La Gioconda (Monna Lisa)

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

La Gioconda (Monna Lisa)
Oil on poplar, 79.4 x 53.4 cm
Musée du LouvreParis

A false identity problem

It is only since the 20th century that certain historians, but more often amateurs in search of recognition, have strived to imagine new and alternative identities to this portrait of a woman, while a solid tradition born from the 16th century allows to ensure that it represents Lisa Gherardini (Florence, 1479–1542). Belonging to an ancient family of lords, landowners in Chianti, Lisa Gherardini married in 1495 Francesco del Giocondo (Florence, 1465–1538), a silk merchant in Florence, with whom she had six children. Despite Giuseppe Pallanti’s remarkable research into this family in the archives, little is ultimately known about their lives. Francesco was in contact, at least since 1497, with Leonardo‘s father, Ser Piero da Vinci, who was a notary. He also had contacts with the church of Santissima Annunziata where Leonardo seems to have stayed on his return to Florence in 1500. It was perhaps through these links that the silk merchant met the artist. If we are to believe Giorgio Vasari, in the biography of Leonardo that he published in 1550 (Lives of the most famous painters, sculptors and architects), it was Francesco del Giocondo who asked the master to paint the portrait of his wife. The painting had already been started in October 1503, as attested by a document from the Heidelberg library discovered in 2005. It is a handwritten note from Agostino Vespucci, Machiavelli‘s collaborator at the chancellery of Florence. The latter knew Leonardo, for whom he translated a Latin text on the battle of Anghiari. Reading a passage from Cicero‘s Familiar Letters where reference is made to the ancient painter Apelles, who had left a painting of Venus unfinished, Vespucci noted in the margin of his book: “So does Leonardo da Vinci in all his paintings. As is the Head of Lisa del Giocondo, and that of Anne, mother of the Virgin. We will see what he will do for the Grand Council room which he has already agreed with the gonfalonier. October 1503». This annotation made it possible to clarify the chronology of the work but above all confirmed the traditional identification of the model due to Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the most famous painters, sculptors and architects published in Florence in 1550: “Lionardo undertook for Francesco del Giocondo to make the portrait of his wife Mona Lisa and left it unfinished after having labored for four years, which work is today with the King of France in Fontainebleau. With this in mind, anyone who wanted to see how much art can imitate nature could easily understand it, because the smallest details that finesse allows one to paint were counterfeited there. Because the eyes had this luster and this water that we always see in the living, and we saw around them all these bluish pinks, as well as the eyelashes, which cannot be created without the greatest finesse. The eyebrows, having made the way in which the hairs arise from the skin, here denser, there rarer, and the way in which they curve according to the pores of the skin, could not be more natural. The nose, with beautiful openings, pink and tender, seemed alive. The mouth with its slit, with the ends well united by the play of the red of the mouth and the crimson of the face, did not appear to be colors but real flesh. In the hollow of the throat, who looked intently saw the pulse beating, and we can truly say that this work was painted in such a way as to make any valiant artist, and whoever that might be, tremble and fear. He also used this artifice that, Mona Lisa being very beautiful, while he was portraying her, he made her play or sing and continually had recourse to jesters who made her remain cheerful, in order to remove this melancholy which painting is accustomed to. to give when making portraits. And in Lionardo’s there was such a pleasant smile that it was a work to behold more divine than human, and it was considered a marvel because life does not present itself otherwise. » (Translation by Louis Frank). Vasari never saw the painting, kept in France since Leonardo‘s installation in 1516, but he must have had good Italian informants who had stayed in Fontainebleau. Furthermore, Vasari often resides in Florence where the Giocondo family lives. He prepared his great work of Lives in the 1540s, at a time when Francesco del Giocondo had just died, shortly before his wife Lisa died in 1542. In 1550, two of their children were still alive, and there were still other members of this well-established family in Florence. The story of the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo was undoubtedly a famous and well-known fact in good Florentine society, hence the great reliability of Vasari‘s testimony. In France, Lisa Gherardini was, however, unknown but she continued to be called as in Italy: “Monna Lisa”, contraction of “Madonna Lisa” (Madame Lise), or “La Mona Lisa”, francization of “La Gioconda”, feminization from her husband’s last name Giocondo.

A contradictory source?

Historians have sometimes contested the consistency of these testimonies, using another very important document: the travel diary of the Cardinal of Aragon, written by Antonio de Beatis. While traveling in France, the prelate visited Leonardo da Vinci on October 10, 1517 in the Château du Clos-Lucé, and admired three paintings including that of “a certain Florentine lady painted au naturel at the urging of the late Magnificent Julien de Medici.” Giuliano de Medici was the third son of Lorenzo the Magnificent and the brother of the then-reigning pope, Leo X, who named him Duke of Nemours. This prince was Leonardo‘s last Italian patron, from 1513 to his death in 1516, welcoming him to Rome in the Belvedere Palace. According to this testimony, the effigy represents a Florentine lady, which is the case of Lisa Gherardini, but it would have been made at the request of Giuliano de Medici, which is surprising because we do not know of any link with Monna Lisa and this seems to go against Vasari‘s text stating that it was her husband who commissioned the painting. How to explain this contradiction? Some historians have assumed that the portrait shown by Leonardo was simply not the Mona Lisa, but another painting, perhaps “the naked Mona Lisa” known in particular from a preparatory cardboard (Chantilly, Condé museum). This seems unlikely because this image is not a portrait but an image of Venus. As for another lost and unidentifiable portrait, this seems even more incredible as Leonardo‘s compositions were celebrated and copied from their creation. Historians have therefore assumed that the “Florentine lady” was indeed the Mona Lisa of the Louvre representing Mona Lisa, and that there must have been a romance between her and Julien, but without being able to prove it. Others, however, declared that Beatis’ text proved that the Mona Lisa in the Louvre did not represent Lisa del Giocondo, but rather a mistress of Giuliano de Medici. Weak hypotheses have been developed in favor of an identification with Isabella Gualanda (even though she was Neapolitan and whose links with Giuliano de Medici are not known) or with Pacifica Brandani (mother of Julien’s illegitimate son, Hippolyte, who died in 1511 and who would have been painted from 1513 by Leonardo). In fact, it seems more relevant to interpret Beatis’ testimony in the light of the extraordinary freedom that Leonardo had with regard to his obligations to the sponsors. Several of his works were started for a specific commission, but were ultimately left unfinished (Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi Gallery) or given to someone else (first version of the Virgin of the Rocks in the Louvre). Let us also remember that in 1508, the master wrote to the governor of Milan, Charles d’Amboise, that he was taking from Florence to Milan “two paintings, where there are two Notre Dame of different sizes, which I started for the Most Christian King or for whomever you please.” Surprising remark, seemingly casual for a royal order! It is undoubtedly in this spirit that we must interpret the discussion between Leonardo and the Cardinal of Aragon, both Italians and evoking the memory of a common acquaintance, the brother of the reigning pope. Leonardo simply reminded the prelate that he had worked on the Mona Lisa for Julien de Medici, the artist’s patron, who naturally must have admired the painting and wanted to acquire it. Also, in the current state of knowledge, we can affirm that the Mona Lisa represents Lisa del Giocondo and that it was perhaps commissioned by her husband Francesco. As with his other paintings, Leonardo had to work on it slowly, creating little by little a marvelous masterpiece seducing his successive patrons, Louis XII (from 1507 to 1512), Julien de Medici (from 1513 to 1516) and finally François I who managed to acquire it.

An acquisition by François I

It was only in 1999 that the historian Bertrand Jestaz managed to explain the fate of the paintings that Leonardo had taken with him to France in 1516. He discovered a document in the National Archives in Paris, attesting to a considerable payment of 2604 books, from François I to Salaì, one of Leonardo‘s most faithful students, in 1518 “for some tables of paintings that he gave to the King”. Given the enormity of the sum, these paintings given to the sovereign are certainly the master’s originals. The latter probably began to organize his succession: for Salaì, who now lived in Milan, the fruit of the sale of the paintings from 1518, while the other favorite, Francesco Melzi who lived with him at Clos-Lucé, was to inherit only after his death of all his manuscripts and drawings.

A very fragile but well preserved work

Leonardo painted this portrait on a thin board of poplar wood, a fairly common species in Italy and particularly in Florence. He chose a large support, approximately 79.4 cm high by 53.4 cm wide, in order to represent the model on a natural scale. Over time, this panel has deteriorated: the wood, very sensitive to humidity variations, has become slightly convex and has even split. On the face, an 11 cm slit starts from the top of the panel, crosses the scalp and stops, almost miraculously, at the forehead. On the reverse, this crack was formerly stabilized by the installation of two butterflies and pieces of canvas. The movements of the panel, constrained by a frame, caused various networks of cracks that are very visible today. Contrary to what has sometimes been written, the support was never cut as evidenced by the bare edges of the panel and a “beard”, the ridge of pictorial material formed against the working frame which surrounded the wood in order to facilitate the manipulation during pictorial execution. In 1956, the work was vandalized by an insane person who threw a stone at it, breaking the protective glass and slightly damaging the left elbow. The painting is today covered with numerous layers of thick, irregular and oxidized varnish, which were applied after the artist’s death during various restoration interventions. These non-original layers have aged and now form a yellow filter transforming the entire color palette (notably the blue of the sky into green) and darkening several parts of the composition, mainly the bottom. Apart from these various problems, the work is in a good state of conservation but remains intrinsically very fragile.

Lighting of laboratory examinations

Scientific examinations, and in particular infrared reflectography, fortunately allow us to better understand the composition of the portrait. Monna Lisa sits on a seat with a rounded back held by balusters, called “a pozzetto”. The seat is placed almost perpendicular to us, in front of a small balustrade decorated with rectangular moldings. The floor of the room is lightly lit by the light coming from outside. At the ends of the balustrade, we can see two small columns which frame a vast landscape of mountain ranges bordered by waterways. On the left, a winding road through the mountains while on the right a bridge crosses the river.

A large silk veil

Monna Lisa‘s clothing is now more discernible in the infrared reflectography image. We also understand it better by observing the copy made in Leonardo‘s workshop, recently restored and kept at the Prado Museum. The Monna Lisa wears a dress, probably dark green, with removable yellow sleeves. We see a white shirt emerging from the hollow at the shoulder. Her dress is covered with a large veil of transparent silk fixed at chest level with embroidered gold threads which form geometric interlacings. This veil is slightly raised over her right elbow and widely folded over her left shoulder. Her head is also covered with a transparent veil which descends to her shoulders. Contrary to what has sometimes been written, her hair is not completely loose because only a few strands fall on the sides of the face, the rest being held at the back in a bun and held by a cap whose outline is visible in the reflectography infrared. The darkening of the colors of the painting due to the layers of oxidized varnish partly explains the apparent sobriety of the Monna Lisa‘s clothing, sometimes interpreted as a mourning outfit. In reality, even if she does not wear any jewelry, Lisa wears a costume in the Florentine fashion of the time, rich and sophisticated, also colorful, which is hardly surprising for the wife of a rich silk merchant. The identification of the large silk veil covering the dress continues to be debated. We saw a “guarnello” which could be a characteristic outfit of pregnant women, as in the portrait of Smeralda Bandinelli painted by Botticelli (London, Victoria & Albert Museum). Monna Lisa, however, does not have a plump stomach like in this painting. Also, other historians have assumed that this veil was only an invention of Leonardo, fascinated by the play of transparency, in order to hide a little the Florentine fashion outfit and thus give the portrait a more timeless character.

A clever synthesis of Flemish inventions

Lisa del Giocondo‘s staging is inspired by Flemish portraits very popular in Renaissance Italy, notably the presentation of three quarters of the model instead of the traditional profile, which had already been retained by the artist in his previous portraits. The arrangement of the figure in front of a balustrade opening onto a landscape is found in several Nordic paintings, such as the portrait of Benedetto Portinari painted by Memling in 1487 (Florence, Uffizi Gallery). Clasped hands also appear regularly in Flemish effigies, often placed in the foreground. Leonardo‘s genius is to use these devices while giving them a natural coherence. The three-quarter pose is not fixed but becomes the conclusion of a twisting movement of the body towards the spectator. In fact, the hands are no longer artificially placed on the edge of the composition, on a sort of parapet, but are naturally supported on the armrest of the pozzetto seat, the right hand having just joined the left. If for the art theorist Alberti, the painting must be an open window, Leonardo seems to want to give here the impression of an open door: upon discovering the portrait, the viewer has the impression of being welcomed by Lisa del Giocondo, represented in natural scale, sitting on the terrace of a villa and who turns towards him upon his arrival, sending him a kind smile. This gentle twisting of the body results in a pose full of propriety which undoubtedly fell within the codes of behavior in good Florentine society.

The most famous smile

Leonardo thus represents the wife of Francesco del Giocondo as a virtuous mother, but without the distant or even haughty expression of ancient and contemporary representations. He wants to reveal the model’s inner feelings through his smile. This expression is rare in portraits, but it is found before Leonardo, for example in Antonello da Messina. The smile is also found in several sacred works by the artist, the Saint Anne and the Saint John the Baptist of the Louvre which are contemporary creations of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo undoubtedly chose this expression to give the face a beautiful and graceful appearance, but also to create immediate and very effective communication with the viewer. This welcoming smile invites him into the thoughts of Monna Lisa. But Leonardo only suggests his emotions without revealing their cause. This smile could also be interpreted as an onomastic game: “Giocondo” means “happy” in Italian. La Gioconda is therefore a happy woman whose natural emblem is the smile.

The science of sfumato

To bring the figure’s movement and subtle smile to life, Leonardo perfected his oil painting technique to an extraordinary degree. The Mona Lisa is, with Saint Anne and the Saint John the Baptist, his masterpiece in this area. It must also have constituted for him a sort of experiment which he pushed as far as possible, leaving his work partly unfinished, as is visible in the sketch of the land at the bottom of the landscape on the right. The face is constructed by imperceptible transitions from shadow to light, developed by thin layers of glaze (oily layers barely loaded with pigment), which blur the contours, thus creating a “sfumato” (blurring) effect). The landscape features equally refined fading effects to create a striking effect of atmospheric perspective. Contrary to what has sometimes been written, there is no difference in height of the horizon line between the right and left parts: the horizontal line constituted by the water point on the right continues to the left, in part hidden by the mountains.

From Monna Lisa to the Mona Lisa

It is very likely that during its slow execution, the painting became more than a simple portrait of Mona Lisa. The identity of the model gradually became secondary, and this image was admired above all for its extraordinary restitution of life, both physical and psychological, the symbol of the divine science of painting (according to the concept developed by the artist) capable of recreating life in all its complexity.

The most famous painting in the world

The work fascinated Leonardo‘s contemporaries, in particular the artists who took inspiration from it for their own portrait, such as the young Raphael who admired it during his stay in Florence between 1504 and 1508. Copies were made from the 16th century and today we know of more than a hundred. The text by Giorgio Vasari, published in 1550, made it one of the main masterpieces of Italian painting, thus inaugurating the myth of the Mona Lisa. From the second half of the 19th century, men of letters delivered passionate descriptions which forged the idea of a fatal and enigmatic beauty, at the origin of the absurd myth of a secret hidden in the painting.
The theft of the work by Vincenzo Peruggia, a glazier worker at the Louvre Museum, in 1911, gave it worldwide fame and, above all, more popularity. The Mona Lisa became, after its rediscovery in 1913, the main masterpiece of the Louvre, the most famous work in the world, an inexhaustible source of both artistic and advertising diversions. She was very exceptionally the ambassador of France in 1963 to the United States (under General de Gaulle and John Fitzgerald Kennedy), then to Japan and the former USSR in 1974, but has since remained at the Louvre, due to its extreme fragility.(Text by Vincent Delieuvin, July 2021) (Louvre)

See also:

François I, King of France (1494-1547) | Gherardini, Lisa (1479-1542)