Almost everyone has heard of the Mona Lisa. Painted over 500 years ago by the famous painter and scientist, Leonardo da Vinci, the Mona Lisa is the world's most famous and valuable painting. Since 1797, it has been on display in the Louvre in Paris.
Da Vinci began his masterpiece in 1503, and is believed to have finished it in 1506, although he may have tinkered with it up to two years before his death. The Mona Lisa is painted in oil on a white poplar wood panel.
At its time it was a visionary piece. Da Vinci was a genius visionary in almost all fields, not just in painting and sculpture. He was also a talented mathematician, engineer, anatomist, botanist, cartographer and more. It was these technical skills, acquired well in advance of his time that helped him create the painting’s powerful composition. The three-quarter pose and wide base of the folded arms forming a tetrahedral shape with the top of the head were, at the time, revolutionary. Most portraits during the Renaissance were drawn in profile. The idea of having the female subject look straight at the observer was almost scurrilous.
Da Vinci was also a prominent user of the sfumato technique in his paintings. Sfumato comes from the Italian meaning ‘to evaporate like smoke’. The technique is evident in areas where colours and tones gradually shade into each other, creating an atmospheric or hazy effect. The beautiful mountainous landscape in the background of the Mona Lisa is a remarkable example of the use of the sfumato painting technique. It gives an air of subtle mystery to the painting, rarely seen in previous Renaissance works.
It’s this mystery which has helped elevate the Mona Lisa to its place of universal prominence. Art experts speak as one when they describe this oil painting as enigmatic. Nowhere is this plainer than in the expression of this Florentine lady. It is her enigmatic smile, teasing between aloofness and allure, which people remember most. What secrets does she hide behind those delicate lips? The Mona Lisa is a masterpiece of enigma, but on many different levels.
Most art historians believe that Leonardo da Vinci poured his considerable knowledge of the world into the work. The end result, thus, is far more than a mere picture of a Florentine lady. It is a masterpiece of universal philosophy and poetry. It’s almost as if this art painting is trying to express the notion that life is as transitory as the flicker of a smile.
The Mona Lisa is also one of the few oil paintings that da Vinci finished, suggesting that he was well aware of its importance in the history of great art. Many see it as a female portrait which goes beyond the simple blends of pigment on wood, but instead almost exists as a living creation.
Windsor Castle holds an original sheet of drawings by Leonardo da Vinci. Among the many sketches, there is one which clearly shows the first pencilled attempt at Mona Lisa’s lips. Da Vinci here is using all his knowledge of anatomy to convey just the right emotions with the mouth.
There has never been complete agreement on the lady’s identity in this famous portrait. Some of the more ludicrous claims are that Mona Lisa was a pregnant woman, or a prostitute, even a man in drag. Yet most art historians now agree that the lady in the oil painting is Lisa del Giocondo. Born in 1479 to an old aristocratic family, she was married off young to a moderately successful Florentine silk merchant.
Lisa bore five children for her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, who was much older than her. She outlived him, dying at 63, a hearty old age at the time. For someone immortalised in the world’s most famous painting, Lisa’s life turned out fairly uneventful, if at least comfortable.
While painting Lisa, da Vinci kept her rapt by a troupe of professional entertainers. He wanted as natural a pose as possible.
This question has been asked by art historians ever since: why was Lisa del Giocondo chosen as the subject for the Mona Lisa. While she was born into the aristocratic Gherardini family, they had lost their influence long ago.
Still, there are some striking connections with Leonardo da Vinci’s lineage. The painter was the illegitimate offspring of Piero da Vinci, an influential notary. He happened to live almost opposite the del Giocondo family in the same narrow Florence street. Francesco del Giocondo was a client of Piero da Vinci’s; they did much business together. Was it because of this slender conduit of commerce that Lisa ended up sitting in Leonardo’s workshop while he painted her?
Despite only modest success as a silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo was known as a ‘swaggering’ and aggressive dealmaker. Could he have bludgeoned Piero into getting his son to paint his wife as part of some business deal?
Francesco certainly adored his wife. He referred to her as a ‘faithful wife’ with a ‘noble spirit’. When he died from the plague in 1538, he ensured she had enough money to meet her needs both in life and death. The parish church of San Lorenzo records Lisa del Giocondo’s death as the 15th July, 1542. ‘Her body was followed by the whole body of San Lorenzo’, the parish records add, indicating a grand funeral was held with a large cortege.
Whatever motives lay behind the commissioning of the Mona Lisa, Francesco never received it. For reasons unknown, this most famous female portrait remained with Leonardo da Vinci until his death in 1519.
Today she is a national treasure of France.
There are many theories which support the view that da Vinci painted at least two versions of the Mona Lisa. The most well-known is the Isleworth Mona Lisa, which resides in a private collection in Singapore. This particular art painting shows a younger Mona Lisa with a slightly more expressive smile. It’s authenticity as a da Vinci work is still disputed by a few. But a sketch of it made by Raphael in 1504 with two Greek columns either side, helps strengthen the argument it is a real da Vinci. The Louvre’s Mona Lisa only partly shows the bases of the Greek columns, suggesting the official version was trimmed.
The Isleworth Mona Lisa has been radiocarbon-dated, as well as subjected to infrared and ultraviolet scans. While there's scant information about these tests, the evidence at least doesn’t disprove authenticity.
So much for duplicate oil paintings of the Mona Lisa, of which there may be several located around the world. What about the possibility of another Mona Lisa hidden underneath the original art painting?
Sounds too incredible to be true? Well, recently evidence has come to light that the female portrait hanging in the Louvre may not be that of Lisa del Giocondo.
In 2004, The Louvre Museum invited Pascal Cotte, a scientist turned art detective, to analyse the Mona Lisa. This was an unprecedented invitation. Its purpose was to reveal the true colours of the oil painting, which over time can become discoloured. Cotte is the co-founder of Lumiere Technology, and a pioneer of a technique called Layer Amplification Method. Using this technique he analysed the Mona Lisa over a period of 10 years.
Cotte used a multispectral camera to project a series of lights in 13 different wavelengths. These lights penetrate the art painting at different depths, providing information on what lies underneath the surface paint. The camera records billions of bits of data generated by the reflected light, often from layers which cannot be analysed by other tests.
During analysis, Cotte discovered to his surprise that there were not one but three Mona Lisa portraits hidden under the original.
The first of these has a larger, ghostly outline, indicating a draft sketch which was started but not continued. Leonardo da Vinci built up his art paintings stage by stage, much in the manner of an engineer. He would do a preparatory drawing first, marking composition lines on tracing paper with a sharp point. Coal dust placed underneath would transfer these lines to the wood base.
The second female portrait showed tiny rows of dots, which suggested a pearl headdress and hairpins. Only saints or madonnas would ordinarily be depicted wearing such an elaborate headdress.
But it is the third hidden female portrait which stunned Cotte the most. This, he believed, showed the real Lisa del Giocondo, not the portrait on the surface of the painting.
The third portrait was no ghost-outlined draft. It showed a detailed earlier portrait of a different Florentine lady, turned at a 45° angle. Cotte believes this third hidden portrait depicts the real Lisa del Giocondo, the merchant’s wife. The dress she wears he believes is more reminiscent of the fashion of 16th century women. She wears sleeves of a leonato - or lion - colour. By using that colour for the sleeves, da Vinci might have been symbolically signing his painting. At the time, artist’s written signatures on paintings were rare. The hair is also worn in a covered style more likely to be favoured by 16th Century Florentine women. The Louvre’s Mona Lisa wears her hair long and loose under her headdress, which is not how a real Florentine woman of the time would wear it. This style is more redolent of an idealised woman, such as a goddess like Venus. The sash draped over her shoulder - symbolising purity, charity and faith - supports the theory that da Vinci never set out to paint a real person.
Pascal Cotte certainly believes the painting contains portraits of two completely different women. Other art experts are not so sure. Many disagree with Cotte’s analysis. They believe instead that the different levels of painting uncovered are simply part of the artist’s normal evolution of the final portrait. They also disagree that the facial details of the portraits are so dissimilar. They warn that comparing a digital reconstruction with the original work of art is flawed.
If Cotte’s theory is correct and the third hidden portrait is Lisa del Giocondo, then who is the woman on display at the Louvre? Cotte believes that it might be Pacifica Brandani, the mistress of Guiliano de Medici, a patron of da Vinci’s. De Medici had helped da Vinci out before when he was penniless, and he could have commissioned da Vinci to paint his lover. De Medici loved his Pacifica deeply, and he was greatly grieved when she died in childbirth.
Whatever the real reason for the Mona Lisa's hidden portrait, this inscrutable painting is sure to be back in the news again sometime soon. For most art historians, the Mona Lisa continues to remain one of Art’s most famous enigmas.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viHQRGpQ2w4 (BBC documentary)
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