The Origins of Creativity

New evidence of ancient ingenuity forces scientists to reconsider when our ancestors started thinking outside the box
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David Palumbo

Unsigned and undated, inventory number 779 hangs behind thick glass in the Louvre's brilliantly lit Salle des États. A few minutes after the stroke of nine each morning, except for Tuesdays when the museum remains closed, Parisians and tourists, art lovers and curiosity seekers begin flooding into the room. As their hushed voices blend into a steady hivelike hum, some crane for the best view; others stretch their arms urgently upward, clicking cell-phone cameras. Most, however, tilt forward, a look of rapt wonder on their faces, as they study one of humanity's most celebrated creations: the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci.

Completed in the early 16th century, the Mona Lisa possesses a mysterious, otherworldly beauty quite unlike any portrait that came before it. To produce such a painting, Leonardo developed a new artistic technique he called sfumato, or “smoke.” Over a period of several years he applied translucent glazes in delicate films—some no more than the thickness of a red blood cell—to the painting, most likely with the sensitive tip of his finger. Gradually stacking as many as 30 of these films one on top of another, Leonardo subtly softened lines and color gradations until it seemed as if the entire composition lay behind a veil of smoke.

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