Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa: Painting’s Artistic Merit and Mystery Woman

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Leonardo da Vinci's famous painting, "Mona Lisa", is a work of intrigue and mystery. Louvre Museum.

Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting, “Mona Lisa”, is a work of intrigue and mystery. Courtesy of the Louvre Museum.

Many people may not know much about individual artists of the Italian Renaissance. However, thanks to Dan Brown’s exceedingly popular novel (2003) and blockbuster movie, The Da Vinci Code (2006), a good number of non-artistic people became more interested in Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and his very famous painting, the Mona Lisa (1503-1506).

That painting of the somewhat whimsical yet sad woman hangs in the Louvre Museum in ParisBut there is much more to Leonardo, the artist, than one woman’s portrait. And, da Vinci was much more than just an artist.

So what makes this work so special? Is it the mystery behind the identity of the woman who posed for the painting? The mysterious model certainly adds to the painting’s intrigue, as historians have argued for centuries over who really was the Mona Lisa.

Certainly the ambiguity of the sitter’s pose, the expression and the lighting have all been a source of interest to both historians and artists. In fact, artists have tried for centuries to copy this work, and not very successfully.

Other artists, like Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968), have poked fun at the image, as in L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), where Duchamp desecrates a reproduction of the original.

More recently, growing speculation suggests the painter included a hidden message in Leonardo’s portrait. Is there really a Da Vinci Code hidden somewhere in the Mona Lisa? Brown isn’t the only one who believes that there is.

Leonardo da Vinci and the Mona Lisa

Was the Mona Lisa one of da Vinci’s greatest works of art? Apparently, Leonardo carried the Mona Lisa painting with him for the remainder of his life and he travelled extensively after the painting’s completion. So, either this painting was of value to the artist, or the woman in the painting was someone very special in the artist’s life. Or, the conspiracy theories have some merit and there was a hidden message in the painting.

What Makes The Mona Lisa Special?

The Mona Lisa is a monumental work – not in its physical size, but rather in the grandeur of the female figure that dominates the space of the painting. It is actually a very small painting, listed at the Louvre Museum as being 77 cm (height) by 53 cm (width) – that’s about a little over two feet high, and less then 2 feet wide.

However, the portrait depicts much more than the traditional head and shoulders view and the woman is the painting. Leonardo’s talent of optical illusion makes the observer focus on the image of the woman. It is only on very close examination that one really notices the landscape scene in the background.

The painting is significant, not just in the life and work of da Vinci, but in the history of Renaissance painting in Italy in the early sixteenth-century. According to Scailliérez at the Louvre Museum, the Mona Lisa “is the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait. The painting is generous enough in its dimensions to include the arms and hands without them touching the frame. The portrait is painted to a realistic scale in the highly structured space where it has the fullness of volume of a sculpture in the round.”

Walter Pater (1839-1894), English essayist and literary/art critic, is still widely quoted today on his dissertation and description of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. He wrote in the late nineteenth-century, “this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there. She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave…all this has been to her but as the sound of lyre and flutes.”

The Mona Lisa Smile

Pater’s typical nineteenth-century romantic dialogue certainly served to heighten the romance and the mystery behind the woman in the painting. Her smile is so emblematic, ambiguous, even coy. It is almost a half-smile, one corner of the mouth lifted slightly higher than the other. “It is,” as Scailliérez points out, “a visual representation of the idea of happiness suggested by the word ‘Gioconda’ in Italian. Leonardo made this notion of happiness the central motif of the portrait: it is this notion which makes the work such an ideal.”

There is a science behind Leonardo’s depiction of the woman’s smile. He was a mathematician and a scientist as well as an artist, so it stands to reason that his creative endeavours would incorporate some of his mathematical and scientific knowledge.

Gardner writes, “The romantic nineteenth-century made perhaps too much of the enigma of the ‘smile,’ without appreciating Leonardo’s quite scientific concern with the nature of light and shadow. The superb drawing present beneath the fleeting shadow is a triumph in its rendering of both the head and hands, the latter exceptionally beautiful. It may well have been the artist’s intention to confuse the observer, or enchant him allowing him to interpret the secret personality as he pleased.”

The light and luminosity results from Leonardo’s application of layer after layer of paint, which Gardner describes as “Leonardo’s fascination and skill with atmospheric chiaroscuro [the treatment and use of light and dark in a painting, especially the gradations of light]. While the light is adjusted subtly enough, the precise planes are blurred and the facial expression hard to determine.”

The smile is not the only thing that attracts the observer. The casual pose of the woman in itself is intriguing. The positioning of the hands is particularly casual, not a usual pose for a portrait in the early sixteenth-century. The artist has deliberately put the hand which would wear the wedding ring (the left hand) underneath the more dominant right hand. In this painting, Leonardo challenges both himself and the observer to question their vision of the ideal woman.

Who Was This Woman and Does it Matter?

The Mona Lisa, a title perhaps derivative of the more religious title, ‘’Madonna Lisa,’ is a woman shrouded in mystery. According to Scailliérez, art historians believe the woman in the painting is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Gioconda. The painting has an alternate title. In Italy, is known as La Gioconda, perhaps because it is believed to be Gioconda’s wife’s portrait.

But the mystery is more intense. After all, the woman in the painting is almost hiding her left hand and there is no evidence of a wedding band. So, is she the wife of anyone?

Another clue is the dark veil that drapes over the woman’s head. It is sometimes referred to as a mourning veil. “In fact,” Scailliérez points out, “such veils were commonly worn as a mark of virtue.” So, was the woman in mourning? Or, was she virtuous? Or both? Was she really a noble woman? According to Scailliérez, “Her clothing is unremarkable. Neither the yellow sleeves of her gown, nor her pleated gown, nor the scarf delicately draped round her shoulders are signs of aristocratic status.”

The Mystery of da Vinci’s Painting

Leonardo’s paintings are full of mystery, according to historians and novelists. Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has certainly served to heighten the mystery behind the woman in the painting as well as the painting itself.

In fact, in 2010, members of Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage insisted that there were hidden letters and numbers in the eyes of the Mona Lisa. Silvano Vinceti, president of the Committee, said, “To the naked eye, the symbols are hard to distinguish, but with a magnifying glass you can see the letters LV behind the right pupil (the left when watching the painting). They could stand for his name Leonardo da Vinci.”

According to Vinceti, the left pupil (the right when watching the painting) appears to have the letters CE or simply the letter B. Vinceti also suggested that they could be the number 72, and that there are other symbols hidden in the landscape in the background, particularly in the arch of the bridge.

What Secrets Does the Mona Lisa Hide?

What does this all mean? Was Leonardo hiding some message in his painting of the Mona Lisa? Was it a message so compelling, perhaps even so dangerous, that the artist believed it essential to carry the painting with him wherever he went? Was there something in the painting that the Roman Catholic Church would deem blasphemous, or did he just feel a fondness for the subject?

Perhaps we’ll never know. The mystery of the Mona Lisa, the painting and the woman in the painting, may remain forever as coy and unrevealing as the subject’s smile.

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