Giving Leonardo His Due:
A Talk With Steve Feld
Interview by Amy Poftak
At John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, little did Steve Feld's computer graphics students imagine that their 1997 ThinkQuest entry, "Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling?," would host over 500,000 visitors, exhibit at the Getty, and be linked to from the Vatican.
What was the original inspiration for the site?
At a 1989 conference, my students presented da Vinci's Visions, an interactive computer game. One of the attendees happened to be Lillian Schwartz, who had written a book that claims the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of da Vinci. The main reason for creating the Web site was to revitalize the topic and share her theory with a broader audience. She proved it by superimposing half of Leonardo's face on the Mona Lisa and lining up the features. We took this further by creating morphing sequence of these images.
Where did you get the technological know-how to build it?
What makes the site unique?
We knew that we were presenting an "Internet exclusive": da Vinci had written music and many people didn't know that. Because we knew some visitors might be hearing impaired, we have hand signing that says "music is playing" so they can read the score and know music is playing. We also included ALT tags so blind people using speech-to-text can access the site.
The equity issue seems very important to you.
Maybe it's because Leonardo was regarded as a universal genius and so it was important that the site be universally accessible. We were in the dark ages technology-wise, so we knew what it was like to come to a Web site that said we must upgrade.
How has the site evolved since you first began?
Each year we add new content to the site with different students working on it. Whatever comes our way, we try to work it into the site. The real research came when a local newspapers passed on an article about our site to a writer who claims Leonardo in fact painted his mother. As my students compared the two different author's perspectives, what was an art-centered inquiry became a scientific investigation.
Can you tell me about your school and how the project has affected the student body?
We have 5,000 ethnically diverse students. 85 percent are on free lunch and generally their families have low incomes. Most students don't have computers at home, let alone the Internet. Many don't have a phone. We received four computer labs as a result of publicity, but we've been waiting all this time for them to be hooked up to the Internet. A reporter from The Daily News came to interview the class about the project. As he was leaving, he asked "By the way, are you on the Internet?" When we said no, he spoke to the board of education on our behalf. Within a week, a T1 line was hooked up. Before we were connected a few weeks ago, most students didn't know about the site. Now that we have new computers and are finally wired, for the first time ever I can teach Web page design to the whole class, not just a handful of students.
Why do you think the Mona Lisa is smiling?
Based on our ongoing scientific inquiry, I believe the self-portrait theory.
So the joke's on us?
Exactly. Brilliant Leonardo could not conceive that one day we would have computers to reveal his secret. And the fact that it's a student investigation makes it even more significant.
"Why is the Mona Lisa Smiling?" is located at library.advanced.org/13681/data/davin2.shtml.
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