The Secret of the Mona Lisa’s Smile
The Mona Lisa is perhaps the most iconic painting in the world. Da Vinci’s masterpiece, painted between 1503 and 1506 (though perhaps continuing until as late as 1517) is one of the most recognisable paintings in the world, and for many is the epitome of renaissance art. If you only know the name of one painting in the world, it’s probably the Mona Lisa.
Yet the Mona Lisa isn’t a painting that gives up its secrets easily. Both her enigmatic smile and her identity have been the subject of intense debate for centuries, but one possible explanation for her cool demeanour is rarely commented upon — sprezzatura.
Like many concepts in other languages, ‘sprezzatura’ doesn’t translate easily into English, but it can perhaps best be described as ‘the art of making difficult things look easy’ or ‘practiced aloofness’. The term itself was coined by Baldassare Castiglione in 1528, in The Book of the Courtier, one of the most widely distributed books of the period, which covers in essence what it means to be the perfect courtier or lady. It is framed as a dialogue between four individuals in 1507, and aims to, at a deeper level, discover what the very idea of ‘nobility’ really means and how one can appear as such.
Some general advice therein advises the reader to be knowledgeable in the Classics, humanities, and fine art, to be athletic, brave, and of course to have an air of ease and effortlessness about them — to have sprezzatura.
While the Book of the Courtier wasn’t published until at the very least a decade after the completion of the Mona Lisa, the concept of sprezzatura was not Baldassare Castiglione’s invention, ultimately having its roots in the works of Cicero and perhaps even Plato in some form. Essentially, while the word sprezzatura wouldn’t have been known to the subject of the Mona Lisa, the concept almost certainly was.