Ever since publication of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered, the question I’ve been asked most concerns her smile (sorriso)—or, more precisely, her half- or slight smile (sorrisino, sorrisetto). Italians refer to the painting as La Gioconda, a descriptive term for a smiling or joyful woman as well as a play on her husband’s name (del Giocondo).
Giorgio Vasari, the father of art history, lauded Mona Lisa’s ghigno, a word that translates as both “grin” and “mocking smile,” as “a wondrous thing, as lively as the smile of the living original … so sweet that while looking at it one thinks it rather divine than human.” Modern art historians view her expression as a technical tour de force. As they explain, most Renaissance artists, whose attempts at grins ended up looking like grimaces, saw the smile as an elusive Holy Grail. Leonardo da Vinci himself spent years experimenting with similar expressions until, with the gentle slope of Lisa’s mouth, he elevated his skills to an incomparable new level.
Sigmund Freud saw something more: shadows of Leonardo’s childhood. Mona Lisa’s expression, he asserted, “awakened something in him which had slumbered in his soul for a long time, in all probability an old memory.” Perhaps his mother, separated from him as a boy, “possessed that mysterious smile which he lost and which fascinated him so much when he found it again in the Florentine lady.”
Chissà? (Who knows?) Italian itself offers a wealth of linguistic options that make me smile (mi fanno sorridere). In English, for instance, you smile at someone or something. In Italian one sorride ad una ragazza (smiles at a girl) but sorride per una facezia (smiles at a joke).
Una faccia sorridente (smiling face) isn’t necessarily una cosa da ridere (laughing matter). You can smile bitterly (sorridere amaramente) or look at someone with a pitying smile (sorriso di pietà), a sneer (sorriso beffardo) or a smirk (sorriso affettato). If you’re hiding a secret smile, you would ridere sotto i baffi (laugh under your moustache). If you’re truly amused, you might burst out laughing (scoppiare dal ridere) or even split your side laughing (sbellicarsi dalle risa).
Here is something to make anyone smile: an Italian translation of the anthem of all who keep smiling through their tears.
Sorridi quando il tuo cuore è dolorante
Smile when your heart is aching
Sorridi anche se è finita
Smile even though it's breaking
Quando ci sono nuvole nel cielo
When there are clouds in the sky
You'll get by
Se sorridi attraverso la tua paura e i tuoi dolori
If you smile through your fear and sorrows
Sorridi e forse domani
Smile and maybe tomorrow
Vedrai il Sole diventare e trasparire per te
You see the sun come shining through for you
Accendi la tua faccia con allegria
Light up your face with gladness
E nascondi ogni traccia di tristezza
Hide any trace of sadness
Nonostante le nostre lacrime non saranno mai così vicine
Although our tears be ever so near
Ora è il momento in cui devi continuare a provare
That's the time you must keep on trying
Sorridi, a cosa serve piangere?
Smile, what's the use of crying?
Troverai una vita che è ancora degna di vivere
You'll find life is still worth while
Se solo sorridi
If you just smile.
Dianne Hales is the author of MONA LISA: A Life Discovered and LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.