What Makes Leonardo’s Mona Lisa a Great Painting?: An Explanation in 15 Minutes

The Mona Lisa may be on display at the Louvre, but best of luck appreciating it there. The first obstacle, quite literally, is the crowd that’s always massed around it (or, in the time before social-distancing policies, was always massed around it). Even if you maneuver your way to the front of the camera-phoned throng, the painting itself hangs within a thick glass case — can’t have a repeat of the 1911 theft — and has dimensions in any event much smaller than people tend to imagine. After all, we come to know Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting through cultural reference and parody, but also through large-scale reproduction, the better to understand the painstaking and innovative artistic labor that makes the Mona Lisa worth flocking to in the first place.

Still, there are those who come away from the Mona Lisa — assuming they can manage to get back out through the mass of humanity — wondering what all the fuss is about. It was for them, presumably, that curator James Payne chose that painting as the first subject of his Youtube series Great Art Explained.

As he would in his subsequent episodes (such as his three-part series, previously featured here on Open Culture, about Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights), Payne casts off the accumulated historical speculation and other various forms of cultural baggage to find the work’s artistic core. In the case of the Mona Lisa, not just “the greatest psychological portrait ever painted” but “the end product of the greatest inquisitive mind in history,” that still leaves much to discuss.

In under fifteen minutes, Payne explains a host of the techniques Leonardo employed in painting the Mona Lisa that no artist of his time and place had used before — and indeed, that in some cases no other artists mastered until long thereafter. These include working on top of an under-layer of white paint that appears to be “lighting Mona Lisa from within,” stripping his subject of “all the usual high-status symbols” usually seen in aristocratic portraiture, depicting her at three-quarters length rather than in full frame, making the background fade into the distance while also suggesting motion, and combining the techniques of low-contrast sfumato and high-contrast chiaroscuro. And only a painter with Leonardo’s anatomical knowledge could have executed that famously subtle smile, which appears and vanishes again depending on which part of the Mona Lisa we look at — no matter whether we’re doing it at the Louvre or on Youtube.

Related Content:

How the Mona Lisa Went From Being Barely Known, to Suddenly the Most Famous Painting in the World (1911)

Did Leonardo da Vinci Paint a First Mona Lisa Before The Mona Lisa?

Original Portrait of the Mona Lisa Found Beneath the Paint Layers of da Vinci’s Masterpiece

When Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire Were Accused of Stealing the Mona Lisa (1911)

Mark Twain Skewers Great Works of Art: The Mona Lisa (“a Smoked Haddock!”), The Last Supper (“a Mournful Wreck”) & More

Great Art Explained: Watch 15 Minute Introductions to Great Works by Warhol, Rothko, Kahlo, Picasso & More

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Watch an Accurate Reconstruction of the World’s Oldest Computer, the 2,200 Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, from Start to Finish

There’s nothing like an ancient mystery, especially one as seemingly insoluble as the origins of “the world’s first computer,” the Antikythera mechanism. Discovered off the coast of the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, the corroded collection of gears and dials seemed fake to scientists at first because of its ingeniousness. It has since been dated to 100 to 150 BC and has inspired decades of research and speculative reconstruction. Yet, no one knows who made it, and more importantly, no one knows how it was made.

“The distance between this device’s complexity and others made at the same time is infinite,” says Adam Wojcik, a materials scientist at the University College of London. “Frankly, there is nothing like it that has ever been found. It’s out of this world.”

The expression should not make us think of ancient aliens — the Antikythera mechanism contains more than enough evidence of human limitation, showing a geocentric model of the cosmos with the only five planets its maker would have known.

The 2,000-plus year-old device continues to reveal its secrets, including hidden inscriptions found during CT scans of the object, as Smithsonian reported in 2015. The mechanism is “similar in size to a mantel clock, and bits of wood found on the fragments suggest it was housed in a wooden case. Like a clock, the case would’ve had a large circular face with rotating hands. There was a knob or handle on the side, for winding the mechanism forward or backward. And as the knob turned, trains of interlocking gearwheels drove at least seven hands at various speeds. Instead of hours and minutes, the hands displayed celestial time.”

If the Antikythera mechanism is a “celestial clock,” who better to design and build its reconstruction than a clockmaker? That is exactly what we see in the videos above, created for the clockmaking YouTube channel Clickspring. Using the best scientific model of the mechanism to date — published this year by Dr. Tony Freeth and colleagues of the Antikythera Mechanism Research Project — Clickspring shows how the device might have fit together and makes educated guesses about the right placement of its dozens of small parts.

You can see a preview of the Antikythera reconstruction project at the top, watch the full project above, and see individual episodes showcasing different phases of construction on YouTube. The model “conforms to all the physical evidence,” Freeth writes, “and matches the descriptions in the scientific inscriptions engraved on the mechanism itself.” What no one can figure out, however, is just how the ancient Greek artisans who made it shaped precision metal parts without lathes and other modern tools of the machine-makers trade. Researchers, and clockmakers, may have pieced together the Antikythera puzzle, but the mystery of how it came into existence at all remains unsolved.

Related Content:

How the World’s Oldest Computer Worked: Reconstructing the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism

Researchers Develop a Digital Model of the 2,200-Year-Old Antikythera Mechanism, “the World’s First Computer”

Modern Artists Show How the Ancient Greeks & Romans Made Coins, Vases & Artisanal Glass

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Age of Cathedrals: A Free Online Course from Yale University

From Yale professor Howard Bloch comes Age of Cathedrals, an online course that offers “an introduction to some of the most astonishing architectural monuments the world has ever known—Gothic cathedrals,” including Notre Dame, Chartres, and Saint-Denis. The course description adds: “We shall study the art, literature, intellectual life, economics, and new social arrangements that arose in the shadow of the cathedrals and that were such an important part of the revival of cities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The goal of the course is a better appreciation of the High Middle Ages, a world that is still recognizably our own.”

You can take Age of Cathedrals for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

Age of Cathedrals has been added to our list of Free History Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Would you like to support the mission of Open Culture? Please consider making a donation to our site. It’s hard to rely 100% on ads, and your contributions will help us continue providing the best free cultural and educational materials to learners everywhere.

Also consider following Open Culture on Facebook and Twitter and sharing intelligent media with your friends. Or sign up for our daily email and get a daily dose of Open Culture in your inbox. 

Related Content:

Enroll in Harvard’s Free Online Architecture Course: An Introduction to the History & Theory of Architecture

Making Architecture: A Free Online Course from the IE School of Architecture and Design

European Paintings: From Leonardo to Rembrandt to Goya–A Free Online Course from the Universidad Carlos III de Madrid (UC3M

Free Course: An Introduction to the Art of the Italian Renaissance

Hear the Amati “King” Cello, the Oldest Known Cello in Existence (c. 1560)

The Stradivari family has received all of the popular acclaim for perfecting the violin. But we should know the name Amati — in whose Cremona workshop Antonio Stradivari apprenticed in the 17th century. The violin-making family was immensely important to the refinement of classical instruments. “Born around 1505,” writes Jordan Smith at CMuse, founder Andrea Amati “is considered the father of modern violinmaking. He made major steps forward in improving the design of violins, including through the development of sound-holes” into their now-familiar f-shape.

Among Amati’s creations is the so-called “King” cello, made in the mid-1500s, part of a set of 38 stringed instruments decorated and “painted in the style of Limoges porcelain” for the court of King Charles IX of France.

The instrument is now the oldest known cello and “one of the few Amati instruments still in existence.” And yet, calling the “King” a cello is a bit of a historical stretch. “The terminology referring to the early forms of cello is convoluted and inconsistent,” Matthew Zeller notes at the Strad. “Andrea Amati would likely have referred to the ‘King’ as the basso (bass violin).”

Images courtesy of National Music Museum

The instrument remained in the French court until the French Revolution, after which the basso fell out of favor and the “King” was “drastically reduced in size” through an alteration process that “stood at the forefront of musical instrument development during the last quarter of the 18th century and throughout the 19th,” a way transform obsolete forms into those more suitable for contemporary music. “By 1801,” Zeller writes, “the date that the ‘King’ might have been reduced, large-format bassos were obsolete, discarded in favour of the smaller-bodied cellos.”

Zeller has studied the extensive alteration of the “King” cello (including a new neck and enlargement from three strings to four) with CT scans of its joints and examinations of now-distorted decorations. The reduction means we cannot hear its original glory — and it was, by all accounts, a glorious instrument, “a member of a larger family of instruments of fixed measurements related together by profound mathematical, geometrical, and acoustical relationships of size and tone,” writes Yale conservator Andrew Dipper, “which gave the set the ability to perform, in unison, some of the world’s first orchestral music for bowed strings.”

We can, however, hear the “King” cello (briefly, at the top) in its current (circa 1801), form, and it still sounds stunning. Cellist Joshua Koestenbaum visited the cello at its home in the National Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota in 2005 to play it. “It didn’t take much effort to find the instrument’s naturally sweet, warm sound,” he says. “It was incredibly easy to play — comfortable, pleasurable, forgiving, and user-friendly…. I felt at home.” Learn more about the latest research on the “King” cello at Google Arts & Culture and the Strad.

Related Content: 

Why Violins Have F-Holes: The Science & History of a Remarkable Renaissance Design

Watch Priceless 17-Century Stradivarius and Amati Violins Get Taken for a Test Drive by Professional Violinists

Watch the Making of a Hand-Crafted Violin, from Start to Finish, in a Beautifully-Shot Documentary

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Side Splitting Medieval TikTok Account: Get a Laugh at Medieval Yoga Poses & Much More

@greedypeasant🧘‍♀️ Medieval Yoga 🧘 #medievaltiktok #yoga #yogalover #peacewithin #fyp #foryou #foryoupage♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

TikTok, the short-form video-sharing platform, is an arena where the young dominate — last summer, The New York Times reported that over a third of its 49 million daily users in the US were aged 14 or younger.

Yet somehow, a fully grown medieval peasant has become one of its most compelling presences, breezily sharing his yoga regimen, above, his obsession with tassels and ornate sleeves, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s plans to upcycle his era’s torture devices as New York City subway exit gates.

30-year-old Brooklyn-based artist Tyler Gunther views his creation, Greedy Peasant, as “the manifestation of all the strange medieval art we now enjoy in meme form”:

Often times medieval history focuses on royals, wars, popes and plagues. With this peasant guide, we get to experience the world through the lens of a queer artist who is just trying to make sure everyone is on time for their costume fittings for the Easter pageant. 

Earlier, Gunther’s medieval fixation found an outlet in comics that he posted to Instagram.

Then last February, he found himself quarantining in an Australian hotel room for 2 weeks prior to performing in the Adelaide Festival as part of The Plastic Bag Store, artist Robin Frohardt’s alternately hilarious and sobering immersive supermarket installation:

My quarantine plans had been to work on a massive set of illustrations and teach myself the entire Adobe Creative Suite. Instead I just wandered from one corner of the hotel room to the next and stared at the office building directly outside my window. About 4 days in, Robin texted, “Now is your time to make a TikTok.” I had avoided it for so long. I always had an excuse and I was genuinely confused about how the app worked. But with no alternatives left I made a few videos “just to test out some of the filters” and I was instantly hooked. 

Now, a green screen and a set of box lights are permanently installed in his Brooklyn studio so he can film whenever inspiration strikes, provided it’s not too steamy to don the tights, cowls, wigs and woolens that are an integral part of Greedy Peasant’s look.

@greedypeasant🕷🕷🕷 (to be continued) #medievaltiktok #fyp #foryoupage #foryou #spiderman♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

One of Gunther’s most eye popping creations came about when Greedy Peasant answered an ad post in the town square seeking a Spider Man (i.e., a man with spiders) to combat a bug infestation:

As a former costume design student, I’m intrigued by how superhero uniforms fit within the very conservative world of Western men’s fashion. We’re supposed to believe these color blocked bodysuits are athletic and high tech. These manly men don’t wear them just because they look great in them, they wear them for our protection and the greater good.  But what if one superhero did value style over substance? Would he still retain his authoritative qualities if his super suit was embroidered and beaded and dripping with tassels? This medievalist believes so. 

About that tassel obsession

To me tassels represent ornamentation for ornamentation’s sake at its peak. This decorative concept is so maligned in our current age. 21st century design trends are so sleek and smooth, which does make our lives practical and efficient. But soon we’ll all be dead. Medieval artisans seemed to understand this on some level. I think if iPhones were sold in the middle ages they would have 4 tassels on each corner. Why? Because it would look very nice. A tassel looks beautiful as a piece of static sculpture. It adds an air of authority and polish to whatever object it is attached to. If that were all they provided us it would be enough. But then suddenly you give your elbow a little flick and before you know it your sleeve tassels are in flight! They are performing a personal ballet with their little strings going wherever the choreography may take them. It’s a gift.

@greedypeasant(not) FACTS. ##medievaltiktok ##nyc ##newyorkcity ##nychistory ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

Gunther’s keen eye extends to his green screen backgrounds, many of which are drawn from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online image collection.

He also shoots on location when the situation warrants:

Especially in New York City, where it seems like every neighborhood has at least one building dressed up to look as if it survived the Black Plague. I love this blatantly false illusion of a heroic past. We American’s know it’s a façade. We know the building was built in 1910, not 1410, but somehow it still pleases us. Even when I went home to Arkansas to visit family, we were constantly scouting filming locations which looked convincingly medieval. Our greatest find were the back rooms and the choir loft of a beautiful gothic revival church in our town.

While Gunther is obviously his own star attraction, he alternates screen time with a group of “reliquary ladies,” whose main trio, BridgetteAmanda and Susan are the queen bees of the side aisle. Even before he used a green screen filter to animate them with his eyes, lips, and a hint of mustache, he was drawn to their hairdos and individual personalities during repeat visits to the Met Cloisters.

“As reliquaries, they embody such a specific medieval sensibility,” he enthuses. “Each housed a small body part of a deceased saint, which people would make a pilgrimage to see. This combination of the sacred, macabre and beautiful includes all my favorite medieval elements.”

@greedypeasantWill the real St. Catherine’s lower jaw please stand up. ##medievaltiktok ##historytok ##fyp ##foryou ##foryoupage ##reliquary ##peasant ##arthistory♬ original sound – Tyler Gunther

Get to know Tyler Gunther’s Greedy Peasant here.

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160,000 Pages of Glorious Medieval Manuscripts Digitized: Visit the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis

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Killer Rabbits in Medieval Manuscripts: Why So Many Drawings in the Margins Depict Bunnies Going Bad

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe: A Free Online Course from the University of Colorado

Dr. Roger Louis Martínez-Dávila and Ana B. Sanchez-Prieto–two academics working out of the University of Colorado and Universidad Complutense Madrid (Spain)–have teamed up to present Deciphering Secrets: The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe. The free course covers the following ground:

Perhaps no other relic of the European Middle Ages captures our imagination more than illuminated medieval manuscripts, or those documents decorated with images and colored pigments. Serving as windows unto a lost world of kings, ladies, faith, war, and culture, they communicate complex visual and textual narratives of Europe’s collective cultural heritage and patrimony. In this fashion, illuminated manuscripts are dynamic messages from our communal past that are still relevant today in fields like graphic design and typography.

In this seven-week course, students will explore the material creation, content, and historical context of illuminated medieval European manuscripts. Students will acquire an introductory knowledge of their distinguishing characteristics, their cataloguing and periodization (when they were created), the methods utilized to produce them, and their historical context and value.

You can take The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

The Illuminated Manuscripts of Medieval Europe has been added to our list of Free History Courses, a subset of our collection, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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How Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Were Made: A Step-by-Step Look at this Beautiful, Centuries-Old Craft

800 Illuminated Medieval Manuscripts Are Now Online: Browse & Download Them Courtesy of the British Library and Bibliothèque Nationale de France

160,000 Pages of Glorious Medieval Manuscripts Digitized: Visit the Bibliotheca Philadelphiensis

A Data Visualization of Every Italian City & Town Founded in the BC Era

Ancient people did not think about history the way most of us do. It made no difference to contemporary readers of the popular Roman historian, Livy (the “JK Rowling of his day”), that “most of the flesh and blood of [his] narrative is fictitious,” and “many of the stories are not really Roman but Greek stories reclothed in Roman dress,” historian Robert Ogilvie writes in an introduction to Livy’s Early History of Rome. Ancient historians did not write to document facts, but to illustrate moral, philosophical, and political truths about what they saw as immutable human nature.

Much of what we know about Roman antiquity comes not from ancient Roman history but from modern archeology (which is still making “amazing” new discoveries about Roman cities). The remains of Rome at its apogee date from the time of Livy, who was likely born in 59 BC and died circa 12 AD. A contemporary, and possibly a friend, of Augustus, the historian lived through a period of immense growth in which the new empire spread across the continent, founding, building, and conquering towns and cities as it went — a time, he wrote, when “the might of an imperial people is beginning to work its own ruin.”

Livy preferred to look back — “turn my eyes from the troubles,” he said — “more than seven hundred years,” to the date long given for the founding of Rome, 753 BC, which seemed ancient enough to him. Modern archeologists have found, however, that the city probably arose hundreds of years earlier, having been continuously inhabited since around 1000 BC. Livy’s own prosperous but provincial city of Padua only became incorporated into the Roman empire a few decades before his birth. According to Livy himself, Padua was first founded in 1183 BC by the Trojan prince Antenor…  if you believe the stories….

The point is that ancient Roman dates are suspect when they come from literary sources (or “histories”) rather than artifacts and archaeological dating methods. What is the distribution of such dates across articles about ancient Rome on Wikipedia? Who could say. But the sheer number of documents and artifacts left behind by the Romans and the people they conquered and subdued make it easy to reconstruct the historical strata of European cities — though we should allow for more than a little exaggeration, distortion, and even fiction in the data.

The maps you see here use Wikipedia data to visualize towns and cities in modern-day Italy founded before the first century — that is, every Italian settlement of any kind with a “BC” cited in its associated article. Many of these were founded by the Romans in the 2nd or 3rd century BC. Many cities, like Pompeii, Milan, and Livy’s own Padua, were conquered or slowly taken over from earlier peoples. Another version of the visualization, above, shows a distribution by color of the dates from 10,000 BC to 10 BC. It makes for an equally striking way to illustrate the history, and prehistory, of Italy up to Livy’s time — that is, according to Wikipedia.

The creator of the visualizations obtained the data by scraping 8000 Italian Wikipedia articles for mentions of “BC” (or “AC” in Italian). Even if we all agreed the open online encyclopedia is an authoritative source (and we certainly do not), we’d still be left with the problem of ancient dating in creating an accurate map of ancient Roman and Italian history. Unreliable data does not improve in picture form. But data visualizations can, when combined with careful scholarship and good research, make dry lists of numbers come alive, as Livy’s stories made Roman history, as he knew it, live for his readers.

See the creator’s dataset below and learn more here.

count 1152

mean 929.47

std 1221.89

min 2

25% 196

50% 342.5

75% 1529.5

max 10000

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Egyptian Papyrus Is Made: Watch Artisans Keep a 5,000-Year-Old Art Alive

In 2013, French Egyptologist Pierre Tallet discovered in an excavation site near the Red Sea “entire rolls of papyrus, some a few feet long and still relatively intact, written in hieroglyphics as well as hieratic, the cursive script the ancient Egyptians used for everyday communication,” Alexander Stille writes at Smithsonian. The scrolls contained the “Diary of Merer,” the journals of an official who led a transportation crew, and who observed the building of the largest of the pyramids. It has been called “the greatest discovery in Egypt in the 21st century.”

The discovery of the diary entries and other papyri at the site “provide a never-before-seen snapshot of the ancients putting finishing touches on the Great Pyramid.” It is also significant since Tallet found “the oldest known papyri in the world” and has helped give researchers greater insight into how papyrus was used by ancient Egyptians for careful record-keeping — in both the language of priests and scribes and that of ordinary merchants — since around 3000 BC.

Papyrus was “produced exclusively in Egypt, where the papyrus plant grew” notes University of Michigan Libraries, but “papyrus (the writing material) was exported throughout the classical world, and it was the most popular writing material for the ancient Greeks and Romans,” becoming the most used platform for writing by the first century AD. That changed with the introduction of parchment and, later, paper; “the large plantations in Egypt which used to cultivate high-grade papyrus for manufacture disappeared,” as did the knowledge of papyrus-making for around 1000 years.

But papyrus (the paper) has come back, even if wild papyri plants are disappearing as Egypt’s climate changes. While scholars in the 20th century tried, unsuccessfully, to reconstruct papyrus-making using ancient sources like Pliny’s Natural History, Egyptian craftspeople in the 1970s reinvented the process using their own methods, as you can see in the Business Insider video above. “The industry thrived, selling papyrus art to tourists,” the video notes, but it has fallen on hard times as the plants go extinct and demand falls away.

Learn above how modern Egyptian papyrus-makers, scribes, and illustrators ply their trade — a fairly good indicator of how the ancients must have done it. There may be little demand for papyrus, or for parchment, for that matter, and maybe paper will finally go the way of these obsolete communications technologies before long. But as long as there are those who retain the knowledge of these arts, we’ll have an intimate physical connection to the writers, artists, and bureaucrats of empires past.

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A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Original Colors Still In It

Harvard’s Digital Giza Project Lets You Access the Largest Online Archive on the Egyptian Pyramids (Including a 3D Giza Tour)

Who Built the Egyptian Pyramids & How Did They Do It?: New Archeological Evidence Busts Ancient Myths

Learn to Play Senet, the 5,000-Year Old Ancient Egyptian Game Beloved by Queens & Pharaohs

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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