LONDON, Jan. 26, 2010 — -- Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous portrait in the world, but now some are speculating that the woman with the inscrutable smile may not be a woman after all. They are suggesting that the Mona Lisa may be a self-portrait, da Vinci in drag.
Italy's National Committee for Cultural Heritage, a leading association of scientists and art historians, is undertaking the investigation. They think the artist who died in 1519 is buried at a French castle and plan to dig up his skull. Using CSI-style technology, they want to rebuild da Vinci's face. Will he resemble the mysterious Mona Lisa?
Jason Rosenfeld, associate professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College, says, "This sounds like a 1970s caper movie. Bring me the head of Lenny from Vinci!"
"It puts on the level of the reason why we preserved Einstein's brain, or Ted Williams' head is frozen somewhere in Florida, or King Tut's mummy is an obsession of people to understand how he died," he says.
"Now we want to get the body of Leonardo. We want to see what he died of, we want to see his DNA, we want to see the size of his head, what his facial features were like so we can see whether this was a self-portrait and it seems on the whole ridiculous."
Mona Lisa was painted around 500 years ago. Beyond that, we know almost nothing about the painting that is now on display at the Louvre in Paris.
A new documentary, "Mona Lisa Revealed," suggests there's a hidden love note on the canvas.
But the real mystery is and always has been: who is she? A merchant's wife? Da Vinci's mother?
As Rosenfeld puts it, "The questions about who this woman is range from: she is related to Medici family, or she is the wife of a wealthy merchant in Florence ... no one really knows."
"Or most outlandishly that she is actually a hidden self portrait of Leonardo himself [...] that's a kind of theory that seems most outrageous but is still of interest," he says.
Is the painting a joke then? A riddle conjured up by the mischievous artist?
Da Vinci, the Renaissance Man...and Cross-Dresser?
We're all familiar with da Vinci's love of riddles from a rather successful succession of books and movies.
"He is interested in symbols, he is interested in puzzles, he is interested in keeping things kind of hidden and this idea about the picture sort of relates to that, that is part of this whole mythologizing of Leonardo as someone who is playing tricks, who is always a step ahead of a viewer, and someone who is making you think of his works in a very different way," Rosenfeld says.
Indeed, Rosenfeld wonders, "If Leonardo is a Renaissance man ... why can't he be a transvestite as well, and a cross-dresser?"
But will the exhumation uncover the truth behind the Mona Lisa? Not likely, according to Rosenfeld.
"If the French Government really wants to help find out what this is about, what they should do is allow restorers to clean the Mona Lisa. We will learn much more from them allowing conservators to clean the painting and understand it better than digging up a body."
If the Mona Lisa is in fact a riddle, a self-portrait in drag, somewhere out there, da Vinci would be smiling that it's taken us 500 years to solve it.