What’s so special about Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa
(La Gioconda, c. 1503–1506, Musée du Louvre, Paris
) that has made her such a historical and cultural icon? Upon seeing it in the Louvre, surrounded by tourists (unless you’re wise enough to get there early before the crowds come bustling in), the painting is smaller than expected, and the average visitor spends 15 seconds observing it. They take more time setting up their phones to take a selfie. She was the first rock star of the fine-art world, and for many she is the sole reason they come to the Louvre, standing in line with people from around the world just so they can say that they’ve seen it. And many of them, because they don’t get a chance to really study and appreciate it in peace, leave unimpressed.
According to Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the first account of the Mona Lisa, the model was Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, and da Vinci hired musicians and jesters to keep her amused and make her smile. She died July 15, 1542, and church records show that she had an elaborate funeral procession, although attempts to determine the exact model by DNA testing bone fragments from a church graveyard in Florence have proved to be inconclusive.
Walter Pater, a writer from the Victorian Era, wrote the following passage about the masterpiece:
“We all know the face and hands of the figure, set in its marble chair, in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea. Perhaps of all ancient pictures time has chilled it least. The presence that thus rose so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all "the ends of the world are come
," and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed!
Even before her pop-culture fan cult started in the 20th century—fueled by the intrigue of her theft in 1911—her portrait revolutionized Western art. Before da Vinci painted her, portraits—especially of women—were mostly two-dimensional, often profiles, with flat colors and unnatural poses. Using the new medium of oil on wood, as well as sfumato (his signature technique of blending shades to create realistic, soft outlines), he was able to create a three-dimensional effect, inspiring copies by contemporaries, including Raphael
, who went on to use his techniques in their own works. There are many versions of her, painted at around the time Leonardo lived, and art historians and scientists work to understand whether or not they were also painted—completely or partially—by da Vinci. The Isleworth Mona Lisa, for instance, show the same woman with a mysterious smile (looking slightly younger), only she is sitting in between two columns, and the otherworldly landscape in the background is far less detailed, leading to speculation that it was painted by a different artist. The Prado Mona Lisa in Madrid, being far less damaged than the Louvre version, indicates what da Vinci’s masterpiece might have looked like when it was new. Its background had been painted over black, but, once it had been restored, the colors are brighter and it has been determined that it was painted, probably by a pupil (likely either Salai or Francesco Melzi
), alongside da Vinci as he worked on his most famous version. An anonymous Russian art collector bought a version held in St. Petersburg that, although magnificently painted, was determined by the chemicals in the paints to have been done later, and in France. The primer layer revealed that the ground was red, while da Vinci, like most Renaissance artists, used a white ground. The presence of barium sulfate indicates that this version was painted in France between 1620 and 1680, long after the master’s death. There have been several nude versions, including a charcoal drawing the same size and completed around the same time that has made many speculate that it was also Leonardo’s work, and perhaps a rough drawing that his final version was based on.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, no one in the history of the world has been flattered more sincerely that Leonardo da Vinci. Starting with Eugène Bataille’s La Joconde fumant la pipe, Le Rire, in 1887, in which Mona Lisa is smoking a long pipe and blowing smoke rings. With the ease of making reproductions in the 20th century, new generations of artists, beginning in 1919 with Marcel Duchamp
., (which, when pronounced in French, sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul,” or “She’s got a hot ass”) began putting their own twists on the famous painting, taunting the French bourgeoisie and their cult of the Mona Lisa. While Salvador Dalí considered Duchamp’s reproduction to be an attack on traditional female beauty and a “desecration,” that didn’t stop him from collaborating with Phillipe Halsman to create the Dalí Mona Lisa photomontage in 1954, in which his face and trademark mustache replace hers and he is holding a handful of large coins. When the French government sent the original Mona Lisa to the United States in 1963, the celebrity status of the painting inspired Andy Warhol, who had been fascinated with American stars like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe, to give her the same treatment. Thirty Are Better Than One was his most famous replication, in which he finds in Mona Lisa the ideal celebrity: mysterious and famous for simply being glamorous. The enigmatic British graffiti artist Banksy has created several works parodying her, including the bold act of stealthily hanging a smiley-faced portrait in the Louvre itself, as well as decorating walls with stencils of her holding a bazooka and the striking Mona Lisa Shows Her Bum (Elle a chaud au cul, indeed).
In 1959, Columbian artist Ferdinand Botero imagined an adorable, younger Lisa del Giocondo with his Mona Lisa at the Age of Twelve Years, and in 1978 he revisited her, reproducing da Vinci’s original in his signature “chubby” style
and adding pyramidal mountains and even a volcano in the background.
French scientist Pascal Cotte, using multispectral scanning analysis, discovered that at least three earlier portraits had been started underneath the final Mona Lisa: a study of a head, a Madonna portrait, and what he believes to be the actual Lisa Gherardini. The final painting known and loved worldwide, Cotte believes, is a different woman entirely. Several pearl-tipped hairpins that had been painted over can be seen even with the naked eye, if you know where to look for them. Using the technology he invented, he was able to reconstruct the way da Vinci painted Mona Lisa, and also claimed to solve the mystery of her lack of eyebrows and eyelashes. He claims that there is evidence that da Vinci had painted them, but they had faded and disappeared over time and during restorations.
Before starting the Mona Lisa, da Vinci drew many studies of different parts of the body in different positions, including the sketch of a mouth with a strikingly similar enigmatic smile. A comparison with an earlier painting of his, La Bella Principessa, the profile portrait of 13-year-old Bianca Sforza before her marriage, indicates that da Vinci had somehow unlocked the key to drawing the ideal, psychologically pleasing smile.
Da Vinci was said to have taken the Mona Lisa everywhere he traveled, in the end never giving it to Francesco del Giocondo, who had ordered the painting of his wife. It was taken from the Louvre during the Franco–Prussian War and spent the entire war on the run, and had been in the possession of the powerful French kings and hung in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom. Mona Lisa herself seems to bring out the best and worst in people, not only inspiring songs, books and movies, but also numerous bizarre vandalism attempts: rocks, coffee cups, and burning acid have all been thrown at her and she has been sprayed with paint and called “overrated” and “ugly”; such is the price of fame for the art world’s most celebrated woman.
Iranian–Canadian artist Amir Baradaran, building on the Italian Futurist and Dada movements and seeking “to explore the experiential, conceptual and legal shifts suggested by the advent of AR ” brought Duchamp’s mischievous attitude—mixed with a healthy modern criticism of concepts of nationalism and identity—into the 21st century. He used a smartphone app to reproduce the painting and manipulate Giocondo into letting her hair down and applying a headscarf made from the French flag.
Perhaps the most traumatizing experience for Mona Lisa was her abovementioned theft. Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian man working at the Louvre (ironically, his job was to build protective glass cases for paintings, including the Mona Lisa), decided to stay overnight at the museum; wrap the painting in his smock; and hide it in his apartment in Paris for two years before taking it back to Italy, where he imagined he would be welcomed as a national hero. It took twenty-four hours for anyone to notice the painting was missing, but when it was, her previously little-known face was plastered on the front page of newspapers all over the world, turning her into an overnight sensation. Lines started forming at the Louvre to see the empty space where she had hung before the theft. The borders of France were closed, and for two years they searched for her, trying to make up for the national embarrassment of losing such a masterpiece. Pablo Picasso, who was found to be in possession of other artwork stolen from the Louvre—two small Iberian statues—and who ran with a crowd called the Wild Men of Paris, became a suspect but was exonerated by the court. In December 1913, Peruggia was caught after trying to sell the Mona Lisa to a gallery director in Florence, who took it for “safekeeping” and promptly called the police. The thief was arrested in his hotel room and sentenced to one year and fifteen days (serving only six months) and Mona Lisa got to visit her birthplace, being exhibited all over Italy, before being returned to the Louvre.