The Louvre is brimming with visitors. Whether young or old, they all gather excitedly around one particular painting that is only 30 x 21 inches. This work of art hides many secrets. What is she looking at? What is she thinking? She only responds with a shy smile, as if she’s mocking the passing of time that seems to have no effect on her.
There's a myriad of speculations and theories surrounding one of the most famous paintings in history. Italian writer, painter, and architect, Giorgio Vasari, said Leonardo hired a group of musicians to play in his studio to keep his model smiling while he worked. Walter Pater had a darker vision when he mentioned how the Gioconda was in fact a vampire. Her androgynous nature was first noticed by French artist Marcel Duchamp. Some have even dared to say that the most famous woman in art is actually Leonardo DaVinci himself. What’s true is that nobody can deny just how captivating this woman can be. She’s a mystery that seems to lend herself to all sorts of stories and interpretations, many of which are just as fascinating.
To this laundry list of myths, a recently added one comes from Jonathan Jones from The Guardian, who speculates that Lisa del Giocondo, the woman who posed for Leonardo, actually had syphilis. His suspicion is based on an accounting book from a Florentine convent, which stated Lisa bought snail water. This substance was a common remedy of the time for sexually transmitted infections. This account is dated ten years after she posed for the Renaissance master in 1503.
During that time Syphilis was quickly spreading over the continent. Some historians believe the infection was carried by sailors who travelled with Columbus in 1492 in his journey to what would become the American continent. Is it possible that Lisa Del Giocondo had already contracted the disease when she was portrayed by Leonardo?
This STI is, perhaps, the most represented throughout art history. If we assume the Mona Lisa is actually the image of a woman with syphilis, she definitely wouldn’t be alone. There are plenty of examples. But how do we know we’re seeing a painting projecting someone infected with this ailment? The symptoms are usually visible through sores around the mouth or genital area, rashes on the body, as well as damage to the brain, heart, vision, or nervous system. When it’s passed from mother to child, it’s shown through congenital issues in the teeth and nose, or even deafness.
The following are examples from art history where syphilis plays an important part of the visual representation:
This sculpture from the fourth century, found in Peru, shows a woman with signs of congenital syphilis, given her deformed nose and teeth. The child in her arms represents a warning about the risks of mothers giving the illness to their children.
Albrecht Dürer’s Syphilitic Man shows an obviously infected man, given the rashes on his body. The planets above him illustrate an astronomic conjunction from 1484 that was said to predict the end of days. The massive contagion of the STI was seen as a sign of the apocalypse.
In the case of Rembrandt’s Portrait of Gerard de Lairesse, the illness had been controlled to the point where it had ceased to be a favored subject amongst artists. The only reference made to it was regarding the medical treatments available. However, the painter was bold enough to show a man suffering from congenital syphilis.
This Japanese poster from the nineteen century titled Pills to Cure Toxic Illnesses Such as Syphilis and Gonorrhea was publicly displayed throughout the country. The comparison between the two subjects on the top, a woman with facial deformities and a man with a broken septum, and the healthy people at the bottom attempts to demonstrate why the population should care about this situation.
During the eighteenth and nineteenth century, prostitutes were heavily stigmatized members of society. In order to to prevent the spread of syphilis and other STIs, they were required to submit themselves to medical scrutiny to prove they were “clean.” Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured this moment in The Medical Inspection at the Rue des Moulins Brothel.
Richard Tennant Cooper’s Syphilis from 1900 shows a naked ghostly woman who has brought this fated illness to the man on the table. The male is portrayed as being lost under the effects of alcohol. This painting captures how women were often blamed as disease carriers.
Do you believe Lisa del Giocondo bought the snail water as a cure for her syphilis symptoms? If we take a closer look at the described proofs of infection, we’ll notice she did not show any malformations in her face or anything else that could make us suspect. It just might be one of the many secrets this woman carried with her to the grave, including the secrets behind that unforgettable smile.
Translated by María Suárez