All about Mona Lisa by Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci aka Leonardo da Vinci

Fine art reproduction oil painting of Masterpiece Paintings Gallery
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About Leonardo da Vinci's
Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci | Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci, Mona Lisa | La Gioconda | Mrs. Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanoli del Giocondo, 1510-1515, oil on canvas, 32 x 22 in / 81.3 x 55.9 cm, US$390
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The Faces of the Mona Lisa
by Vincent Pomarède
Curator in the Paintings Department of the Louvre Museum

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci aka Leonardo da Vinci, 1452-1519
The Mona Lisa
aka La Gioconda, 1503-1506
oil on wood panel, original size 30.3 x 20.9 in. / 77 x 53 cm.

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     What is the mysterious connection that is established over time between a work of art and its public? What are the factors, profound motivations and secret techniques which can explain that the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Venus de Milo or The Angelus of Jean-François Millet have become universal objects of admiration and contemplation, of adoration almost, to the extent that all modern mediums, from end of the year calendars to advertising, have used them and even sometimes excessively so? The study of the unequalled success over three centuries of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa will perhaps enable a better understanding of the numerous and complex motivations which make that visitors of a museum only remember a single work from amongst thousands of others. Indeed, the Mona Lisa is beyond doubt the best known painting in the world, today completely identified with the Louvre Museum and even with the general notion of art. If we were able to penetrate the origins of its creation, its aesthetic qualities and its history following the death of its creator, we would perhaps be able to identify some rules explaining a work of art's success.

     It is possible to identify four areas of research which are closely connected to the Mona Lisa's unequalled success with its public: the marginal, whimsical and brilliant personality of its creator, Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519); the perfection of his pictorial technique; the mysteries, which are moreover still unresolved, surrounding the identity of the model who posed for the work; the developments in its history, which are as surprising and numerous as a detective story.

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Was Leonardo da Vinci a Painter, Engineer, Inventor or Philosopher?

     Born in 1452 in a small Toscan village called Vinci, which gave him its name, Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of the village's lawyer and one of his servants, Catarina Vacca. Statements concerning his appearance and personality differ particularly as legend grew up very early on in his biographical accounts. He is sometimes described as a prodigiously strong colossus, capable of bending a horseshoe in his hands, and often as a young adolescent, effeminate and dreamy. He is sometimes presented to us as a man who loved physical exercise and violent sports, sometimes as an adolescent playing the lyre and singing with perfection. His artistic gifts must however have already appeared during his childhood, because in 1469, at the age of 17, he had already spent three years in the studio of the Florentine painter and sculptor Andrea Verrochio (1435-1488). In this famous artist's studio, in the company of other important painters such as Sandro Botticelli or Perugino, he spent 13 years learning the technique of painting and the secrets of the execution of a picture. He also began to study the subjects which were then considered indispensable for an artist: mathematics, perspective, geometry and all the sciences of observation and study of the natural environment. He also began to study architecture and sculpture.

     After completing his training, he began his career as a painter with portraits and religious paintings, receiving commissions from the leading citizens or monasteries of Florence. But, from this period onwards, it is very difficult (and this continues throughout his career) to know with certitude whether he considered himself as a painter, multidisciplinary artist or engineer. The limits between the professions had not then been fixed as they are today and a man of talent could move with ease from one function to another. Leonardo then came under the protection of the most influential person in Florence, Lorenzo di Medici, named the Magnificent, a politician and exceptionally rich patron of the arts, who brought him many clients and whom, in 1482, sent him to Milan to serve the Duke Sforza. He wrote at the time an astonishing letter to the Duke of Milan, reading like a curriculum vitae, in which he revealed his ambitions as engineer, inventor and also soldier: “I can build very light bridges, solid, robust, easily transportable, to pursue and sometimes flee from the enemy [...] I also have the means to make bombardments, very practical and easy to transport, which throw stones almost like a storm, terrorizing the enemy with their smoke [...] In peace time, I believe that I am also able to give complete satisfaction to anyone, whether in architecture, the building of public and private buildings, or in conveying water from one place to another”.

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     Later, he placed his engineering talents at the service of the cities of Pisa and Venice, the sovereigns of Mantua, the Este family, and, of course, the King of France, François I, who invited him to come and work in the Loire valley, where the monarch then resided. This unusual quality of being able to tackle any subject with talent (during his lifetime he was to be better known as a hydraulic engineer than as a painter!) astonished all his contemporaries, as did also the insatiable curiosity with which he ceaselessly studied natural phenomena: “Where does urine come from? Where does milk come from? How does food spread through the veins? Where does drunkenness come from? And vomiting? And gravel and stone? [...] Where do tears come from?”, he confided to the pages of his notebooks in a continual quest for answers to every imaginable kind of question. His perfect knowledge of anatomy, the effects of light and the most complex chemical combinations obviously guided his career as painter and, from his first masterpieces the Virgin on the Rocks (Paris, Louvre Museum), begun in 1483, the Last Supper (Milan, Convent of Santa Maria del Gracia), which he painted in 1493, or the Battle of Anghiari (missing) for which he obtained a commission in 1503 after a hard struggle with Michelangelo, he showed to what an extent his scientific and technological knowledge enriched the creation of his paintings. 

     Even though his technical experimentations in painting were not always successful - the Last Supper and the Battle of Anghiari were ruined by badly mastered pictorial innovations, which attracted him the contempt and jeering of certain professionals, Leonardo da Vinci was famous for the unequalled level of perfection of his portraits and some of his religious paintings, such as Saint Anne, the Virgin and the Infant Jesus (Paris, Louvre Museum).

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The Perfect Technique of the Mona Lisa

     Indeed, the search for perfection is a true obsession with Leonardo da Vinci: “Tell me, tell me, has one ever finished anything?", he groaned in his notebooks, in which he frequently insisted upon his desire to equal the perfection of divine creation in his own artistic creations.

     Painted on a thin backing of poplar wood, which is now extremely fragile (this is why it is today preserved behind a glass case) the Mona Lisa is an exemplary creation, thanks to the subtle effects of light on flesh and the panache of the landscape in the painting's background. The modeling of the face is astonishingly realistic. Leonardo executed the painting with patience and virtuosity: after preparing the wooden panel with several layers of coating, he first of all drew his motif directly onto the picture, before painting it in oil, adding very weak turpentine, which enabled him to paint on innumerable layers of transparent color, known as glaze, and to endlessly remodel the face. The glaze, skillfully worked, heightens the effects of light and shade on the face, constituting what Leonardo himself called “sfumato”. This technique enables the perfect imitation of flesh, due to refined treatment of the human figure plunged into half-obscurity or “chiaroscurro”, and enabled Leonardo to satisfy his preoccupation with realism.

     During his lifetime, Leonardo was indeed above all famous for his evident talent for imitating nature to perfection and when his first biographer, the painter Vasari, described the Mona Lisa, he above all insisted on the work's realism: “Its limpid eyes had the sparkle of life: ringed by reddish and livid hues, they were bordered by lashes whose execution required the greatest delicacy. The eyelashes, in places thicker or more sparse according to the arrangement of the pores, could not be truer. The nose, with its ravishing delicate, pink nostrils, was life itself. [...] In the hollow of the throat, the attentive spectator can catch the beating of the veins”. Through “sfumato” Leonardo could attain one of his primary artistic objectives, that of interesting himself mainly in his model's personality: "The good painter has essentially two things to represent: the individual and the state of his mind", said Leonardo. To paint the soul rather than the body was in fact the ultimate aim of his work and the “sfumato”, lighting the portrait through “chiaroscurro”, accentuated the work's mysteries: “to plunge things into light is to plunge them into the infinite".

     It is here important to recall to what extent the question of the model's realism is connected to its identity. To this day, we still do not know whether Leonardo da Vinci faithfully represented an existing model, whether he idealized a portrait of a woman of his circle or if he entirely imagined a type of universal woman.

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The Mystery of the Model's Identity

     Every kind of possibility, including the most far-fetched, has been envisaged concerning the model's identity: Isabelle of Este, who reigned at Mantua during Leonardo da Vinci's stay there (we know a drawing by him showing her); a mistress of Giuliano di Medici's or of Leonardo himself; perhaps an ideal woman; and even an adolescent boy dressed as a woman, or possibly a self-portrait.

     The first statement concerning the model for the Mona Lisa, dates from the last years of Leonardo's life, and talks of a portrait “of a certain Florentine lady done from life at the request of the magnificent Giuliano di Medici”. We know that Leonardo da Vinci took the portrait to France, during his stay at the court of François I (and no doubt he was still working on it), but he had begun it during his stay in Florence between 1503 and 1506. It therefore appears likely that the model, whoever it was, could have been Florentine. A later second statement by Vasari described the portrait of Mona Lisa, the wife of a Florentine gentleman, Francesco del Giocondo. This latter, a rich bourgeois holding a position of political authority in his city, really existed, but we know little about the life of his wife, Lisa Gherardini, born in 1479. We do know that she had married del Giocondo in 1495 but we in fact have no proof that she could have been the mistress of a Medici. A later anonymous statement creates a certain confusion, linking the Mona Lisa to a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo — the origin of the risky idea that it is the portrait of a man. Lastly, a later text, dated 1625, refers to a “half-figure portrait of a certain Gioconda”, which permanently gave the painting its French title.

     Even today, we possess no final proof of the identity of the woman shown by Leonardo. Indeed, it is astonishing to consider that we now remember more the universal aspects of the picture (the evident idealization of the portrait, the painter's imaginative rendering of the landscape, the balance of the model's posture), more than the reference to a personality who really existed. Even if he painted a woman's face with realism, it is clear that Leonardo lastingly freed himself from any obligations to accuracy to search for an abstract description of the human figure.

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The Detective Story of the History of the Mona Lisa

     These intrinsic qualities in Leonardo's work, which had already impressed art lovers and professionals, would not have sufficed to give the Mona Lisa its worldwide success if its history had not also been exceptional. 

     Acquired by François I, either directly from Leonardo da Vinci, during his stay in France, or upon his death from his heirs, the painting remained in the royal collections from the beginning of the sixteenth century to the creation of the Central Arts Museum at the Louvre in 1793. We know that it was kept at Versailles under the reign of Louis XIV and that it was in the Tuileries during the First Empire. Since the Restoration, the Mona Lisa has always remained in the Louvre Museum, a key piece of the national collections. Studied by historians and painters, who copied it frequently, the Mona Lisa became world famous after its theft in 1911. On August 21, 1911, a slightly mad Italian painter, Vincenzo Peruggia stole it to return it to its country of origin. After a long police enquiry, during which everyone was suspected, including the Cubist painters and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had one day shouted that “the Louvre should be burnt”, the Mona Lisa was rediscovered in Italy almost two years later and rehung in the Louvre, treated with the honors accorded to a head of state, after having occupied, throughout this period, the front pages of the world's newspapers.

     Since then, the painting has truly become a cult object, considered as sacred to an excessive degree.

     The two journeys which she made during the twentieth century, in 1963 to the United States and in 1974 to Japan, were unprecedented successes, the work being welcomed by the crowds like a film star. These two journeys moreover played a major role in building its notoriety, as did the theft of 1911, and the Japanese and American publics have ever since worshipped the work which spent a few weeks in their countries and in front of which hundreds of thousands of visitors filed. 

     An exceptional artist and faultless technique, combined with the mysteries of its model and its history, were therefore at the origin of the extraordinary craze for the Mona Lisa which no other work of art has up until now known. Perhaps too the fact that the painting shows a human figure, that is to say neither a religious or profane scene, subjects that always date and are forgotten as soon as their fashions fade, nor a landscape or still life, subjects sometimes too intellectual, surely explains the crowds' passion. Indeed, the portrait genre, which is accessible for the public, has always been popular and did not Leonardo himself already seem to predict the portrait's success when he wrote: “Can you not see that amongst human beauties, it is a beautiful face that stops passers by, and not the rich ornaments ...”, thereby insisting on the mysteries of the look that is exchanged between the visitor and the strange, smiling face.

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Memorable Quote: “The heavenly spheres that God has made operate like the wheels of a great clock with perfect precision, virtually unvarying in course and speed and degree, so that these things can be calculated to the split second: Sunrise and sunset; phases of the moon, moonrise and moonset and tides and eclipses of the moon and the sun.”
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