With a coy smile that both invites and warns away, the Mona Lisa has been an object of fascination and reverie for centuries—and she’s only getting more famous as the years pass.
A Masterpiece and Mystery
The Mona Lisa, also known as La Giocanda or La Joconde, was painted by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo Da Vinci, and is perhaps the most famous work of art in the world.
Da Vinci began work on this piece in the early 1500s; at first glance, it is simply a sitting portrait of a woman brushed in oil paint into a plank of poplar wood. It is not until you more closely inspect the technique of the painting, and compare it with what had previously been done in the art world, that the true genius of the Mona Lisa emerges.
The subject of the painting sits at a ¾ turn, a departure from the conventional profile that had previously been standard in Italiant portraiture. Her face and clothing demonstrate Da Vinci’s masterful use of delicate shading with oils, an adept technique that was only so successful here due to the fact that Da Vinci employed great attention to detail.
What’s more, the soft, supple lines of the sitter in the Mona Lisa echo the same texture in the landscape behind her. This is a more subtle communication of Da Vinci’s belief that man and nature share an unbreakable link that may be observed, if one looks close enough.
Da Vinci spent more than a decade perfecting the Mona Lisa; in fact, it was still in his studio when he died in 1519. The painting was immediately lauded as a masterpiece in the art world, and hung in the personal residences of King Louis XIV and Napoleon Bonaparte.
Today, the Mona Lisa can be viewed at the Louvre in Paris; it is owned by the French Government, and is considered a priceless piece of culture belonging to the entire public rather than one entity or person. The painting sits behind bulletproof glass in front of a large viewing area where crowds regularly gather.
In spite of its fame, the Mona Lisa has inspired generations of controversy, as the mystery of the woman in the painting swirls.
Perhaps as aloof and enigmatic as her is expression is the identity of the Mona Lisa’s subject. There has been plenty of time to speculate about whose face has become one of the most recognizable in the world, since the painting has now enjoyed 400 years of fame.
The most likely candidate is a Florentine merchant’s wife named Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. She was first proposed as the subject in 1550 by an art historian; personal notes to Da Vinci about creating “Lisa’s portrait” have confirmed this theory for many, but others remain unconvinced.
Perhaps one of the most counterintuitive parts of this particular theory is that Da Vinci was still in possession of the portrait when he died, and if this Florentine merchant had commissioned a portrait of his wife from Da Vinci, it would stand to reason that it should have been given to the family.
Other proposed sitters are Da Vinci’s mother (a hypothesis put forth largely by none other than Sigmund Freud), Princess Isabella of Naples, a Spanish noblewoman, or an unnamed courtesan. None of these theories have taken on much steam.
Historians in 2015 attempted to recover the remains of Lisa Gherardini; they believed that with a skull and DNA, they could create a rendering of what Gherardini might have looked like, and compare that with the face in the Mona Lisa. Though they did recover bone fragments, they never found a skull, so renderings of the real life subject depend entirely upon the painting; these adaptations provide interesting insight into the subject’s appearance, but do little in the way of uncovering her identity.
Art in Rebirth
Da Vinci lived and worked in a period of art history known as the Italian Renaissance, and so this is the movement to which the Mona Lisa belongs. This movement didn’t just affect art, but extended to science as well, and essentially translated to an entirely renewed interest in cultural and technological innovation.
For this reason, Da Vinci was regarded as the embodiment of a Renaissance Man—not only was he a prodigiously skilled artist, but he also had a distinctly keen mind for many different branches of science.
Works from this period took convention in stride as they portrayed the human figure in great detail, played with light and shadow in unusual ways, and conveyed a perceived connection between subjects and their surroundings. While Da Vinci was certainly an important Renaissance figure, he was joined by two other great masters of the time: Michelangelo and Raphael.
It was around the same time that Da Vinci was working on the Mona Lisa that Michelangelo completed another of history’s most beloved works: the Sistine Chapel.
Though the Mona Lisa was widely regarded as a triumph by those in-the-know, it did not reach international stardom until 1911, when it was stolen from the Louvre. The sensational story gripped the world, and the entire globe waited with bated breath to see what fate would befall the masterpiece.
The scandal of the theft was exacerbated by the fact that French authorities suspected another major artist of having carried out the deed. Pablo Picasso was scrutinized due to his association with a murky figure who had previously stolen items from the Louvre, but both men were eventually cleared.
Vincenzo Perugia, who had been employed at the Louvre, was the actual thief. He had simply removed the painting from its frame and smuggled it out under his garment. The Mona Lisa was rediscovered two years later when Perugia attempted to sell it to a Florentine art dealer, who alerted the authorities once it was in his possession.
Perugia served only a brief sentence for carrying out the heist. Though the period of time that the Mona Lisa spent away from the Louvre was wrought with anxiety, it served to propel the painting to its current state of fame. The world may never know for sure who sat as the subject of the Mona Lisa, or what exactly her small smile is meant to convey, but she will remain an important vestige of history and a famous artwork to be enjoyed by the public eye for centuries to come.