“Mona Lisa”, a portrait that transcends the physical

The Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, better known as Mona Lisa or La Gioconda, oil on panel, 77 by 53 centimeters, hangs under heavy security measures in the Louvre Museum and, since 2005, on a wall erected especially for her.

Leonardo da Vinci spent the last three years of his life in the castle of Clos Lucé, very close to the residence of Francis I, in Amboise and, upon his death in France, in 1519, the painting was acquired by the French monarch and became part of the royal collections.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fame of the work languished and in the nineteenth century the Mona Lisa was probably not the most popular painting in the Louvre Museum. It did not hang in a special place as it does today, but alongside other works of the European school.

It was at the beginning of the last century when it gained notoriety, when it was stolen, specifically in 1911, by an Italian citizen and, after its recovery, years later, it began to become world famous.


Over the centuries, multiple identities have been proposed for the woman immortalized by Leonardo. Today we know, because it is documented, that around 1503 Leonardo began the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of the cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo, commissioned by him, possibly on the occasion of the birth of his second son.

However, other scholars came to see in her another Florentine noblewoman, a mistress of Julian de Medici, the artist’s mother and even a man – perhaps himself – behind the iconic smile.

The best testimony of the impact caused by the Mona Lisa is found in the work: “The lives of the most excellent Italian architects, painters and sculptors from Cimabue to our times”, written by Giorgio Vasari who, in 1550, not only reveals the identity of the portrait, but also explains how Leonardo came to sketch the most fascinating smile in the history of art.

“Commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife. Mona Lisa was very beautiful; while he portrayed her, she had people singing or playing and jesters who made her cheerful, to avoid that melancholy that usually occurs in portrait painting. It had such a pleasant gesture that it was, on seeing it, something more divine than human, and it was considered a wonderful work for not being different from reality,” the writer recounted.

Vasari, who was also an outstanding painter, continued: “Anyone who wanted to see to what extent art can imitate nature could understand it in his [La Gioconda’s] head, because in it all the details that can be painted with subtlety had been represented. The eyes had that brightness and luster that can be seen in the real ones, and around them there were those livid pinks and hairs that cannot be realized without great subtlety. In the fontanel of the throat, if you looked closely, you could see the pulse beating. And it can truly be said that it was painted in a way that would make any valuable artist shudder and frighten”.

In 2005 the notes of the Florentine Agostino Vespucci were made public who, in 1503, in addition to criticizing Leonardo for leaving his works unfinished, indicated that the painter was at that time making the portrait “of Lisa del Giocondo”, which seems to close the debate open for centuries on the identity of women.


However, it is questionable whether the Louvre original corresponds to the work described by Vasari.

In 1517, Cardinal Louis of Aragon and his secretary, Antonio de Beatis, were able to observe the painting at Leonardo’s residence in France. There, according to De Beatis, the painter himself told them that it was “a certain Florentine lady”, commissioned by Juliano de Medici, from which it was deduced that she was one of his mistresses.

So were Vasari and Vespucci wrong, or perhaps there was more than one portrait? In fact, another theorist, Paolo Lomazzo, at the end of the 16th century spoke of different portraits, “La Gioconda” and “Mona Lisa”, respectively.

In his description, Vasari draws attention to the eyebrows and eyelashes of the sitter, which are absent in the Louvre work.

The painting is a symbol of the French capital. So much so that the Louvre has no intention of restoring it, only the varnish darkened by time. It is preferred to keep it with the characteristic yellowish tone that the public recognizes, trying to avoid the rejection that some similar restorations have produced with the appearance of the original colors.


The Italian historian Silvano Vinceti provided, in 2015, a high degree of mystery when he assured, in a study, that in the right eye of La Gioconda appear the letters LV, which could respond to her initials, and in the left the letters CE or CB, while in the arch of one of the eyes would appear the number 72 or the capital letter L and a 2.


It is not known how “La Gioconda”, which exists in the Prado Museum, arrived in Spain, although the painting is catalogued in 1666. Not only is it the oldest known copy of the work, since it was made by one of his students at the same time as the original, but it has some really unique technical similarities with Leonardo’s painting, to the point that it was considered for a time the master’s own.

Its unfinished landscape and the presence of eyebrows and eyelashes lead us to think that perhaps this was the painting described by Vasari, who could hardly have seen the work exhibited in the Louvre, since Leonardo took it with him to France in 1516, when Vasari was only five years old.

After the restoration work carried out in 2012 it was seen that the background hid the same landscape as that of “La Gioconda” in Paris and, in addition, as the restorer Almudena Sanchez explains: “A reflectography showed that the drawing was very rich in detail, something improper for a copy; it was a work made from the inside out”.

“It was compared with the underlying drawing of “La Gioconda” and we saw that both had the same corrections in the same places”. There was no other explanation, “They had both been painted at the same time, in the same place and using the same model,” Sanchez says.

“Leonardo created his Gioconda side by side with the collaborator who executed the one in Madrid,” who could be Salai, his most beloved disciple, although other hands close to the artist are not ruled out.

Although the smile is the same, and the gaze pursues the observer like the one in Paris, the one in the Prado has eyebrows and eyelashes because it seems to be a real portrait, a real identifiable portrait to deliver, while he omitted them in the one in Paris because, possibly, he was looking for an idealized, abstract beauty.

The one painted by Leonardo is taller, with a more slender face, more airy, with a somewhat lower horizon. The Madrid panel is 3 centimeters lower and 4 centimeters wider. The veil of the one exhibited in Paris is black, the one in Madrid is white, and the color of the dress also changes.

But the most revealing thing is that the Prado portrait lacks the famous “sfumato”, because this technique invented by Leonardo arrived years later. However, in the Louvre, as he must have continued to work on it over time, he incorporated it later. Thanks to this discovery, the Parisian museum was able to rectify the date of completion of the work from 1507 to 1519, the year of the artist’s death.

Another unknown is that “La Gioconda” of Madrid is executed on a top quality oak panel, with the most valued pigments, such as red lacquer and lapis lazuli -too rich for a disciple-, which would show that he had the best materials, probably because it was the commissioned piece.


Another unknown is the so-called “Mona Lisa of Isleworth” in reference to the place where Hugh Blaker, the English collector who “discovered” it shortly before the First World War, lived. Acquired by the American Henry F. Pulitzer, upon his death it passed to a consortium that kept it in a Swiss bank until 2003.

Since then, it is in the hands of a private group in Zurich, the Mona Lisa Foundation, for whom the portrait is Lisa de Giocondo, but younger than those represented in the paintings of the Louvre and the Prado, flanked by two columns.

For them, this is the work described by Vasari, begun to paint around 1503. Hence the name “early Mona Lisa”, which he left half finished when he was forced to leave Florence, demanded by the Duke of Sforza, to settle in Milan.


The extraordinary of the figure has much to do with the technique of “sfumato” invented by Leonardo that, blurring the contours, reduced the weight of the drawing and generates a poorly defined appearance, almost blurred, creating a mysterious atmosphere, as if the portrayed transcended the physical aspect to enter into his psychology.

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