Mona Lisa (in Italian La Gioconda) is an oil painting on a poplar wood panel realized by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506, preserved in the Louvre Museum of Paris. This half-length portrait is a symbol of Renaissance painting and one of the most famous portraits in art history. The subject, characterized by a mysterious expression and an enigmatic smile, is still the protagonist of different interpretations.
What is Depicted in the Mona Lisa?
Mona Lisa is a half-body female portrait realized by Leonardo da Vinci in Florence between 1503 and 1506, but on which the painter continued to work intermittently until 1517. Scholars identified the sitter as the Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, hence the title in Italian “La Gioconda.” The appellation “Mona” is a diminutive of Madonna, meaning “lady.”
Artist biographer Giorgio Vasari attested to her identity in 1550 as Lisa del Giocondo; however, other less credible interpretations see the Mona Lisa as a portrait of Leonardo da Vinci’s mother or the noblewoman Caterina Sforza, or a self-portrait of the painter in a mysterious female version.
Mona Lisa dresses in 16th-century period gowns. She wears a sophisticated robe with small spiral patterns and gold thread embroidery, which leaves her neckline uncovered. She is seated three-quarters, leaning on the armrest of a pozzetto chair, typically Renaissance. She sits in a loggia, a space with columns and a parapet. Behind her, Leonardo da Vinci painted a naturalistic landscape.
Leonardo never gave the painting to the Giocondo family, and he kept it with him until his death, even taking it during his move to France in 1516 to the court of French King Francis I. The king acquired the painting after the death of the artist, so it became part of the royal collection. After the French Revolution, claimed as “property of the people” and a period at Napoleon’s residence, it was in the late 1800s installed in the Louvre Museum, that still preserves it. Mona Lisa became even more famous in 1911 when it was the subject of a daring theft by Vincenzo Peruggia. The art thief justified the act with patriotism, trying to return the painting to Italy.
The figure of the Mona Lisa shows interest in the individual characteristics of human beings of the Renaissance period. It is accompanied by numerous anatomical studies. It is a portrait of great psychological intensity and technical ability. Leonardo reached this level through the technique of sfumato: a soft use of fine shading, which allows a synthesis of sitter and landscape, almost as if body and landscape were merging.
The landscape is also made with sfumato. It depicts an area dotted with hills, cliffs, and mountains. On the left, a road meanders between rocky heights. On the right, an arched bridge crosses a river that springs from the lake. The landscape may harken back to the painter’s childhood: many scholars speculate it is a Tuscan foreshortening, possibly the point where the river Arno crosses the countryside of Arezzo. However, it is more likely to be an idealized landscape, a mixture of different landscapes seen by the artist in his travels.
The smile of the protagonist is another ambiguous element in Mona Lisa’s analysis. Leonardo captured a fleeting expression, modelling the face with imperceptible transitions from shadow to light. Also, the gaze is mysterious: seems to follow the viewer, with a serene and determined expression, aware that she is being watched by the audience. The portrait seems almost lifelike and alive thanks to Leonardo da Vinci’s technical skills.
Leonardo da Vinci was particularly talented in creating lifelike half-length portraits. Each portrait was accompanied by numerous preliminary drawings. In addition to Mona Lisa, Leonardo previously painted other famous female portraits such as Portrait of Ginevra Benci (c. 1474), the Lady with an Ermine (1489) and La Belle Ferronnière (1490-1496).
Mona Lisa also served as a model for other works by Renaissance masters, such as Portrait of Maddalena Doni (c. 1506) by Raphael, which follows its format. Because of its iconic value, Mona Lisa was also the subject of irreverent artistic operations during the historical avant-garde movements of the 20th century that sought to break with artistic tradition. The best-known example is L.H.O.O.Q by Marcel Duchamp (1919), the famous Mona Lisa with a mustache.