Fascinated with Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa? Here’s my guide to everything you need to know about this famed Renaissance masterpiece, which hangs in the Louvre Museum.
For centuries, people have been fascinated with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. It’s one of the most famous, maybe THE most famous painting, in art history. Leonardo painted the Mona Lisa sometime between 1503-19. At the time, he was living in Florence, a city dubbed the “Cradle of the Renaissance.”
80% of Louvre visitors come for the sole purpose of seeing the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is an object of pilgrimage in the 21st century. Taking a selfie with her is a rite of passage.
What To Know About Leonardo’s Mona Lisa
Here’s everything you need to know about the Mona Lisa, including facts about the painting’s history, secret theories, innovations, and knockoffs. In Italy, the Mona Lisa is known as The painting is also called La Gioconda.
1. Description of the Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa is reputedly a depiction of Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman and wife of the cloth and silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. It’s painted on poplar wood, not canvas.
Lisa is shown as a seemingly ordinary young woman. She’s wearing a simple house dress and delicately veiled. She sits in a loggia in front of either an imaginary or Tuscan landscape.
Lisa sits with her arms folded with her hands on a chair, as she gazes out at the viewer. Her irises are at the sides of her eyes. This creates the effect of her eyes following the viewer.
She’s an active participant in the viewing. Not just an object to be admired.
The convention at the time was to paint all portraits of women as symbolic representations of the Virgin Mary. Leonardo adopted this trope, but in his own unique way. He portrayed Lisa as herself, without the usual distracting trappings of wealth, gaudy jewelry etc. There were no physical symbols to identify her.
The Mona Lisa seems like a vision of peace and harmony. But there’s that famously enigmatic smile. It’s a perplexing smile, slightly seductive. Is it maternal? Is it flirtatious? Only the viewer can decide.
And what about the missing eyebrows? Some historians say that was how high class ladies rolled in the Renaissance. But scans have showed that the Mona Lisa once had eyebrows and eyelashes, which simply vanished over time or through poor restorations.
2. History of the Mona Lisa
Leonardo received the commission in 1503. At the time, portraits were rare. Only the wealthiest citizens or royalty could commission a portrait. The portraits would then convey a status on the family.
Leonardo never relinquished the Mona Lisa, carrying it with him at all times. The painting was in perpetual process. Year after year, Leonardo added small subtle and perfecting strokes and glazes. The painting has been heavily reworked over time.
At the time, the portrait was known as La Giaconda. It was art historian and artist Giorgio Vasari that first gave it the name of Mona Lisa in his Lives of the Artists. Mona comes from the word madonna.
Leonardo never delivered the portrait to its probable patron. Instead, Leonardo took it with him when he went to work as a court artist for King Francis I in the Loire Valley.
Why? One theory is that Lisa was having an affair with Giuliano de Medici, the brother of Lorenzo the Magnificent.
He had moved to France. Perhaps Leonardo was bringing him the portrait? An affair would explain why Mona Lisa is wearing only an intimate house dress that would never be seen in public. And it would also explain why she’s not wearing a wedding ring in the portrait.
Or, perhaps the Mona Lisa was just Leonardo’s muse, his favorite painting. One he couldn’t bear to be parted from it. This is the theory you’ll find in the fictional book about Leonardo and Michelangelo, Oil and Marble.
After Leonardo’s death, his heirs sold the Mona Lisa to Francis I. The king kept it at the Chateau de Fontainebleau. King Louis XIV later moved the painting to Versailles. Following the French Revolution, it was moved to the Louvre.
3. Leonardo’s Artistic Innovations in the Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa represents several artistic innovations. The first thing is that it’s half length in 3/4 profile. Previously, portraits were just busts, usually shown sideways with the figure in stark profile. It was a static stiff pose.
Leonardo turned the head to the viewer, twisted the position, and added hands. This had the effect of making the portrait look much more natural and full of movement. Leonardo first did that in his Portrait of Genevra de’Benci (now in the National Gallery in Washington D.C.)
The Mona Lisa is also among the world’s first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape using an aerial perspective. Behind Lisa is a hazy and rocky landscape. The sensuous curves of the sitter’s hair and clothing are echoed in the shape of the landscape behind her.
Third, it’s unusual for a Renaissance portrait to depict a person smiling. The smile may be the result of watching entertainment. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo brought musicians to portrait sitting to elevate the tedium of posing for so long.
Fourth, the painting has Leonardo’s signature sfumato technique, Sfumato means smoke. It results in forms “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.”
Leonardo loved oil paint and its translucency. He loved that it dried slowly, giving him time to rework lines and shading. Leonardo used both brushes and his own fingertips and palms to blend the paint and create an atmospheric quality. He didn’t want a single brush stroke to be perceptible.
4. Who Is the Mona Lisa?
It’s generally accepted that the sitter is Lisa del Giocondo. But, it’s not definitively proven and theories abound.
Some theorists have been proposed that the model is Leonardo’s mother or his young lover and pupil Salai. (Mona Lisa is an anagram for Mon Salai.)
Others posit that Mona Lisa is an androgynous composite portrait of a male and female. Our a self portrait of Leonardo in drag. Leonardo experts and the Louvre dispute these fanciful claims.
In 2008, the University of Heidelberg says it has the answer. The Mona Lisa is Lisa. In a cache of notes written in 1503, a Florentine official, Agostino Vespucci, writes that the artist was working on a portrait of Lisa Gioconda.
5. Why is the Mona Lisa So Famous?
What makes this small portrait of a Florentine woman so famous? Despite her renown, most people don’t know how she got famous in the first place.
Well, the Mona Lisa didn’t always have fame of supernatural dimensions. The painting only vaulted to superstar status when it was stolen by an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia, who worked at the Louvre.
Peruggia wanted to bring Mona Lisa back to its “real home” in Italy. He detached the Mona Lisa from the wall in the night between August 20-21 in 1911. With knowledge of the Louvre, he quietly left the museum hiding the painting under his overcoat.
News of the theft made headlines around the world. The painting became grafted onto the world’s collective consciousness. Even Picasso was a suspect for a time. Though he was released after questioning.
Initially, the Louvre left the empty frame exposed on the gallery wall. Then, the Louvre put the Portrait of Baldassar Castiglione by Raphael in its place.
The Mona Lisa was missing for over two years. It was only recovered when Peruggia tried to sell it in Florence.
The painting went on a tour in Italy and was then returned to its rightful place at the Louvre. But its recovery, like its theft, caused a media circus.
6. Secret Messages in the Mona Lisa
From the moment the Mona Lisa was created, writers and researchers have ruminated on the processes Leonardo used when creating the ambiguous and suggestive Mona Lisa. Some theorists speculate that he left secret coded messages for the viewer.
People, critics, and even doctors have engaged in wild sleuthing. They’ve speculated about everything — her smile, her eyes (letters in them), her physical condition (pregnancy, cholesterol problem, thyroid disease, missing teeth, paralyzed facial nerve), and animals shapes drawn in the painting.
Leonardo scholar Martin Kemp calls them “wild theories and untrammeled fantasy.” The need to find secret symbols in a painting seems inspired by novelist Dan Brown, whose book The Da Vinci Code brought slews of visitors to the Louvre.
The most popular theory is that the Mona Lisa is a portrait of a man. Either Leonardo himself or his pupil and possible lover, Salai, dressed as a woman.
7. Oldest Leonardo Workshop Copy of the Mona Lisa
There is an almost exact copy of the Mona Lisa in the Prado Museum in Madrid Spain. It was discovered in 2012, when the painting was cleaned and the black background removed.
The painting is recognized as the earliest replica of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Prior to its restoration, the painting was categorized as an anonymous copy. But when the Prado restored the painting, the striking background was unveiled. It was then reattributed to Leonardo’s workshop.
Scientific analysis led art historians to conclude that it was painted by an artist in Leonardo’s workshop, possibly his pupil Salai or Melzi. The artist likely sat beside Leonardo and copied his work stroke for stroke.
Each and every adjustment that Leonardo made on his Mona Lisa was repeated in the copy. Since it’s been cleaned, the copycat work is much brighter than the Mona Lisa.
8. Did Leonardo Paint Another Mona Lisa?
Did you know that some historians suspect the Louvre’s Mona Lisa is a copy of an earlier version? There’s another painting of the same woman, Lisa del Giocondo, allegedly painted a decade or so before the Louvre’s version. Was this Leonardo’s prequel?
The lookalike painting was initially dubbed the Isleworth Mona Lisa. Isleworth was the studio of maverick English connoisseur Hugh Blaker, who spotted the painting in an old manor house. It’s now been rebranded as the “Earlier Mona Lisa.”
The painting is owned by a consortium of Swiss businessmen. Though there’s a dispute in an Italian court over ownership, with a London family making a partial claim.
The two paintings bear a startling resemblance, though the Earlier Mona Lisa has been cleaned and restored. Leonardo often made two versions of many masterpieces.
Renaissance art historian Vasari referred to the Mona Lisa as “unfinished” while the Louvre’s Mona Lisa at least seems finished. The Isleworth version has columns. These same columns are found in a Raphael sketch of Mona Lisa, made after visiting Leonardo’s studio where he may have seen the painting.
But most da Vinci experts think the Isleworth Mona Lisa is just another in a long series of Mona Lisa variants and imitations. It’s a tedious and stilted copy with a subpar background and no telltale underdrawings. Kemp gave it a critical smack down. Skepticism remains the order of the day.
9. Influence of Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa had a tremendous influence on other Renaissance artists like Raphael, Michelangelo, Filipino Lippi, and Andrea del Sarto. The Mona Lisa isn’t “just a portrait.” Leonardo’s innovation kicked off new trends in portrait painting that would continue into the 1800s.
10. Attacks on the Mona Lisa
Not everyone write fan mail letters to the Mona Lisa. She’s been attacked several times.
In 1956, a vandal threw acid at the painting. Another hurled a rock, chipping a pigments on Mona Lisa’s left elbow. There’s every so slight evidence of damage.
In 1974, someone squirted spray paint. In 2009, a deranged woman tossed a coffee mug at the painting. The glass fended off these latter two attempts.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. You may enjoy these guides to other famous Renaissance artists:
- Michelangelo Trail in Florence
- Leonardo da Vinci Trail in Milan
- Piero della Francesco Trail in Italy
- Andrea del Verrocchio’s Art in Florence
- Caravaggio Trail in Rome
- Bernini Trail in Rome
- Botticelli Trail in Florence
- Artemisia Gentileschi Paintings
- Raphael’s Most Famous Paintings
- Art Works of Giorgio Vasari
- Art Works of Donatello
If you’d like to see the Mona Lisa, pin it for later.