Legacy Artist: Leonardo Da Vinci

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Today, Art in Action is celebrating a birthday (a few days late) for the famous renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci, who was skilled in architecture, astronomy, anatomy, engineering, and more. However, his real claim to fame was found in his skill as a painter. This is exemplified with the highly mysterious and widely recognized Mona Lisa — the name roughly translating to “my lady Lisa”. Her origins are arguably a mystery, an argument that we’ll try to examine in this blog post today. 

credit: Wikipedia

Before we go into the details of her identity, let’s briefly go over the history of her creation and ownership — because the Mona Lisa has an extremely interesting quality of being emphatically desired by kings, gallery owners, and even thieves. It’s believed that Da Vinci first started working on her in 1503, and it was found in his studio in 1519 — when Da Vinci died of what was possibly a stroke. Da Vinci had spent the later years of his life in the court of French King Francis I, who would eventually acquire the painting after Da Vinci’s passing. The Mona Lisa became a part of his royal collection. For many centuries, she was hidden away in various palaces until the French Revolution of 1789. It was then that insurgents claimed the private collection as property of the people. After a period of hanging in Napoleon’s bedroom (the famous Frenchman’s ownership of it maybe having something to do with his affections for Teresa Guadagni — a name which will matter later on), the painting was eventually placed in the Louvre Museum at the start of the 19th century. 

However, the story doesn’t end there! In 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia. He was an Italian immigrant that worked for the museum — fitting glass on to many of the paintings, including the Mona Lisa. Peruggia and maybe two other workers had stolen the painting by hiding in a closet and waiting until night to run away with it. During Mona Lisa’s absence, a public frenzy occurred — with hoards of people attending the Louvre just to examine the painting’s empty space. In 1913, the police were alerted by a Florence art dealer that somebody had tried to sell him the Mona Lisa. They found the painting hidden away in Peruggia’s trunk. After the discovery, Peruggia was arrested and the Mona Lisa took a tour of Italy before returning to France — where it remains to this day. 

This small history doesn’t fully cover the sometimes violent attraction the Mona Lisa encourages — such as the various vandalisms (one of them involving acid) she’s had to endure. It’s debatable why the Mona Lisa earns such attention, particularly the speculation that surrounds her identity. 

The most commonly believed source for Mona Lisa’s model is Lisa del Giocondo: an Italian noblewoman and the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo. This theory was first put forth by artist biographer Giorgio Vasari in 1550. It’s theorized that Leonardo’s father was friendly with Del Giocondo and he asked his son to do a portrait of her in celebration of the birth of her second son. Lisa del Giocondo is believed to be the ascendant of many notable women, such as princesses Natalia and Irina Strozzi, as well the previously mentioned Teresa Guadagni. 

credit: Wikipedia

Lisa del Giocondo is speculated to have lived an entirely normal life — unaware of the frenzy her portrait would incite in the centuries to come. Her maiden name “De’ Gherardini” indicates that she was from an ancient Florentinian family (despite being born in Naples). She would marry up a class after becoming betrothed at around fifteen to the much older and much wealthier Del Giocondo. She appeared to live a happy life as the mother of five children. Furthermore, she most likely met Da Vinci in the first year of her marriage — meaning she was still fairly young at the start of what would develop into a platonic relationship that deeply inspired Da Vinci. This is indicated by the fact that Da Vinci painted her many, many times, with his other incarnations of the Mona Lisa being lesser-known. One of these is the Isleworth Mona Lisa

credit: psu.edu

However, there are other theories about the identity behind the Mona Lisa. One of these theories is that she has no real identity at all — and is just a figment of Da Vinci’s imagination. Another possibility, which has been argued by multiple sources, is that the painting is of somebody from Da Vinci’s heritage or even of Da Vinci himself. The former idea being postulated by Sigmund Freud himself, who believed that the Mona Lisa was Da Vinci’s attempt at recreating his mother. The latter idea was pushed by Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs. Schwartz used a comparison of the Mona Lisa with the famous Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk — clearly assuming that the painting mentioned secondly was a definitive self-portrait made by Da Vinci. Though there is a clear similarity between the two artworks, Schwartz’s theory is thwarted by the fact that there isn’t absolute, hard evidence that Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk is indeed Da Vinci’s own face. 

The final theory that should be mentioned is the opinion that the Mona Lisa is a feminized portrait of Da Vinci’s apprentice (and possible lover) Salai. This notion was first stated by art historian Silvano Vinceti, who claimed that the Mona Lisa has tiny numbers and letters in her eyes. He stated that these symbols were only visible under a magnifying glass, and suggested that they were a code meant to identify Salai as the real identity for the Mona Lisa. However, the Louvre quickly disproved this claim, stating that Vinceti had never had any access to the painting that would’ve allowed him to make such a finding. Furthermore, their own thorough investigation into the claim proved it false. 

Regardless of what you believe, it can’t be denied that the Mona Lisa, despite appearing to be just a simple portrait, has led to such a frenzy of interest towards it that the fame surrounding her is more fascinating than the actual painting itself! 



Wikipedia, Speculations about ‘Mona Lisa’

Wikipedia, ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’

Britannica, Mona Lisa

History’s Women, Lisa del Giocondo