I’ve never really gotten into the Mona Lisa; its iconic status seems so much a matter of historical accident rather than any reflection on its merits, and trying to see it in the Louvre is such a scramble that it hardly seems worth the effort.
But I was fascinated to learn that, at least on one account, we’ve been looking at the wrong aspect of the painting. In the essay “Poses and passions: Mona Lisa’s ‘closely folded’ hands’,” Zirka Z. Filipczak dismisses the smile in the few paragraphs, saying that it is a reference to the name of her husband, Giacondo, which means “jocund, merry, glad, joyous”. (p. 70) “The faintness of her smile would not have puzzled contemporaries. No respectable adult smiled broadly as to display teeth, that would simultaneously reveal one’s vulgarity.”
What is interesting, the article argues, is the position of the hands, which broadly follow the conventions of the time in having hands crossed over the abdomen. e.g. Decor puellarum, a handbook for maidens published in 1461: “Whether you are standing still or walking, you right hand must always rest upon your left, in front of you, on the level of your girdle.” (Quoted page 72)
Leonardo wasn’t precise about the right on left, but he did believe: “Women must be represented in modest attitudes, their legs close together, their arms closely folded.” (p. 73)
That this convention made it across Europe is shown by Haec Vir: or The Womanish Man, 1620 (London): “Because I stand not with my hand on my belly … am I therefore barbarous or shamelesse?” The error lay, she says, not in behaviour, but “in the fashion, in the custom”. (p. 73)
The most favoured pose for men in paintings, by contrast, with elbows projecting outward, which “proclaimed a man to be physically vigorous and to possess bravery, the virtue and feeling deemed as essential for men as chastity was for women”. (p. 83)
Of course it got more complicated than that – a woman might be shown “elbows out” if she practiced a “masculine” profession or was being depicted as a virago, while men sometimes were shown with hands folded when they were scholars or clerics, or trying to show they did not engage in manual work. (p. 85)
And Mona is more sophisticated and does deserve at least some of her fame: “”The decorum of modesty … incapacitated a complying woman’s activity; her gestures as we;; as her walk, talk and glance. Constraint is hardly the overall effect of the Mona Lisa, however. … The pose stands for restraint, whereas the forms, especially the smooth rhythms and softened full surfaces, suggest only ease.
In earlier portraits women’s hands joined in a stiffer, tighter way to confirm their modesty, but Mona Lisa’s come together with the apparent effortlessness … her body seems gently animated because the head turns more than the torso and the eyes more than the head. By 1500 this type of implied mobility had become part of the Italian portrait tradition for men, but it was still novel for a woman.” (p. 87)
The essay is in Reading the Early Modern Passions: Essays in the Cultural History of Emotion, Paster, Owe and Floyd-Wilson, Uni of Penn. Press, 2004, which is a distinctly academic book, and in places heavy going, but well worth persevering with for its fascinating insights into the early modern world.