When it comes to debates over the Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci’s iconic artwork, most people tend to fall into conversation over whether the subject is feigning a smile. A more careful analysis might have others wondering whether the painting depicts a woman who has eyebrows, as her forehead seems strangely free of follicles.
The answer? Perhaps. But not anymore.
There’s every possibility that in painting the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci was recognizing the fashion trends of 16th-century Italy, which had women plucking or shaving their eyebrows. It’s also within reason that Lisa Gherardini, who is suspected of being the model for the painting—her husband commissioned Da Vinci—may have been lacking in eyebrows for that reason.
In 2007, a French photographer and engineer named Pascal Cotte cast doubt on that idea. Using a proprietary camera capable of capturing a 240-million pixel image, Cotte claimed he was able to visualize a faint rendering of an eyebrow hair on her face. Perhaps Da Vinci had indeed intended to depict his subject with eyebrows.
If Cotte’s observation is correct, why only one hair? It’s possible, Cotte said, that the fact Da Vinci painted a glaze over most of the piece and then added further detail on top of it may have created a situation where the topmost layer was vulnerable. The restoration work applied to the painting over time may have inadvertently erased her follicular features, including her eyelashes.
“If you look closely at Mona Lisa's eye you can clearly see that the cracks around the eye have slightly disappeared, and that may be explained that one day a curator or restorer cleaned the eye, and cleaning the eye removed, probably removed the eyelashes and eyebrow," Cotte told The Telegraph in 2007.
Cotte, who said he had been marveling at the Mona Lisa since he was a boy in the 1960s—coming so often a security guard once offered him a chair—was granted access to the painting by the Louvre in 2004 and was even permitted to remove the priceless work from its glass enclosure to photograph it. He spent over 3000 hours analyzing his collected data, which he asserted allowed him to visualize other layers of the painting. Da Vinci moved the two left fingers of his subject, had originally made her smile wider, and rendered a blanket that’s mostly faded from view, according to the photographer.
Cotte’s photos later went on display during a San Francisco Mona Lisa exhibit, allowing observers to make their own judgment about whether Mona Lisa’s eyebrows were plucked into obscurity. It’s another intriguing element of a painting that promises to captivate for another 500 years to come.