The Mona Lisa
During the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci’s father lived across the street from a merchant named Francesco del Giocondo and his wife Lisa, an Italian noblewoman of the Gherardini family of Florence. More to the point, as part of a business deal between Leonardo’s father and Lisa’s husband, that was made in 1503, Francesco asked his neighbor’s son to paint a portrait of his beloved wife. Unfortunately, Leonardo’s heart simply wasn’t in it, so he toiled over the painting for a few years, ultimately leaving it unfinished, much like everything else he did. Of course, the thing to understand is that this was not the painting that now hangs in the Louvre. Instead, this was the original portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, as shown below.
This obviously must have been the painting that Raphael made a sketch of when he visited Leonardo’s studio in 1504. Note the columns in the background and the hands in the foreground, to name just a couple of the details that he copied from the first version of the Mona Lisa, “La Giocondo”. This is all clearly visible in Raphael’s sketch shown below.
This and probably Leonardo’s “Lady with an Ermine” inspired Raphael to paint the “Young Woman with Unicorn” in 1506. So, with that in mind, take a moment to briefly compare and contrast Leonardo’s La Giocondo painting with Raphael’s Young Woman with Unicorn shown below.
This is an important distinction to make because, unbeknownst to many, there are actually two different versions of Leonardo’s “Mona Lisa”, which often get conflated with one another. That is to say, there’s the one that he worked on from about 1503 to 1506, but never completed, and then there’s the one that he started and finished in 1517. The evidence for this is undeniable because the histograms of both paintings share a 99% correlation, and no other artist but Leonardo could paint in that particular style, with such a high degree of mastery. That is to say, the subtle blending of colors and tones is characteristic of his unique style, and this has been backed up by the statistics that prove it. Given this to be true, the La Giocando and the Mona Lisa are shown below to give you a good side by side comparison of Leonardo da Vinci’s handiwork.
Of the two, the painting on the left was done on canvas and the one on the right was done on a poplar panel. The former piece was commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo and the latter piece was commissioned by Giuliano de’ Medici, the Duke of Nemours. What happened was that Giuliano had asked Leonardo to paint a picture of a woman that could represent his son Ippolito’s deceased mother. However, Leonardo procrastinated on the project, until the death of Giuliano de’ Medici. Then, he finally felt obligated and inspired enough to paint his world-renowned masterpiece.
This strangely age-progressed updated version of Lisa del Giocondo ended up becoming the most recognizable image on Earth. Of course, the world-famous figure actually went through many different iterations before becoming who she finally did. In the initial sketch, the woman’s head was ever so slightly larger than it is now. After that, there was an elaborate headdress as if she were going to have been a Madonna of some sort. However those were both erased, and on top of those layers of faint conceptual drawings, he decided to make the painting that he had always tried to do right from the start. As though it was his destiny, at the age of sixty-five, two years before he would die, Leonardo finally painted the real Mona Lisa. It’s even signed in a secret code, because, her bodice is the color Leonato and the gold cloverleaf knotting represents the area around Vinci where he grew up. So, when they are taken together, the message in the garment reveals the artist’s name to be Leonardo da Vinci.
Surprisingly, having come full circle back to the failed portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, Leonardo was finally able to make the most famous painting in history. Tooting his own horn, Leonardo had this to say about it:
“The proportions of the beautiful forms that compose the divine beauties of this face here before me, which being all joined together and reacting simultaneously give me much pleasure with their divine proportions that I think there is no other work of man on earth that can give me greater pleasure.”
Of course, in spite of his prophetic hubris, the Mona Lisa remained quite obscure for a few centuries after the artist’s death. Then, in a strange twist of fate, the painting was stolen from the Louvre by a museum worker named Vincenzo Peruggia in the year 1911. This made headline news around the world in the days and weeks that followed. That’s when “Mona Lisa” became a household name. Then, to add to her celebrity status, in 1919, the American-French artist Marcel Duchamp created the Dada work of art shown below, entitled L.H.O.O.Q. This is a clever pun because when the letters are pronounced in French they sound like “Elle a chaud au cul”, meaning “She has a hot ass”. In this way, and many others, Leonardo’s idealized woman quickly entered our collective unconscious. Thus, the Mona Lisa didn’t become a legendary figure until the early 20th century.
However, in the wake of this, the Mona Lisa has now been copied and parodied more times than could ever be counted precisely because it is Leonardo da Vinci’s greatest masterpiece. After all, when you get right down to it, he was eventually able to draw upon a lifetime of talent and render the human form in a way that challenged convention like no other. This allowed the maestro to produce his subject’s enigmatic expression, the monumentality of the composition, the subtle modeling of forms, and the atmospheric illusionism that come together synergistically to produce something almost otherworldly. On top of that, even though it poured out of him at a feverish rate from start to finish, the painting was done so well that there are no visible brush strokes. In fact, the only mistake that he made was on one of her left-hand fingers, but it was easily corrected, as though it never happened. Other than that, the Mona Lisa was, is, and shall forever remain the most perfect painting ever made.