The Mona Lisa, painted by Renaissance master, Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century, is likely the most well-known painting in the world. But why? It’s not an incredibly remarkable piece of art, simply a portrait of a woman sitting with her arms crossed and looking straight at the viewer, countless similar subjects have been painted throughout the years. So why does this one stand out? Well, the story of the Mona Lisa is actually quite interesting and that’s exactly what we’ll be talking about today.
This is Color & Chill with Yvonne Page Illustrates and you’re watching an episode of Facts to Relax, the show where I research random topics that I find interesting and then report back to you with my findings while we hang out together and I paint a picture on the screen. Today we’ll talk about all things Mona Lisa: who the model for the Mona Lisa may actually have been, what makes the painting so special, and the story of the theft that catapulted this portrait into stardom. I’ll put timecodes in the description below in case you want to skip around and find something specific but otherwise, let’s just sit back now, take a deep breath in and let it out slowly, and get started on this fascinating story.
The Mona Lisa is an oil painting on a poplar wood panel that now hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France, where millions of people visit it each year. The portrait was painted by famed Renaissance artist, scientist, sculptor, architect, draughtsman, engineer, and theorist, Leonardo da Vinci. If you were ever wondering what the term “Renaissance Man” means, you need look no further than da Vinci and all his different skills and talents. I won’t try to do a full biography of da Vinci in this episode because his life really warrants an entire dedicated study that I can’t fit here but I promise to do a future episode about him as well. But what I will say is that in 1503, da Vinci was fifty-one years old, living in Florence, Italy, and this is where our story of the most famous painting in the world begins. This was the year da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa, but it would take him many more to finish the masterpiece.
The painting itself is remarkable in the sense that there really was nothing like it done before. In the first place, the three-quarter view of the model was very different from what was normally painted at the time. Full-length portraits were more common, with everything from the top of the model’s head, to his or her feet included in the painting, so this alone was breaking the artistic mold. Additionally, it was common to paint a side profile, meaning that you would see the face looking to one direction, to the left or right of the canvas, but da Vinci instead chose to paint the Mona Lisa facing him straight on and looking him in the eye.
Next, there’s the amazing detail of the painting-the smoothness of her skin, the softness of her hair, the delicate folds in the fabric of her dress and veil, with no visible paintbrush strokes or sharp edges to be found anywhere in the painting, as if you’re actually looking at a photograph, instead of a painting, at time long before photographs existed. He achieved this by carefully painting thin layers of glazing medium mixed with small amounts of oil paint and by using different brush stroke techniques in different areas of the painting and undoubtedly, it took an incredible amount of patience, dedication, and skill to achieve.
But of course, we can’t forget her face itself. Those eyes, that seem to follow you as you move around the room and her lips, slightly upturned, as if amused, but maybe not completely happy? And, oh yeah, have you ever noticed that she has no eyebrows? Where are the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows?
Finally, there’s the matter of the background. A landscape with rolling hills, water, roads, bridge, and sky…ethereal and mysterious since no one can really agree on where this landscape was set or whether it’s actually a real location. Additionally, the way the horizon line is painted, not completely matching up evenly behind Mona Lisa’s head was likely done on purpose in order to confuse the eye and add a sense of movement to the image.
The painting broke the mold of art much in the way Impressionism, Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, and other art movements would in the future. But, that has very little to do with why it’s the most well-known painting in the world now, more than five hundred years after it was painted. Before we get into that though, let’s talk a little bit about the mystery of who the Mona Lisa was. Was there really a woman named Mona Lisa or was she made up, da Vinci’s “ideal” interpretation of a woman?
Well, it’s not completely clear who the model for the Mona Lisa actually was because da Vinci didn’t leave anything behind noting that key point but there are a few theories. There were several noble women at the time who people thought may have been the model, or even that she could have been a mistress of Guiliano de’Medici, who was the ruler of the Republic of Florence at the time. Without photographic evidence of what these women actually looked like to compare with thuogh, it’s hard to be sure. Also, it seems unlikely that it was a painting of a noble woman since the clothing Mona Lisa wears is not as fancy as one would expect from such a model. Others claim that it’s a portrait of da Vinci’s mother or a self-portrait that da Vinci painted of himself disguised as a woman or of his assistant Gian Giacomo Caprotti dressed as a woman, OR even that the Mona Lisa was a combination of several different models. We may never know exactly but the most agreed upon theory is that this was actually a portrait of a woman named Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, commissioned by her husband, a silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. This theory appears to be supported by two things: one, a note found in the University Library of Heidelberg, written by Agostino Vespucci in 1503 stating that da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocando, and two, a letter written around 1550 by an acquaintance of the Giocondo family, Giorgio Vasari who wrote that “Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife.” This letter is also where the name for the portrait “Mona Lisa” came from and it’s interesting to consider that da Vinci himself may never have thought of the painting with this title, or even as “La Gioconda” as it’s known in Italy, or “La Jaconde” as it’s referred to in France. Though we may think of Mona Lisa as the woman’s full first name, mona was actually a common Italian contraction for the word “Madonna,” meaning “my lady,” which basically would mean madam in English. So the Mona Lisa, instead of being a name would translate more accurately to “Madam Lisa” or “My Lady Lisa.”
Now, I want to be clear that nobody actually knows the answer to this for sure as history is a fuzzy and tricky thing but many people may try to tell you that their belief on the matter is the truth because they heard about it in their college art history class or read it on the internet or something like that but I’m not going to do that. I’m going to straight up tell you it’s all speculation with some strong indications pointing to it being Lisa del Giocando, but others contradicting that speculation, so really, unless da Vinci comes back from the dead and clues us all in definitively, no one knows anything for sure, including myself, and probably none of us ever will. And we just need to be okay with that.
BUT, just for fun, let’s go down this Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo rabbit hole a little deeper, not just because it’s the most widely believed theory but because there’s some interesting things to unpack here. First of all, in this quest to find out once and for all whether Giocondo was the model, historical experts have spent years actively looking for her grave so that they could exhume it and compare her skull to the Mona Lisa’s face. This is the level of mystery and dedication the Mona Lisa has inspired. A three-year search at the former Sant’Orsala convent turned up little, with analysis of bone DNA from exhumed skeletons to modern-day relatives of Giocondo proving inconclusive, leading archeologists to then suspect that she may have been buried in the nearby Santissima Annuziata basilica, where other family members, including her husband and one of her sons were interred. I can’t find any evidence online that her remains have been definitively found and identified at the point of this recording, with the few skeletons that have been possibilities being too deteriorated to obtain DNA from or for comparing to the painting even if they were identified to be hers.
But enough about her death, let’s talk about Lisa’s life, which started on June 15, 1479. Lisa came from an aristocratic family who had lost their influence and wealth, although they were still relatively well-off. Born in Florence, she was named after a wife of her paternal grandfather and was the eldest of seven children. When she was fifteen years old, Lisa married Francesco del Giocondo who was thirty at the time and who’d already been married twice before. Her dowry was modest though, suggesting not only that her family wasn’t rich but also that her and Francesco married for love…or maybe because he’d been married twice already and had given up on love and just needed someone to help raise his daughter from his first marriage. I don’t know. No one does. Anyways, they lived a middle-class life and had five children plus another daughter that they lost. Francesco was a silk and cloth merchant and later he became an official in Florence. Francesco reportedly died from the plague in 1538 and Lisa died in a convent where I believe her daughter was a nun in 1542 at the age of 63, completely unaware of the future notoriety her portrait, started when she was only twenty-four years old and which she’d likely never even seen, would hold in the future.
A book called “Mona Lisa: The People and The Painting” by authors Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti, make claims that Lisa was forced into her marriage with Francesco and that he was likely an African slave trader, trading in humans in addition to silks and cloth. Additionally, they claim a story circulated that two men from the Medici family were sent to “tempt Lisa’s honor” but that she rejected their advances. Could all this be the reason for the somewhat melancholy half-smile she sports in this famous painting? I suppose anything’s possible, although, if you look at other da Vinci paintings and sketches of women, it’s pretty obvious that this particular female expression was one he favored, so it’s just as likely that her mysterious smile had less to do with Lisa’s life or temperament, as much as da Vinci not wanting to paint teeth.
Either way, if the painting was commissioned by Giocondo, and there are no records other than third-hand writings that it was, it’s likely that the reason it was never finished was because da Vinci received another, larger and more pressing job in 1504 and eventually Giocondo would have tired of waiting and cancelled the commission. Apparently, da Vinci was notorious for not finishing paintings and the Mona Lisa was tucked away and carried around with him for the rest of his life, being worked on for pleasure only, possibly still not considered finished by da Vinci at the time of his death in 1519. When da Vinci died, he was living in France, in the employ of King Francois I, and the Mona Lisa entered the French Royal Collection. He hung the painting in the Apartement de Bains in the palace of Fontainbleu. It’s reported that the king had so many paintings that eventually his bathroom suite was turned into a semi-public art gallery and the Mona Lisa, or “La Jaconde” as he would have referred to it, was one of the paintings on display there. Many years later, when King Louis XIV moved the French court to Versailles, the Mona Lisa went with him but his son Louis XV hated the picture so much that he ordered it to be removed from the palace and so it spent some time with a palace bureaucrat and then hidden in a warehouse during the French Revolution for safekeeping. Now, amid the French Revolution, in 1793, the Louvre museum opened in Paris and the Mona Lisa began to be displayed there. For a brief period, Napoleon Bonapart, took the Mona Lisa from the Louvre to hang in his own bedroom for a few years before returning it in 1804. And maybe you’re thinking that living with kings and rulers for hundreds of years was what catapulted her into fame but if you are, you’re wrong. Because the Mona Lisa lived a lovely, calm, mostly obscure life at the Louvre for the next 107 years, appreciated by museum visitors and art experts but not many others, until one day in 1911 that would change everything.
Dun. Dun. Dun.
That was very dramatic right?
Well, it should be because what happened on August 21, 1911 was very dramatic. But quickly a note before we talk about the events of that day…when I say she was appreciated mostly by museum visitors and art experts in the 19th century, I mean that she was being talked about, discussed, and debated within these circles but not so much by the general public. I don’t want you to think she was just being completely ignored for a century, hidden in some dark corner of the Louvre. It’s just that she wasn’t “put my face on a shower curtain and make a country song about me” famous until later. Prior to 1850, the portrait was widely thought to be simply of a frumpy, middle aged Italian housewife, but then that mysterious smile started to come into play and she began to be seen as a seductress by many men. I guess this is a perfect example of the old saying “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” because some beholders certainly considered her to be the perfect standard of feminine beauty while others, like today, just couldn’t see the fuss. But now, back to August 21, 1911. It was on that day that the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre.
In a time before video surveillance, it was a pretty easy heist to pull off and no one even noticed the painting was gone for more than a full day. In fact, the only reason it was even missed at that point was because a still life artist had come to the museum to set up his easel and paint in the gallery where the Mona Lisa resided and he noticed that it wasn’t hung in its normal spot. Knowing that paintings at the time were being removed regularly to photograph them, he asked a guard to find out how long it might be until it would be returning so he could include it in his composition. Literally overnight, after four-hundred years of relative obscurity, the Mona Lisa’s fifteen minutes of fame, which are still going strong more than a hundred years later, I might add, officially began.
The news was reported around the world and soon “Mona Lisa” became a household name. There was concern at the time that American millionaires were actively purchasing the best paintings from France, literally buying up the country’s legacy, and business tycoon, J.P. Morgan, was even suspected of commissioning the theft. Americans weren’t the only ones under scrutiny though. Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning over it and some people suspected the German Kaiser of the crime since relations between France and Germany were anything but ideal at the moment. They were all wrong though. Turns out, it was an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia, with the help of two brothers, Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti who’d actually stollen the painting, thought it would be more than two years before anyone would know that. The story goes that Perrugia was a former employee of the Louvre who knew all the good hiding spots so the night before the famed heist, he and his two accomplices snuck into the museum and hid in a storeroom just before closing. The next day they dressed in workman’s smocks, removed the protective glass and frame, and walked out of the museum’s front door with the painting. Unless you’ve actually seen it in person, you may imagine that the Mona Lisa is a huge painting but in actuality, it’s only 38×21 inches, easy for one person to carry on his own.
Some claims say that Peruggia was hoping to sell to sell the painting and others say that he was working with an art forger who used the original to create six identical copies to sell to unsuspecting buyers, but when Peruggia was finally caught, 28 months after stealing it, he claimed he was “trying to return it to Italy, its rightful birthplace, after being stolen by Napoleon.” Considering that he was caught trying to sell it to an art dealer in Florence and hadn’t just hung it on the wall in an Italian museum makes that claim a little suspicious, but either way, the dealer alerted the police and Peruggia was arrested later that day. He spent about eight months in prison for the crime and the Mona Lisa was allowed one final tour of Italy before being returned to the Louvre on December 30, 1913.
Since then, the Mona Lisa’s fame has only continued to grow, with her likeness adorning everything from socks to t-shirts to throw blankets and more, some of which I’ve linked to in the description below in case you want to check any them out. Any purchase from those links are affiliate links meaning a small portion of the proceeds would come back to this channel, at no extra cost to you, the consumer. She’s referenced in movies and songs and my dog, named Ramona Lisa, is partially named after her and partially after Ramona, the beloved character from my childhood favorite Beverly Cleary series.
Unfortunately, however, being beloved doesn’t always mean being revered. Besides being stolen, many modern artists such as Dali, Warhol, and others have made fun of the painting in their own works. Rocks and paint have been thrown at it, and even attempts at caring for and restoring it have occasionally caused more harm than good. Ever wonder why it’s so dark? Layers of varnish have made it that way. One attempt to stabilize the painting in a new frame with wooden crosspieces in the back led to an insect infestation. We won’t even talk about what spending a century or three in a king’s humid bathroom could do to a painting. And her lack of eyebrows? Well infrared scans have shown that she actually did have eyebrows and eyelashes at one point but improper and continued cleaning appears, over the centuries, to have rubbed them right off.
The Mona Lisa is now protected by bulletproof glass in a humidity-controlled box and is considered to be priceless. Visitors hoping to get a glance at her mysterious smile may get just that-a glance. After waiting for as long as two hours in line, and competing with large crowds, you may only get a minute or two to get a good look and maybe a quick selfie with the most famous painting in the world. Personally, I think I’ll skip the hassle and just stick to looking at it on the internet.
Well that’s it for this episode of Facts to Relax. If you enjoyed it, please give it a thumbs up to let me know and subscribe to this channel so you can come back and color and chill with me again soon. Bye.
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