Lovin' the Loire

Getting virtually intimate with Mona Lisa at the Louvre’s Leonardo retrospective

Viewers put on a headset and get intimate with Lisa

The Mona Lisa is conspicuously absent from the Louvre’s retrospective of Leonardo da Vinci, but the world-famous Florentine makes up for it by holding court in a virtual reality experience.

Organizers of the blockbuster show featuring 10 of the Renaissance master’s paintings decided to leave the masterpiece in its usual home, the Salle des Etats, fearing crowd-control problems.

Instead, visitors can enjoy a virtual “tete-a-tete” with Madonna Lisa del Giacondo, who comes to life in the eight-minute immersion experience created by the Taiwanese firm HTC Vive Arts.

With a curt nod, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant welcomes the viewer to her loggia overlooking Leonardo’s imagined landscape alluding to the evolution of the planet — his way of conveying unity between nature and humanity across the ages.

The viewer should be prepared for a few surprises after putting on a headset and choosing one of four languages — English, French, Spanish or Chinese.

For one thing, what appears today to be the young woman’s hair is actually a gossamer veil — a symbol of virtue — with most of her hair tucked into a tight black cap, leaving just two tresses hanging down on either side of her face.

That explains the thin line at the top of her forehead — the front edge of the veil.

“I know that her virtue was often questioned due to the appearance of her hair, which was previously believed to be loose,” the film’s narrator says.

“What nonsense! A young lady of her station would never have worn her hair loose.”

Lisa puts a hand to her mouth at the thought.

The revelation comes through a deep dive into images made possible through ultraviolet and X-ray technology, revealing details of the layers upon layers of transparent glazes that Leonardo applied to the painting, creating the illusion of three-dimensional volume and bringing his subject to life.

“Nearly devoid of pigments, the thin layers of oil paint — sfumato — create a light haze, making the transitions from dark to light almost imperceptible,” the narrator says. “The blurred outlines create the illusion of movement in certain areas.”

The viewer will also be surprised to note that the 24-year-old Lisa was quite svelte for a mother of five, a fact that is no longer apparent in the timeworn, heavily varnished painting, in which she appears somewhat plump — some have even suggested she was pregnant.

A dreamlike final 360-degree sequence takes the spectator up in a wooden flying machine imagined by Leonardo, soaring over the mountains and valleys of the painting.

The retrospective commemorating the master painter’s death 500 years ago, titled simply “Leonardo da Vinci”, runs to February 24 in the Louvre’s Hall Napoleon.

A download of an extended version of the virtual reality experience can be purchased through VIVEPORT and other online platforms.