Dr Phil Hammond, broadcaster and sessional GP in Bristol

Art is for appreciation not for practising medicine

When you look at famous portraits, do you appreciate the beauty or do you try to make a diagnosis? I’ve never had much problem putting my clinical skills on hold when I’m outside a medical setting, and generally find it takes a moment or two to click back into doctor mode. This most frequently happens when someone faints at one of my shows, either because of the heat or the alarmist nature of the material. But I’ve always managed to navigate my way around an art gallery without being troubled by the thought that, for example, the delicate elongated fingers in Botticelli’s ‘Portrait of a youth’ reveal the boy may have been suffering from Marfan syndrome.1

But not any more. Dr Vito Franco from Palermo University, has spoiled it for all of us by diagnosing famous portraits. And as any doctor knows, once you know the possible diagnosis, it’s very hard to ‘unknow’ it. How can you ever look at the Mona Lisa again without observing the obvious signs of a build up of fatty acids under the skin, caused by too much cholesterol? And how could we all have missed that lipoma around the right eye?1

And don’t think you can just ignore all this peripheral lipid presence and wallow in the Ms Lisa’s enigmatic smile. That too has been ruined by scientific speculation. According to Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University, the smile isn’t enigmatic at all, but a direct result of the way the eye processes visual information. According to Professor Livingstone: ‘The elusive quality of the Mona Lisa’s smile can be explained by the fact that her smile is almost entirely in low spatial frequencies, and so is seen best by your peripheral vision.’2 If you look at the smile directly, your fovea picks up a lot of the detail but very little of the shadow, but out of the corner of the eye you get the shadowy effect and less detail, which gives you the low frequency smile. It’s all down to rods and cones. To see the smile, you have to look into the eyes. Look straight at the mouth and there’s no smile, presumably because she’s in a grump about the lipoma and the fatty acid build up.

The fact that Da Vinci discovered this fundamental difference between central and peripheral vision half a millennium ago suggests he was either even better at anatomy than we’ve given him credit for, or he was just very good at observation. Where he got the stamina to create so many great works of art and science is all the more remarkable when you look at his portrait in Raphael’s The School of Athens. According to Dr Franco, his swollen knees were likely to have been caused by gout and he may well also have had kidney stones.1 So how he stayed still long enough to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel is beyond me.

My own view is that we should appreciate great art as great art and not get too bogged down in the diagnosis. Besides, we all know that the Mona Lisa had polycystic ovaries. According to engineer Pascal Cotte, who performed incredibly detailed 240-megapixel scans of the Louvre’s most popular portrait, the merchant’s wife had a lot more facial hair in the original, which has subsequently been edited out by repeated restoration efforts.3 The original diagnosis, it appears, has been overruled by a second opinion and some light pastel electrolysis. But you can still get a hint of a midnight shadow, if you come at it from the corner of your eye. Enjoy!

Dr Phil’s new book Sex, sleep, or scrabble? is out now.

  1. BBC news. The medical secret behind Mona Lisa’s smile. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/8444202.stm (accessed 8 January 2010).
  2. BBC news. Mona Lisa smile secrets revealed. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/2775817.stm (accessed 8 January 2010).
  3. BBC news. Mona Lisa ‘had brows and lashes’. news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/7056041.stm (accessed 8 January 2010). G

Dr Phil’s new book Sex, sleep,
or scrabble? is out now.

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