The Mona Lisa, 1503. A portrait of Lisa Gherardini, by Leonardo.
Leonardo Da Vinci began working on the Mona Lisa when he was in his early fifties and probably reworked this subject until his death in 1519. Since the creation of the portrait, which is indisputably one of the greatest works of art, critics have focused primarily on the mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa, as well as the man who painted the masterpiece, about whose life we know little. To be sure, there are many suppositions surrounding the reasons for this work’s enigmatic interpretation, namely, the smile and the surreal background upon which the Mona Lisa’s image has been affixed. There are also additional stories in connection with the portrait that help foment the notion that Da Vinci’s work is intimately associated with an aura of mystery. Thus, the portrait, which was commissioned by a wealthy tradesman, was never presented to the owner. So, too, there are several copies of the portrait located throughout the world that have been attributed to the Florentine master, but it is extremely difficult to corroborate the authenticity of the works even though they bear a remarkable similarity to Da Vinci’s techniques. In this essay, we will try to take away the mystery of the painting by examining the life of Da Vinci, the cultural and political climate of the Renaissance and the painting itself.
Early Life of Da Vinci
The Madonna and Child by Andrea del Verrocchio is one of many religious icons that were widely used in Renaissance painting. Verrocchio was was also Leonardo’s mentor during his early formative years.
Leonardo Da Vinci was born in 1452 in the small village of Vinci in the Tuscany region, not too far from the city of Florence. Right from his birth, he was labeled as an illegitimate child, as he was born out-of-wedlock. His father, Piero Vinci, was a successful notary public who managed the legal affairs of prominent Florentines, including the celebrated artist Andrea Verrocchio. His mother, Caterina, whom we know nothing about, is said to have had humble origins and may have been a servant in the Vinci’s household. Although he was the older child of the Vinci family, his illegitimate status may have precluded Da Vinci from receiving a classical education, grounded in Latin and Greek, as was customary for members of privileged families during this time. From his own writings, we know that Leonardo was an avid observer of nature and someone who possessed acuity and curiosity, which may have led him to educate himself. We do not know the kind of relationship Leonardo had with his father but we may infer that Piero may not have had quality time with his son, as he was a very busy man, tending to his professional affairs. What is certain is that Piero took his son to Florence when he was just twelve years old and left him with Verrocchio as an apprentice. However scant Leonardo’s early biographical accounts are, it is fair to assess that his childhood may not have been eventful. In essence, we do not know the kind of rapport he may have had with his father, except for the fact that Leonardo was excluded from the family will, even though he was righteously the oldest son. This is remarkable because nothing in Leonardo’s work demonstrates that he may have suffered psychological and emotional damage on account of his father’s detachment from him. On the contrary, Leonardo had a jovial disposition and was seen as someone who had a well-adjusted personality, suggesting he was extroverted and socially well versed.
Brunelleschi’s Duomo (1420-1436) in Florence gave architecture a transformative expression
In 1464, when Leonardo came to Florence, the city was experiencing the height of the Renaissance. Filippo Brunelleschi had completed the daring architectural project of the Cathedral’s Dome and Verrocchio was putting the finishing touches on its lantern.
David (1430) by Donatello introduced a new vision of sculpture, which had a remarkable influence on the Baroque sculpture of Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
David by Donatello who introduced a new vision of sculpture around 1430.
Donatello revolutionized the art of sculpture with his creation of David by mastering movement, grace and space. Masaccio was experimenting with perspective, so as to give painting a three-dimensional effect and Lorenzo de’ Medici elevated civic consciousness to a new dimension by creating an enlightened city.
The School of Athens by Raffaello. Lorenzo de’Medici (1449-1492) ruler of Florence and a humanist in his own right created an intellectual environment whereby there was great interest in reviving the study of classical antiquity.
This was the spirit of the Renaissance that sought to explore classical antiquity in order to liberate the mind for greater expression in the arts, literature, mathematics, science and every form of human endeavors. The Age of the Renaissance represents man’s unlimited potentials in that dreams are attainable. This posture is in stark contrast to the Middle Ages, which saw the destiny of man inextricably connected to a fatalistic acceptance of life on earth, as a temporary pause before attaining eternal peace in the after life. This is not to say that the Middle Ages were reflective of the Age of Darkness, as historians often incorrectly portray it. On the contrary, medieval times were just as creative as the age that followed it. Its cathedrals were majestic, as were the establishment of the universities all over Europe, exhibiting fervor for learning. Nonetheless, the medieval spirit was not as bald and liberating as was that of the Renaissance man, which was to affirm one’s autonomy and to recognize that one’s potentials could be unfolded to every extent possible.
The Florence Years
Leonardo spent several years at the workshop of Verrocchio during which time he emerged as a fine painter.
The Baptism of Christ by Leonardo offers an insight of the master’s early works.
His early works, notably, the Baptism of Christ (1472) and the Annunciation (1472) have all the marks of the genius who will eventually go on to work on the Mona Lisa.
The Annunciation of Leonardo is an excellent example of perspective and panneggio.
In these works there are three distinct techniques that constitute the signature of the great master. The so-called panneggio approach focuses on the clothing, specifically on the undulating quality of the robe being worn by the Madonna of the Baptism of Christ, as well as that being fashioned by the Virgin of the Annunciation. In the latter example, the panneggio technique gives life to the image and it makes a statement. So, too, the backgrounds of both images are unmistakably associated with Leonardo’s work. The viewer is invited to observe nature in its primordial state, just trees and mountains, without referring to a specific time and place. This kind of backdrop creates a transcendental quality. Lastly, both images illustrate the depth by means of perspective. The viewer is looking at a flat surface but, in reality, one is able to perceive far behind the image, in a three-dimensional way. This is an extraordinary accomplishment and it will, as we shall see, be truly refined with the composition of the Mona Lisa.
The Milan years
It is important to note that Italy as a nation did not exist at this time. The Italian peninsula was divided into city-states, most notably Siena, Pisa, Genoa, Mantua, Ferrara, Milan, Bologna and, of course, the major cities of Florence, Venice and Rome, as part of the Papal State. In keeping with the Renaissance spirit, every city, small or large aspired to creating an ideal city, conceived in such a way as to embellish and to make it pleasantly habitable for all citizens. The Medici family went out of its way to make Florence the most beautiful city in the world and the Pope was so obsessed with making Rome the capital of the Christian world so much so that the Church’s coffins were nearly depleted, which led to the Protestant Reformation movement. Consequently, it was not surprising that the Sforza family of Milan had similar ambitions for its city. After the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Florence was beginning to lose its luster and the civic discourse, which had distinguished Florence was now being overshadowed by the fascist fanaticism of years of dictatorship by Girolamo Savonarola. Thus, being threatened by the destruction of secular art and culture, Da Vinci was eager to work in Milan, which was relatively more progressive.
After setting up his own workshop, Leonardo was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza in 1482 to create a colossal project, namely, a bronze equestrian statue of his father, Francesco Sforza, in order to extol the virtues of the Milanese leader. Unfortunately, the work was never completed because the Sforzas were involved in the defense of the city against the invasion of French troops. Thanks to Leonardo’s notebook, we have a series of impressive sketches of horses and the viewers can formulate a precise idea of what the statue may have looked like.
Leonardo’s The Last Supper offers drama with emotional density and perspective
In 1495, when the political climate had changed for the better, the Sforza family commissioned Leonardo to create The Last Supper, a large fresco in the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. This was a large mural and it was completed within a two-year period. Unlike most projects initiated by Leonardo that were never brought to a conclusion, this mural attests for a different work ethic by the Florentine master. The mural measures approximately 15’ x 29’ and it was painted directly on the wall. What makes this work special is that Leonardo managed to create a theatrical drama, capturing the moment whereby Judas displays his intentions of betraying Jesus. The mural is divided into four scenes, with Jesus in the middle, each of which narrates the angst of what is about to take place.
Return to Florence
Chateau d’Amboise where Leonardo spent the last few years of his life.
The Mona Lisa is probably one of the most celebrated paintings of all times. This work was commissioned in 1503 by a rich silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo, and may have been completed as late as 1517, in France, where Leonardo spent the last few years of his life at the court of King Francis I, at the Château d’Amboise. Some art historians have suggested that the Mona Lisa’s popularity came to light in 1911 when the painting was stolen from the Louvre Museum and went missing for two years, before it was recovered. According to this view, the international press began talking about the merits of the painting and everyone’s attention focused on this portrait. What may have triggered such a distorted view of the portrait is that the thief himself, Vincenzo Peruggia, felt compelled to return the Mona Lisa to Italy in order to bring about restitution of criminal wrongdoing committed by the French some five hundred years ago. This is an inaccurate assessment because the painting had been sold by one of Leonardo’s most trusted students, Salai, to King Francis I in 1519, shortly after the death of the Florentine master, for 4,000 golden coins, which is believed to correspond to approximately $100,000 in today’s currency.
A self-portrait of Giorgio Vasari who is considered to be the father of art history.
Actually, the popularity of the Mona Lisa goes as far back as the composition itself. During the Renaissance, most Florentines knew of Leonardo’s famous painting. Indeed, the renowned Renaissance biographer, Giorgio Vasari, in his Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, published in 1550 (Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, e architetti) whose work sets the mark for future manuals on the history of art, speaks of the Mona Lisa as a work of art of divine achievement for its beauty and technique. For many years, the painting was kept at the Palace of Fontainebleau where it was admired. In Napoleon’s time in 1800, the Mona Lisa became the subject of great interest when the French Emperor decided to decorate his bedroom with the da Vinci’s masterpiece. So, too, the French poet, Charles Baudelaire, devoted a poem to the ineffable beauty of the Mona Lisa and his contemporary, Theophile Gautier, speaks of the portrait as the “sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously.”
Lady with an ermine by Leonardo in 1489-1490. This is a portrait of Cecilia Gallerani, a mistress of the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza.
Over time, a great deal of mystery has shrouded the production of Da Vinci’s painting because there are several versions of the Mona Lisa that have surfaced in various parts of the world, most notably the Mona Lisa at the Museo del Prado in Spain, the Isleworth Mona Lisa in England, the Mona Lisa at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore and the Mona Lisa in St. Petersburg, Russia. Aficionados of Dan Brown, the popular author ofThe Da Vinci Code,are greatly attracted to secretive themes and cryptic narratives. The reality, however, is that during the Renaissance it was a standard practice for the disciples to reproduce works of their masters, many of which are sometimes indistinguishable from the original. One of the best examples of this trend is Michelangelo’s famous Battle of Cascina, which is a lost artwork, but survives through a faithful copy executed by his pupil Sangallo.
The Battle of Cascina by Sangallo offers a remarkable similarity to Michelangelo’s work.
Da Vinci’s work began in 1503 and was constantly being refined by the artist until he died in 1519. Mona Lisa is sometimes referred to as La Gioconda or La Joconde because her husband who ordered the work went by the name il Giocondo. How did Mona Lisa get its name? In Florence it was customary to refer to signora as a Monna, hence the term Mona was long associated with the painting. Not much is known about Lisa Ghirardini who married Giocondo, twice her age, when she was fifteen years old. It was customary for members of the nobility to commission artists for portraits. What is striking here is that Lisa’s husband, while wealthy, was not a member of the elite class. Portraits were a rare request that only the most privileged could afford, namely, members of the nobility. What was once relegated to the nobles, in the Renaissance this trend was reversed. Wealthy merchants were now requesting portraits of family members. This was a costly proposition and the subject would have to sit for long periods of time. Traditional portraits were painted in profile and figures were rather stiff. Piero della Francesca’s Battista Sforza is a good example of this tradition (c.1465-66).
Battista Sforza by Piero della Francesca
Leonardo’s frame of mind
Leonardo introduces a new formula of the portrait. It is one that is daring and filled with human emotions. His portrait is frontal and the bust is showing together with the subject’s hands. The sfumato effect creates a hazy impression. In the traditional portrait the viewer is disengaged but in Leonardo’s we are active participants. 
A drawing by Leonardo known also as the universal man.
In his lifetime, Leonardo accumulated more than seven thousand pages of notes and sketches, exploring a variety of topics, such as science, mathematics, painting, engineering, anatomy, geology, botany and a whole range of human interests in an effort to understand why things are they way they are. He had an insatiable appetite for learning that would go as far as discovering why a woodpecker could tap on tree trunks for hours without suffering brain damage. He would climb mountains in order to understand why the sky is blue. In his notebook, which consists of more than 7,000 pages of sketches and illustrations, there are images of flying machines and parachutes, long before these devices were invented.
Illustrations from Leonardo’s Notebook, which makes up more than 7,000 sketches he was able to amass during the course of his lifetime, exploring nature and physical matters.
But just how complex was Leonardo? The biographer Walter Isaacson likes to point out that subsequent generation of geniuses, most notably, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs were similar in that they all operated on combining arts and sciences in order to arrive at their discoveries. Indeed, Leonardo did not fit the typical mold of his humanist contemporaries in that he was not educated formally, as he was an illegitimate child, which may have contributed to his ability to think outside the box.Possibly, it is this mind-set that may have given Leonardo that creative elan that allowed him to explore and to elevate artistic expressions to unprecedented levels.
The Mona Lisa Smile
Since the creation of the Mona Lisa, which, incidentally, was never given to il Giocondo, critics have been fascinated with the smile of the subject whose eyes appear to follow the viewer, as if the subject were a real person. This posture has generated a kind of mystery that has come down to our time. Some scholars have speculated that the smile was the result of many hours spent while posing for Leonardo who was said to have had musicians playing while Lisa sat patiently for hours on end. Some have even gone as far as attributing the smile to Lisa’s possibility of being pregnant. Whatever the circumstances, there is not question that what makes this portrait so powerful is the smile itself, because the stare projects a certain mystique. So, the question arises: is she smiling with the intent of seducing or is she simply enchanting the viewer? Much has been written about the smile, which for some borders on the fatal. Leonardo has used the technique of the sfumato in order to create this mystery. The art of Leonardo resides in the notion that a smile was created without having the person contorting her lips. The sfumatotechnique allowed the artist to create a mystique, as well as an element of vagueness and in the end her facial expression is indecipherable. This is why for many the Mona Lisa’s smile is seductive whereas for others it is calm and serene. This is what makes Leonardo an innovator of the portrait because he himself stated that the purpose of painting is to project the soul of the people.
Leonardo’s study of facial expression in his Notebooks.
The structure of the composition differs from the classical portrait that made other Renaissance painters famous. As with the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa projects a frontal pose with a well-orchestrated pyramidal image and an intriguing lunar scape backdrop. It should be noted, though, that the backdrop of the Mona Lisa is not as ambivalent as that of the Virgin of the Rocks, in that a winding road on the left side and a bridge on the right flank it, reminding the viewer that its background recalls the familiarity of the Tuscan landscape. Similarly, the right hand with its elongated fingers is leaning on the pulse of the left hand and the sleeve, which appears to be a very fine cloth worn by many distinguished ladies of the time. So, too, the hairstyle is simple at the top in that it is straight with a part in the center. The lower part of the hairstyle is curly and it resembles the water ebb designs that are recorded in Leonardo’s Notebooks, suggesting that the subject dedicated a significant amount of time on caring for her look. She is also wearing a transparent veil that seems to decorate her forehead and on the left shoulder she is wearing a light mantel, all of which projects an element of luxury. This is the image of a new woman who is emerging in the Renaissance that is no longer relegated to nobility, rather it is that of Lisa Ghirardini who embodies the virtues of the middle class.
The mantel does not take away from the centrality of the image but it creates a sculptural effect and it removes the stiffness quality that characterized many of the portraits that preceded Leonardo’s work. As mentioned above, the panneggio technique used in the garment suggests not only a sensual look but, most importantly, it makes the portrait come alive. Ultimately, the eyes of the Mona Lisa are truly remarkable, as they convey instant connection between the viewer and the subject. It’s as if the subject is talking directly to us. It is a bald statement of the new style that celebrates the emphasis of cultivating the human body. The adornment of the human figure represents a celebration of life, which for many years to come will distinguish Italian style in fashion. For Leonardo, this is a fixing moment. As with his Last Supper, whereby he captures the drama during which Judas is about to betray Christ, the portrait of the Mona Lisa captures the universal drama of a young woman with her angst and aspirations, her uncertainties as well as her hopes. The portrait is a true reflection of Leonardo’s art, the embodiment of beauty, which aimed at projecting the very soul of the subject. Utilizing the three-dimensional effect of perspective and all the techniques available to him such as panneggio and the sfumato, Leonardo transcends the finality of his work by making this a universal icon that is destined to speak to a multitude of generations for centuries to come. This is the reason why this masterpiece is forever relevant, capturing the imagination of the viewer time and time again.
Will the element of mystery subside, as time evolves? Probably not. The sfumato approach, as we have seen, with its contours and the smile itself create an aura of enigma and indefiniteness about the Mona Lisa that will continue to arouse one’s imagination. The distinctive feature of the face is really what invites the viewer to speculate for otherwise this could have very well been an uneventful portrait.
- Walter Isaacson, “How Leonardo Made Mona Lisa Smile,” in Atlantic, Nov. 2017, Vol. 320, Issue 4, pp.50-58.