Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa (/ˌmoʊnə ˈliːsə/; Italian: Monna Lisa [ˈmɔnna ˈliːza] or La Gioconda [la dʒoˈkonda], French: La Joconde [la ʒɔkɔ̃d]) is a half-length portrait painting by the Italian Renaissanceartist Leonardo da Vinci that has been described as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”. The Mona Lisa is also one of the most valuable paintings in the world. It holds the Guinness World Record for the highest known insurance valuation in history at $100 million in 1962, which is worth nearly $800 million in 2017.

The painting is thought to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, and is in oil on a white Lombardy poplarpanel. It had been believed to have been painted between 1503 and 1506; however, Leonardo may have continued working on it as late as 1517. Recent academic work suggests that it would not have been started before 1513. It was acquired by King Francis I of France and is now the property of the French Republic, on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797.

The subject’s expression, which is frequently described as enigmatic, the monumentality of the composition, the subtle modelling of forms, and the atmospheric illusionism were novel qualities that have contributed to the continuing fascination and study of the work.

Title and subject

The title of the painting, which is known in English as Mona Lisa, comes from a description by Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari, who wrote “Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife.” Mona in Italian is a polite form of address originating as “ma donna” – similar to “Ma’am”, “Madam”, or “my lady” in English. This became “madonna“, and its contraction “mona”. The title of the painting, though traditionally spelled “Mona” (as used by Vasari), is also commonly spelled in modern Italian as Monna Lisa (“mona” being a vulgarity in some Italian dialects) but this is rare in English.

Vasari’s account of the Mona Lisa comes from his biography of Leonardo published in 1550, 31 years after the artist’s death. It has long been the best-known source of information on the provenance of the work and identity of the sitter. Leonardo’s assistant Salaì, at his death in 1524, owned a portrait which in his personal papers was named la Gioconda, a painting bequeathed to him by Leonardo.

That Leonardo painted such a work, and its date, were confirmed in 2005 when a scholar at Heidelberg Universitydiscovered a marginal note in a 1477 printing of a volume written by the ancient Roman philosopher Cicero. Dated October 1503, the note was written by Leonardo’s contemporary Agostino Vespucci. This note likens Leonardo to renowned Greek painter Apelles, who is mentioned in the text, and states that Leonardo was at that time working on a painting of Lisa del Giocondo.

In response to the announcement of the discovery of this document, Vincent Delieuvin, the Louvre representative, stated “Leonardo da Vinci was painting, in 1503, the portrait of a Florentine lady by the name of Lisa del Giocondo. About this we are now certain. Unfortunately, we cannot be absolutely certain that this portrait of Lisa del Giocondo is the painting of the Louvre.

The model, Lisa del Giocondo, was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. The painting is thought to have been commissioned for their new home, and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. The Italian name for the painting, La Gioconda, means “jocund” (“happy” or “jovial”) or, literally, “the jocund one”, a pun on the feminine form of Lisa’s married name, “Giocondo”. In French, the title La Joconde has the same meaning.

Before that discovery, scholars had developed several alternative views as to the subject of the painting. Some argued that Lisa del Giocondo was the subject of a different portrait, identifying at least four other paintings as the Mona Lisareferred to by Vasari. Several other women have been proposed as the subject of the painting. Isabella of Aragon, Cecilia Gallerani, Costanza d’Avalos, Duchess of Francavilla,[22] Isabella d’Este, Pacifica Brandano or Brandino, Isabela Gualanda, Caterina Sforza—even Salaì and Leonardo himself—are all among the list of posited models portrayed in the painting. The consensus of art historians in the 21st century maintains the long-held traditional opinion, that the painting depicts Lisa del Giocondo.

Theft and vandalism

On 21 August 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre. The theft was not discovered until the next day, when painter Louis Béroud walked into the museum and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years, only to find four iron pegs on the wall. Béroud contacted the head of the guards, who thought the painting was being photographed for promotional purposes. A few hours later, Béroud checked back with the Section Chief of the Louvre who confirmed that the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers. The Louvre was closed for an entire week during the investigation.

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire came under suspicion and was arrested and imprisoned. Apollinaire implicated his friend Pablo Picasso, who was brought in for questioning. Both were later exonerated. Two years later the thief revealed himself. Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen the Mona Lisa by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet, and walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. Peruggia was an Italian patriot who believed Leonardo’s painting should have been returned for display in an Italian museum.

Peruggia may have been motivated by an associate whose copies of the original would significantly rise in value after the painting’s theft. A later account suggested Eduardo de Valfierno had been the mastermind of the theft and had commissioned forger Yves Chaudron to create six copies of the painting to sell in the U.S. while the location of the original was unclear. However, the original painting remained in Europe. After having kept the Mona Lisa in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was caught when he attempted to sell it to directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery for over two weeks and returned to the Louvre on 4 January 1914. Peruggia served six months in prison for the crime and was hailed for his patriotism in Italy. Before its theft, the Mona Lisa was not widely known outside the art world. It was not until the 1860s that some critics, a thin slice of the French intelligentsia, began to hail it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting.

In 1956, part of the painting was damaged when a vandal threw acid at it.On 30 December of that year, a rock was thrown at the painting, dislodging a speck of pigment near the left elbow, later restored.

The use of bulletproof glass has shielded the Mona Lisa from subsequent attacks. In April 1974, while the painting was on display at the Tokyo National Museum, a woman sprayed it with red paint as a protest against that museum’s failure to provide access for disabled people. On 2 August 2009, a Russian woman, distraught over being denied French citizenship, threw a ceramic teacup purchased at the Louvre; the vessel shattered against the glass enclosure. In both cases, the painting was undamaged.

Aesthetics

The Mona Lisa bears a strong resemblance to many Renaissance depictions of the Virgin Mary, who was at that time seen as an ideal for womanhood.

The depiction of the sitter in three-quarter profile is similar to late 15th-century works by Lorenzo di Credi and Agnolo di Domenico del Mazziere. Zöllner notes that the sitter’s general position can be traced back to Flemish models and that “in particular the vertical slices of columns at both sides of the panel had precedents in Flemish portraiture.” Woods-Marsden cites Hans Memling’s portrait of Benedetto Portinari(1487) or Italian imitations such as Sebastiano Mainardi’s pendant portraits for the use of a loggia, which has the effect of mediating between the sitter and the distant landscape, a feature missing from Leonardo’s earlier portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci.

The woman sits markedly upright in a “pozzetto” armchair with her arms folded, a sign of her reserved posture. Her gaze is fixed on the observer. The woman appears alive to an unusual extent, which Leonardo achieved by his method of not drawing outlines (sfumato). The soft blending creates an ambiguous mood “mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes”.

The painting was one of the first portraits to depict the sitter in front of an imaginary landscape, and Leonardo was one of the first painters to use aerial perspective. The enigmatic woman is portrayed seated in what appears to be an open loggia with dark pillar bases on either side. Behind her, a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge give only the slightest indications of human presence. Leonardo has chosen to place the horizon line not at the neck, as he did with Ginevra de’ Benci, but on a level with the eyes, thus linking the figure with the landscape and emphasizing the mysterious nature of the painting.

Mona Lisa has no clearly visible eyebrows or eyelashes. Some researchers claim that it was common at this time for genteel women to pluck these hairs, as they were considered unsightly. In 2007, French engineer Pascal Cotte announced that his ultra-high resolution scans of the painting provide evidence that Mona Lisa was originally painted with eyelashes and with visible eyebrows, but that these had gradually disappeared over time, perhaps as a result of overcleaning. Cotte discovered the painting had been reworked several times, with changes made to the size of the Mona Lisa’s face and the direction of her gaze. He also found that in one layer the subject was depicted wearing numerous hairpins and a headdress adorned with pearls which was later scrubbed out and overpainted.

There has been much speculation regarding the painting’s model and landscape. For example, Leonardo probably painted his model faithfully since her beauty is not seen as being among the best, “even when measured by late quattrocento (15th century) or even twenty-first century standards.”Some art historians in Eastern art, such as Yukio Yashiro, argue that the landscape in the background of the picture was influenced by Chinese paintings,[74] but this thesis has been contested for lack of clear evidence.

Research in 2003 by Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University said that Mona Lisa’s smile disappears when observed with direct vision, known as foveal. Because of the way the human eye processes visual information, it is less suited to pick up shadows directly; however, peripheral vision can pick up shadows well.

Research in 2008 by a geomorphology professor at Urbino University and an artist-photographer revealed likenesses of Mona Lisa‘s landscapes to some views in the Montefeltro region in the Italian provinces of Pesaro and Urbino, and Rimini.

 

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