovea is best at picking up shadows and shadings of black and white. When we look at an object straight on, it appears sharper. When we look at it peripherally, glimpsing it with the corner of our eye, it is a bit blurrier, as if it were farther away.
Leonardo once wrote and performed at the court of Milan a discourse on why painting should be considered the most exalted of all the art forms, more worthy than poetry or sculpture or even the writing of history. One of his arguments was that painters did more than simply depict reality—they also augmented it. They combined observation with imagination. Using tricks and illusions, painters could enhance reality with cobbled-together creations, such as dragons, monsters, angels with wondrous wings, and landscapes more magical than any that ever existed. “Painting,” he wrote, “embraces not only the works of nature but also infinite things that nature never created.”
Stand before the Mona Lisa, and the science and the magic and the art all blur together into an augmented reality. While Leonardo worked on it, for most of the last 16 years of his life, it became more than a portrait of an individual. It became universal, a distillation of Leonardo’s accumulated wisdom about the outward manifestations of our inner lives and about the connections between ourselves and our world. Like Vitruvian Man standing in the square of the Earth and the circle of the heavens, Lisa sitting on her balcony is Leonardo’s profound meditation on what it means to be human.
When the British needed to contact their allies in the French resistance during World War II, they used a code phrase: La Joconde garde un sourire—“The Mona Lisakeeps her smile.” Even though it may seem to flicker, her smile contains the immutable wisdom of the ages.
The Mona Lisa became the most famous painting in the world not just because of hype and happenstance, but because viewers were able to feel an emotional engagement with her. It is a brilliant depiction of reality—an alluring and emotionally mysterious woman sitting alone on a loggia—that is augmented radiantly by science and magical illusions. She provokes a complex series of psychological reactions, ones that she in turn seems to exhibit as well. Most miraculously, she seems aware—conscious—both of us and of herself. That is what makes her seem alive, more alive than any other portrait ever painted.
And what about all the scholars and critics over the years who despaired that Leonardo squandered too much time immersed in his studies of optics, anatomy, technology, and the patterns of the cosmos? The Mona Lisa answers them with a smile.