The Renaissance masterpiece The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is arguably the most famous painting in the world. With her iconic smile catching viewers’ attention, she has lived in the castles of French kings, from Francis I and Louis XIV to Napoleon and today she remains a huge part of France’s cultural heritage despite her Italian provenance. In this article, Singulart takes a closer look into Leonardo Da Vinci’s life and career and examines the intrigue behind The Mona Lisa and her smile, from the sixteenth century to the present day.
Feature Image: Leonardo da Vinci (self-portrait), c. 1478/79. (Courtesy of Peter Ackermann)
Leonardo Da Vinci: Dramatic Origins
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) was an Italian polymath and the archetypal “Renaissance Man”. Although he is most renowned today for his skills as a painter, his interests and skills ranged from drawing, painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and history to engineering, invention, anatomy, geology, astronomy and cartography.
Leonardo da Vinci was the illegitimate son of Piero Da Vinci, a notary, and a peasant woman named Caterina, and was born in Vinci, Florence. Ruled by the Medici family, Florence was considered the cradle of the Renaissance during Da Vinci’s lifetime. He was educated in the Florentine studio of the painter Andrea del Verrocchio in the mid 1460’s, where he received a thorough theoretical training. By 1472, he had qualified as a master in the Guild of Saint Luke, the guild of artists and doctors, and although his father helped him set up his own workshop, he continued to collaborate with Verrocchio.
Da Vinci’s earliest surviving work is a pen and ink drawing of the Arno Valley from 1473. Soon after he established his own workshop, he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of Saint Bernard in the Palazzo Vecchio and another for the monks of San Donato in Scopeto. However, Da Vinci completed neither of these projects as he abandoned them to work for Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan from 1482 to 1499. During this time he painted, the Virgin of the Rocks for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception and The Last Supper for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Da Vinci Escapes Political Turmoil in Milan
Ludovico Sforza was overthrown at the beginning of the Second Italian War and thus Leonardo, along with his assistant Salai and his friend, the renowned mathematician Luca Pacioli, fled to Venice. Here he worked as a military architect and engineer, designing defense plans to protect the city from naval attack. He returned to Florence in 1500 and lived as a guest of the monks of the Santissima Annunziata monastery, where he painted The Virgin and Child with St Anne and St John the Baptist, which according to the art historian Vasari, was hugely popular.
Da Vinci then went on to work for Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI, as a military architect, engineer and cartographer until he returned to Florence and the Guild of Saint Luke in 1503. It was at this time that he began to work on his most famous painting, a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, now known as The Mona Lisa. It is speculated that he worked on this until his final years.
In 1515, King Francis I of France captured Milan and the following year Leonardo entered his service where he drew up architectural plans for a castle town and other inventions. Da Vinci died in France in 1519, in the house given to him by Francis I.
Leonardo Da Vinci’s Masterpiece, The Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa is a half length portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. It is painted in oil on Lombardy poplar panel, and is thought to have been commissioned to celebrate the birth of their second son. The Mona Lisa is named after Lisa Gherardini, with Mona being an Italian abbreviation for “ma donna”, meaning “ma lady”. The French and Italian titles for this masterpiece are: La Gioconda or La Joconde, meaning happy or jovial whilst also being a pun on the sitter’s marital surname.
The Mona Lisa sits upright in a “pozzetto” chair, with her arms crossed in her lap, in a demure pose reminiscent of many depictions of the Virgin Mary, symbolising an ideal of womanhood. She gazes out, seemingly directly at the viewer, with an elusive smile on her face. The art historian Vasari described this now iconic expression, stating: “the smile was so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human”. This mysterious, divine quality is enhanced by Da Vinci’s use of “sfumato”, a technique that creates the shadowy quality of the painting. He also created a very smooth surface, where the brushstrokes are almost imperceptible, by using oil paints like tempera. The simple dress, the subdued colors and the contrast between the dramatic, brooding landscape in the background, all push the focus of the composition to the woman’s radiant hands and face. With this composition, Da Vinci was one of the first painters to employ aerial perspective.
The most famous painting in the world?
The Mona Lisa is today considered one of the most famous paintings in the world, however before 1911, this was not the case. On the 21st of August 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre, where it had been on permanent display since 1797. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested as well as Pablo Picasso, however both were exonerated. It turned out to have been stolen by a Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, who believed that Da Vinci’s masterpiece belonged in an Italian museum. The theft provided an enormous amount of publicity for The Mona Lisa, transforming her reputation as a Renaissance masterpiece to one of the most famous paintings in the world.
Since then several attacks and protests have been made on The Mona Lisa, with a rock being thrown at it, shattering the glass and dislodging a piece of the pigment in 1956. In 1974, it’s glass case was also sprayed with red paint at the Tokyo National Museum by a woman protesting about the lack of disabled access at the museum and again in 2009 a Russian woman threw a teacup at the painting in protest that her application for French citizenship had been denied. In 1962, The Mona Lisa was estimated to be worth $100 million, which today translates to about $830 million.
The Mona Lisa has also been the subject of many subsequent works in the history of art and appropriated and copied in popular culture from Marcel Duchamp’s mustache on a postcard of The Mona Lisa to pop stars like Beyoncé sitting in the style of The Mona Lisa.