Lonely Planet Writer

A centuries old question may finally be answered, as a scientific experiment reports the Mona Lisa is happy

It’s one of the great enigmas of the art world, but a recent study claims to have solved the puzzle of whether Mona Lisa is happy or sad. The portrait of Lisa Gherardini by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci was painted between 1503 and 1506 and has been described as the most famous painting in the world. Part of its intrigue is that while she appears to be smiling, the expression on the wife of Florentine cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo’s face is routinely described as ambiguous and people have long debated whether she seems happy or sad.

Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, Mona Lisa. Image: Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, Mona Lisa. Image: Raphael Gaillarde/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The painting has been on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797 and visitors have been perpetually intrigued by Mona Lisa’s expression. However, a recent study by the University of Freiburg in Germany has concluded that she is happy. Twelve participants were shown nine black and white photos of paintings, eight of which had been digitally manipulated at the mouth. Four made the Mona Lisa look happier, while the other four made her look sadder. Each participant was shown the images 30 times in random order, and they had to describe each one as happy or sad.

The Louvre, Paris attracts 8.5 million tourists through its doors each year
The Louvre, Paris attracts 8.5 million tourists through its doors each year Image by Wilhelm Lappe / CC BY 2.0

Neuroscientist Juergen Kornmeier who co-authored the study said that the team found it surprising that the original photo was deemed to be “happy” almost all of the time. “Given the descriptions from art and art history, we thought that the original would be the most ambiguous,” he said. “To our great astonishment, we found that Da Vinci’s original was perceived as happy in 97% of cases.”

Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, Mona Lisa. Image: Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola/LightRocket via Getty Images
Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, Mona Lisa. Image: Raquel Maria Carbonell Pagola/LightRocket via Getty Images

The team believes that its findings have finally settled the question that has perplexed people for centuries. “There may be some ambiguity in another aspect, but not ambiguity in the sense of happy versus sad,” says Kornmeier.

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