The history of the Mona Lisa is shrouded in mystery. This portrait was doubtless painted in Florence between 1503 and 1506. It is thought to be of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo – hence the alternative title, La Gioconda. However, Leonardo seems to have taken the completed portrait to France rather than giving it to the person who commissioned it. It was eventually returned to Italy by Leonardo’s student and heir Salai. It is not known how the painting came to be in François I’s collection.
The portrait may have been painted to mark one of two events – either when Francesco del Giocondo and his wife bought their own house in 1503, or when their second son, Andrea, was born in December 1502 after the death of a daughter in 1499. The delicate dark veil that covers Mona Lisa’s hair is sometimes considered a mourning veil. In fact, such veils were commonly worn as a mark of virtue. Her clothing is unremarkable.
The Mona Lisa is the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait. Such aspects of the work as the three-quarter view of a figure against a landscape, the architectural setting, and the hands joined in the foreground were already extant in Flemish portraiture of the second half of the 15th century. However, the spacial coherence, the atmospheric illusionism, the monumentality, and the sheer equilibrium of the work were all new. In fact, these aspects were also new to Leonardo’s work, as none of his earlier portraits display such controlled majesty.
The Mona Lisa’s famous smile represents the sitter in a visual representation of the idea of happiness suggested by the word “gioconda” in Italian. Leonardo made this notion of happiness the central motif of the portrait: it is this notion which makes the work such an ideal. The nature of the landscape also plays a role. The middle distance, on the same level as the sitter’s chest, is in warm colours. Men live in this space: there is a winding road and a bridge. This space represents the transition between the space of the sitter and the far distance, where the landscape becomes a wild and uninhabited space of rocks and water which stretches to the horizon, which Leonardo has cleverly drawn at the level of the sitter’s eyes.
A second, earlier version of the Mona Lisa, hidden away in a Swiss bank vault for over 40 years, known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa, was unveiled in September 2012. The painting was discovered shortly before World War I by English art collector Hugh Blaker. He then moved the painting to his studio in Isleworth, England, giving it its iconic name. The Islesworth Mona Lisa appears to depict a younger version of the same woman who appears in the Mona Lisa that hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris. Authentication indicated that the same artist painted the two pieces.
Credit: The Louvre