Society

High-Tech Photography Project Reveals Mona Lisa's Original Sex Appeal

We've seen so many reproductions of Leonardo Da Vinci's masterpiece we're not sure how she really looks. Even at the Louvre, huge crowds and a glass case make seeing her hard. Now French cultural officials have *the* photo to re

You can tell by the way she smiles... (Google Images)
You can tell by the way she smiles... (Google Images)
Philippe Dagen

PARIS - Everybody knows her. But who can boast of having really seen the Mona Lisa up close? Not many more than the lucky few visitors to the Louvre who manage to beat the crowds. Does the expression "to look at a painting" apply when you cannot actually do that, when it is done over and between the heads of rows of tourists allowed to park themselves for a few regimented seconds in front of the glass casing that contains it?

In the end, of course, it is a portrait of a woman we have already seen countless times. The real Mona Lisa can even be confused with the copies of her. The conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp observed this as far back as 1919. On one of his works, he drew a moustache and a thin goatee and wrote under the image, "L.H.O.O.Q.," which read aloud in French stands for "elle a chaud au cul": "her ass is hot." At that moment, the sacrilege was spot on: the Mona Lisa had crossed over to pure cliché.

As for the general fate of masterpieces, for more than a century, there has been an ever improving capacity to reproduce works into the memories of millions of people who have not seen – and may never see - the actual paintings and sculptures in real life. Take the Lascaux cave, the Demoiselles d'Avignon by Picasso or the Moses statue by Michelangelo. Defying reality, these images change form when reproduced. The fresco becomes a compressed postcard, or marble flattened into a board.

These reproductions are, by their very nature, reductions, if not residue of the originals. Dare we hope that the original colors, light and visual form and material might not be too distorted?

Tanned or pale?

Enter the Mona Lisa. Because of the universal glory surrounding her, in books, scholarly works, newspapers, advertisements and numerous reproductions by photography agencies, everyone has their own version of the painting. But a comparative study produces an astounding result: these Mona Lisas are only partly alike. The proportions and compositions may be identical - not surprisingly, they all show a woman to the waist, hands folded, clothed in fabrics… Brown fabrics? Reddish? Almost black? Bluish? The range is wide.

You may prefer the Mona Lisa in partial mourning, or in the autumn. The same liberties are taken with her complexion: bronzed or a fading pallor. Such is the gamut of portraits, ranging from more or less melancholy to severe. The explanations and interpretations of the painting are affected by these transgressions, which play themselves off as authentic.

The photography agency of the National Association of Museums (RMN) has just completed what is currently the most faithful reproduction of the Mona Lisa. It is the first installment of a campaign to promote the agency as one that can accurately produce images for reference. It is easy to see that this Mona Lisa is different from the others. The general tone is slightly grayer, the contrasts more nuanced, as is the passage from one color to another. Invisible details come to life, in particular the arm of the chair on which the model's left arm is resting, in addition to the contour of the chair, which envelops the tops of her thighs. On a computer screen, the image allows for its magnification until the cracks in the varnish are apparent, individual hairs and even the eroded rocks in the background.

Satisfied by the surprise of the viewer, Jean-Paul Bessieres, the head of the RMN photo agency, and Jean-Claude Gattelet, the manager in charge of quality, provide a technical explanation. In order to obtain such a quality of picture, they explain, they had to imagine the gallery in the Louvre where the Mona Lisa is kept. They calculated the exact quality of light – in full-color spectrum – and guarded against the optical effect of the brown on the surrounding walls. A sort of cage made of layers of tracing paper was prepared. The lights on, the color effect was measured. Then the painting, removed from its casing, was placed in the middle of the device.

"The longest part was the preparation and the measurements. The photograph itself was quick," recalls Jean-Claude Gattelet. The picture was taken using a digital back surface, the lens used was relatively long, to avoid distortions.

Her true appeal

The photograph is 80 million pixels. By way of comparison, the most precise film quality that was produced in the year 2000, when film developing was at its highest resolution, could only reach 50 million pixels.

In the laboratories of the RMN photo agency, there are only computers, screens and scanners. The agency went digital in 2000, and, ever since, has embarked on its campaign, of which the Mona Lisa was the first beneficiary. It will be followed by The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, another masterpiece by Da Vinci. The overall aim involves creating images of the Louvre's masterpieces to use as points of reference, in addition to others at the Musée d'Orsay and Versailles.

The quality label will be granted by the conservers of art works and will figure in the presentation's protocol. Users may then decide to employ the image, which will have a cost, or to stick with the usual clichés of popularized art. In addition to producing images superior to those on the market, the high-resolution digital technology could also be a precious resource in the field of art history. With a few clicks of the mouse, a computer can strip down the painting and modify its chromatic parameters.

On the Mona Lisa, the result is indeed remarkable: it's as if a whole new work was revealed, more clear and more fresh, with a lightness that finally matches its subject – a young, seductive woman.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo -

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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]

💡  SPOTLIGHT

Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

Kayhan-London

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.

• Aye aye, CAP'n: HAPPY CAPS LOCK DAY, FOLKS!

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.

👮🎮  IN OTHER NEWS

Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.

📸  PHOTO DU JOUR

Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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