03/10/2014 06:07 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

Was Mona Lisa A Feminist? One Historian Describes His Theory About The Famous Lady's Smile

Christian Marquardt via Getty Images

Why is Leonardo da Vinci's great lady smiling?

The question has plagued art historians for centuries as researchers have sought to solve the elusive mystery. Now, one U.S. historian argues he has the answer: Mona Lisa was a feminist, and her subtle smile may be a statement about women's rights.

In his book The Lady Speaks: Uncovering the Secrets of the Mona Lisa, William Varvel details his theory that La Gioconda (as Mona Lisa is known in Italian) represents an early feminist who lived during the 16th century. Varvel, an Italian Renaissance scholar, argues that this figure was a proponent of gender equality in the church.

"La Gioconda was trying to get people to see that the New Jerusalem would be here as soon as you recognize women's theological rights," Varvel told the Agence France-Presse.

Varvel is referring to the biblical prophecy of a new city that some have interpreted as the establishment of an ideal society. However, the historian argues that this "New Jerusalem" hinges on how people perceive it or, specifically, what viewers see behind Mona Lisa's smile.

While his proposal may provide insight into the mysterious smile, it seems to say little about Mona Lisa herself. Varvel's theory, which took him 12 years to develop, centers on the lady in the painting, rather than actual woman, who is not such a mystery.

The real Mona Lisa is widely believed to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine merchant who commissioned the painting. Art historians announced last month that they will begin DNA testing on a skeleton that is believed to belong to Gherardini. The remains were unearthed near a convent in Florence in 2012 following the excavation of several other skeletons that were also presumed to belong to Leonardo's subject.



Mona Lisas Mysteries