Leonardo’s three great portraits of women all have a strange air of wistfulness. This is at its most engaging in Lady with the Ermine, brooding in the Female Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci and undeniably enigmatic in the Mona Lisa. Unarguably the most famous painting in history, it is also the only portrait by Leonardo whose authorship remains unquestioned. Though neither signed nor dated it is universally accepted to be by Leonardo. But who was the subject, when was it painted and what is the story behind the mystical smile?
Historians agree that Leonardo commenced the painting of Mona Lisa in 1503, working on it for approximately four years and keeping it himself for some years after. Supposedly this was because Mona Lisa was Leonardo’s favourite painting and he was loathe to part with it, however it may also have been because the painting was unfinished. Whatever the reason, much later it was sold to the King of France for four thousand gold crowns. The world has talked about it ever since. After the revolution in France the painting was transferred to the Louvre. Napoleon took possession of it using the panel to decorate his bedroom. Upon his banishment from France Mona Lisa once more returned to the care of the Louvre. What is certain is that the painting was never passed onto the rightful owner, that being the man who originally commissioned and presumably paid for it. .
The first written reference to the painting appears in the diary of Antonio de’ Beatis who visited Leonardo on the 10th October 1517. He was shown three paintings by the master, who was aged sixty-five at the time. These three consisted of one of the Madonna and Child in the lap of St. Anne, one of a young St. John the Baptist and a third of a Florentine lady.
Who was the lady in question? At this time researchers remain uncertain of the sitter’s identity with some claiming she was Isabella of Aragon — the widowed Duchess of Milan; they point out the ‘widows veil’ on her head as supporting evidence. Others conclude she was the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, but the veil on her head may well be a symbol of chastity, commonly shown at the time in portraits of married women. The path shown may also be the ‘path of virtue’, a reference to the story ‘Hercules choice’; this was frequently referred to in Renaissance art and would be unlikely to appear in a painting of a mistress. It is probable that she was Mona Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of wealthy silk merchant Francesco di Bartolommeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. At this stage Lisa would have been over twenty-four years of age, by the standards of the time she was not in any way considered particularly beautiful, though Leonardo saw certain qualities which have now made her the most heavily insured woman in history.
The smile has become a hallmark of Leonardo’s style. It is most obvious in the painting of the Mona Lisa, but also to be seen in most of his other works. There is no mistaking the same smile — and upturn of the left side of the mouth — on the face of St. Anne in the Burlington House Cartoon. That drawing dates from a bit earlier than theMona Lisa, somewhere around 1498. Speculation exists that the smile originated from his mother, Caterina. A less romantic suggestion is that the painter merely “concerned himself with certain arrangements of lines and volumes, with new and curious schemes of blues and greens.”
Various other suggestions have also been made as to the reason behind the smile including the simple idea that during this period in history women were instructed to smile only with one side of their mouths so as to add an air of mystery and elegance. An Italian doctor’s answer was that the woman suffered from bruxism; this is an unconscious habit of grinding the teeth during sleep or times of great stress. The long months of sitting for the portrait could well have triggered an attack of teeth grinding. Leonardo did attempt to keep his subject relaxed and entertained with the use of music; he had six musicians to play for her plus and installed a musical fountain invented by himself. Different, beautiful works were read out loud and a white Persian cat and a greyhound bitch were there for playing with.
The most unusual suggestion is that Mona Lisa was really a man in disguise, perhaps being a form of self-portrait and the face of Leonardo himself. Computer tests show some of the facial features match well that of another(?)self-portrait of Leonardo. Some copies of the Mona Lisa also show the sitter as a male.
The truth is that this style of smile was not invented by Leonardo da Vinci. It can be found in a number of sculptures from the fifteenth century, one of these being Antonio Rossellino’s Virgin; it is somewhat reminiscent of Greek funerary statues and Gothic statues in medieval cathedrals. The mysterious smile can also be found very widely in the works of Leonardo’s master, Verrocchio and Leonardo used the same smile in a number of his paintings.
Much has also been made about the Mona Lisa’s ‘uncommonly thick’ eyebrows, a belief which came about after Vasari wrote a description of the painting. A close examination of the above detail shows there aren’t any eyebrows; women of the time commonly shaved these off. Vasari had never seen the Mona Lisa and though it is popular to quote his text on the painting it must be realised he wrote his treatise based entirely upon hearsay. Despite this, he was totally accurate in stating that, “On looking at the pit of the throat one could swear that the pulses were beating.”
The most expressive parts of the human face are the outer points of the lips and eyes. Leonardo has deliberately left these areas in shadow which creates the effect of causing different people to read different emotions on the face of the sitter, whomever she may be.
Mona Lisa is distinguished by her complete absence of jewellery whereas the norm for the day was to present subjects with elaborate decoration as can be seen in the painting done by Titan of Caterina Cornaro, Queen Of Cyprus. Mona Lisa’s hair is smooth with only the covering of a black veil, hands are free of rings or bracelets and nothing adorns her neck. There are small intricate loops across the neckline of her dress; such was Leonardo’s interest in codes that many people have searched in vain for a message in these loops. This painting went against all the trends of the time and is a perfect example of how Leonardo never followed traditions. He abandoned the usual poses, which had subjects shown as stiff and upright, replacing this with a relaxed sitter, her beautifully painted hands resting easily on the arm of her chair.
While most people are aware the Mona Lisa is also called La Gioconda by the Italians (translation: “a light-hearted woman.”), fewer know the French refer to it as La Joconde. Done in oils on poplar wood it was originally much larger than it is today. Two columns on either side of Mona Lisa have been cut off making it difficult to recognise she was seated on a terrace. The bases of these columns can just be seen on the very edges of the painting which now measures only 77 x 53 cms.
At the time Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa he was also doing some of his finest sketches of plant life and nature. This can be clearly seen in the background of the panel and it is very elaborate, perhaps the finest he ever did. The bridge shown has now been identified as being at Buriano (Arezzo).
The painting of Mona Lisa has had an interesting history being stolen on the 21st August 1911 from an Italian thief who had taken the painting to Italy. The loss of the painting was not reported for twenty-four hours as most employees assumed it had been removed by the official museum photographer. It then took a week to search the 49-acre Louvre with the only find being the painting’s frame, which was located in a staircase. It resurfaced some two years later in Florence, when an Italian named Vincenzo Perugia offered to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery for US$100,000. It was exhibited for a time and then returned to Paris.
To steal the painting Perugia had spent a night hiding in a little-used room at the Louvre. While the museum was closed he simply walked into the room where the Mona Lisa was hung, removed it from the wall then cut it from the frame once he reached the staircase. He then exited the building breaking out through a ‘locked’ door by unscrewing the doorknob. Ten months prior to the theft the Louvre had made the decision to begin having their masterpieces placed under glass. Perugia was one of four men assigned to the job and so in a position to get to know the Louvre well enough to pull off the crime.
In 1956 acid was thrown on the lower half of the painting with the required restoration taking some years.
The situation today is that the Mona Lisa has become so well-known that it may only be viewed behind thick protective glass after battling through a large crowd of sightseers. The cover of triplex glass which protects the painting was gifted by the Japanese during the Mona Lisa’s 1974 visit to Japan — that being the last time it left the museum. By international agreement the painting will no longer be displayed in other countries but will stay safely on display at the Louvre in Paris where it may be properly protected against further damage, theft or attack. The bulletproof box is kept at a constant 68 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity of 55 percent; a built-in air conditioner and nine pounds of silica gel ensure no change in the air condition. Once a year the box is opened to check the painting and for maintenance on the air conditioning system.
Time may have cracked and crazed the paintwork of the Mona Lisa, but the air of mystery remains. It has been endlessly reproduced, has inspired numerous writers, poets and musicians, yet remains little understood. The same style can be seen used by other masters such as Raphael (Maddalena Doni) and Carot (Dame à la Perle). Many naked women have been painted or drawn in the attitude of the Mona Lisa and these were a favourite on the occasions when artists were called on to portray royals in their baths. The Carrara Academy in Bergamo has just one of many nude versions, this one having been painted in the 17th century. Copying of the Mona Lisa style started even before the painting was finished.
By far the most controversial version of the Mona Lisa is in the Vernon collection in the U.S. This painting clearly shows the columns on either side of the sitter which have been cut off the Louvre example. The owners consider the artwork to be authentic and value it at $2.5 million.
The last work done on the panel was in the 1950’s when age spots were removed during a cleaning. Suggestions that the painting should experience a thorough facelift involving the removal of layers of resin, lacquer and varnish from the past 500 years have received a firm thumbs down from the Louvre. Computer restoration shows that the colours of the painting may be quite different without the grime that presently covers it. Rosy cheeks instead of sickly yellow, pale blue skies instead of the present green glow. On the downside, any attempt to clean the painting may result in irreparable damage from the various solvents required to remove the varnish and there is no guarantee the suspected bright colours exist below the coatings which have been applied over the years as a protectant. For those lucky enough to have viewed the work under natural light state there is still a surprising amount of colour evident to the eye, maybe more is below the grime, but no one dares to clean her. X-rays have shown there are three different versions of the Mona Lisa hidden under the present one.