MONA LISA - 1503/06 - Léonardo da Vinci

On Mona Lisa’s hairiness
by Louis DOUCET

When Dalí, then Duchamp did adorn Mona Lisa’s face with a moustache, they, probably unknowingly, offset a significant miss that grants this picture a part of its mystery. If one carefully observes the face of Lisa Maria Gherardini, wife of Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, one notes that the lady has neither lashes nor eyebrows. If one trusts the historians of the lifestyles and manners at the beginning of the Italian 16th century, only a prostitute could present such a smooth hairless face. The model however displays all the characteristics of respectability for that time. She even wears a thin transparent gauze veil that was peculiar to recent or expectant mothers. The mysterious smile is thus, in fact, that of motherhood… Andrea del Giocondo, her second son, was born in 1502… Leonardo started to paint the portrait of the mother in 1503.

As of the middle Ages, girls of easy virtue did depilate the top of their faces, their lashes, and their eyebrows in order to make their glances more insidious, more arousing. In order to prevent the regrowth of the hair, they used natural sulphide of arsenic mingled with quicklime, bat’s or frog’s blood, ashes soaked in vinegar… Crusaders who discovered fully depilated women in the harems of the Middle East had imported this fashion. Those could not have been good Moslem women, because a hadith condemns the Namisa (the woman who depilates hairs from the faces of other women) as a whoremonger and the Mutanammisa (the woman who depilates her own hairs from her face) as a prostitute. Strangely enough, this prohibition does not forbid the shaving of the pubic hairs nor the trimming of the moustache, since another hadith prescribes: “five actions belong to healthy nature: the circumcision, shaving the hairs of the pubis, trimming the moustache, depilating the armpits and cutting the nails.”

In 1550, while analysing the picture, Vasari wrote “One saw the way in which the eyebrows took root into the flesh, sometimes thicker, sometimes clearer, whirling according to the pores that nature shows.” Mona Lisa thus had eyebrows at that time. The charcoal drawing of the Hyde collection, in Glens Fall, probably a preliminary study for the portrait of Mona Lisa, dating from 1503, which reveals eyebrows, consolidates this testimony.

If one trusts Daniel Arasse, Mona Lisa’s eyebrows and lashes would have been erased by an unknown artist about the middle of 16th century, because, at that time, women of good company had then adopted the practice of the prostitutes of the previous decades, and were then depilating their facial hairs. Just the normal way of things… The history of lifestyles and manners teaches us that practises reserved to the prostitutes rather quickly become respectable. Not such a long time ago, wearing black stockings or tights was reserved to whores. Today, all women, girls and lasses wear these… One could multiply examples of that kind… Sometime about the middle of 16th century, a hand which could not be Leonardo’s anymore thus “modernized” or “brought up to date” the portrait of Mona Lisa by erasing her eyebrows and lashes. The spectrographic analysis scientifically confirmed this assumption laid by an historian. The gesture of this anonymous painter authorized and justified in advance all the later embezzlements of this icon in order to align it with the prevailing fashion.

The obliteration of the eyebrows and lashes echoes the left hand of the model, whose bent fingers pointing downwards call to mind a hairless female pubis and sex, in the fashion of the Middle-East harems. When Andrea Salai, in his Monna Vanna, dated 1515, strips Mona Lisa off her clothes, the model still has eyebrows, but her disproportionate hands, like crossed naked legs concealing a depilated sex, become more obscene than the naked breasts. The sexual symbol thus did not escape Leonardo’s contemporaries.

Duchamp, in his iconoclast gesture of 1919, did not thus do anything else than restore an historical truth by regenerating an unjustly removed hairiness. And the new title given to the work – L.H.O.O.Q. – is both an injunction to voyeurism – LOOK – and a statement of the lady’s easy virtue: her arse is burning (English translation of the five letters, when spelt in French).






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