The celebrity of Mona Lisa was not sufficient to shed light upon the circumstances of the painting’s realization. Despite the eight million visitors who pay tribute to her mysterious smile each year, ‘La Gioconda’ keeps her secrets well. Let us dissect the most famous portrait of all time.
The early 16th century was a prosperous period for Leonardo da Vinci. He had just returned to Florence, the city of his youth where he learnt everything from his master Verrocchio. The town was barely recognizable: Italian Renaissance had turned it into a bustling crossroads of art and innovation. Leonardo was the face of that golden age of progress and enlightenment. Paintings, anatomy-related drawings, scientific notebooks, various tools and music instruments, scattered pell-mell across his busy workshop, acted as evidence of his multiple talents. Under the aegis of powerful patrons such as Ludovico Sforza or Lorenzo ‘Il Magnifico’ de Medici, Leonardo delivered some prestigious orders, such as The Last Supper (1498) for a Milanese convent. In the early years of the 1600s, he was tasked with a private demand – a portrait.
It was approximately between 1503 and 1506 that the Italian artist started working on Mona Lisa. Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine cloth and silk merchant, wanted him to immortalize the portrait of his wife, Lisa Gherardini. Could a middle-class trader offer himself the genius of Leonardo, usually coveted by foreign sovereigns and monarchs? For a long time, only aristocrats could afford portraits; however, the practice became more accessible throughout the Renaissance era (for it focused primarily on man) especially as a means of celebrating a happy event. As for Lisa Gherardini, her second infant, Andrea, was born in December 1502 – a good reason to assume the portrait was made a few weeks afterwards. During interminable posing sessions, Leonardo drew his model, using only the top of his fingertips dipped into oil paint. Legend has it that he hired jesters and minstrels to amuse his muse… Hence the source, perhaps, of her enigmatic smile.
The Italian genius already knew how to name his painting: either La Gioconda (the spouse of del Giocondo) or simply Mona Lisa, a short version of “Ma donna Lisa” (Miss Lisa). Nevertheless, as the masterpiece eventually got finished, Leonardo did not deliver it. Instead, he wrapped the painting under his arm when he left Florence. Was del Giocondo a bad payer? Or did Leonardo simply fall in love with what became, over time, more than a portrait? No one knows for sure. Following the invitation of King Francis I, the artist settled in France in 1516, brushing off the last defects of his Mona Lisa before passing away three years later. Eventually, the monarch inherited the portrait and hung it upon the walls of prestigious residences – Fontainebleau, the Louvre Palace, the Tuileries Palace, and even Versailles under the reign of Louis XIV.
However, Mona Lisa rather did not convince, and only received half-hearted acclaim. One would have to wait until the 19th century Romantic era for poets to praise her beauty endlessly. “[Her] expression, wise, deep, velvety, full of promise, attracts you irresistibly and intoxicates you” famously wrote Théophile Gautier. This marked the beginning of celebrity for “La Joconde” who had become a femme fatale, as exemplified by this 1852 macabre event: a young artist named Luc Maspero threw himself from the fourth floor of his Parisian apartment. A suicide note, left behind him, revealed the scope of Mona Lisa’s appeal: “for years I have been fighting desperately against her smile. I’d rather die.” Da Vinci’s portrait was then synonymous with one-sided, impossible love…
The rocky story of Mona Lisa did not end there. In 1911, an Italian glazier named Vincenzo Peruggia stole the painting. Thanks to a massive police portrait-hunt, it was eventually found; and despite being jailed in France, the thief was considered a hero in Italy, arguing that he had stolen Mona Lisa only to bring it back to his former home. A few years after its rediscovery, the painting had to move out of the museum, again, driven away by diplomatic jolts: both the First and Second World Wars forced its exile into southern France. During the latter, Mona Lisa was concealed beneath the bed of the Louvre Museum curator himself!
From them on, Da Vinci’s masterpiece has settled in Paris, where millions of visitors admire her each year. But rumors started spreading, doubting the true identity of La Joconde: some do not recognize Lisa Gherardini at the center of the frame, but Salai (Leonardo’s disciple) or even the artist’s own mother (this theory was notably supported by Sigmund Freud, who is generally involved when a weird mother-son relationship gets in the way). However, skepticism died out when two clues shed light upon Mona’s genesis. First, a note found in the margin of a Cicero book, scribbled by a man named Agostino Vespucci (who knew Leonardo in person) stated that the Italian genius was actively working on Lisa Gherardini’s portrait in 1503. Second, infrared analysis revealed that the portrait once wore a transparent dress, invisible to the naked eye because of five centuries’ wear and tear as well as multiple layers of varnish. Such clothing was usually worn by pregnant or breastfeeding women during the Italian Renaissance – and we know Lisa Gherardini gave birth in late 1502…
Despite decades of research and science-backed accounts, the most famous portrait of all time remain shrouded in mystery. One cannot objectively explain the eerie feeling emanating from her thin smile or following-you-around eyes; that was part of Da Vinci’s genius. Undoubtedly, Mona Lisa’s mystery fuels her immortality.
- Walter Isaacson, Leonardo da Vinci (2018), Simon and Schuster.
- Alberto Angela, Le regard de la Joconde (2018), éd. Payot.
- Diane Hales, Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered (2015), Simon and Schuster.
- La Marche de l’Histoire n°28 (14/01–15/04/2019), Diverti Editions.
- “Couldn’t ‘Mona Lisa’ Just Stay a Mystery?”, The New York Times, 1/9/1987.