Mona Lisa

Painted circa 1505 by Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa is considered the prototype of the Renaissance female portrait. The work, which is painted in oil on a poplar panel, measures merely thirty-one by twenty-one inches. Despite its small size and relatively simple composition, it is one of the most famous paintings in the world.

The identity of the woman pictured in Mona Lisa remains a mystery. According to Giorgio Vasari, who wrote da Vinci’s biography in 1550, the woman was Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini (Mona is a contraction of ma donna, Italian for “my lady”), wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. This identification is problematic, however, since da Vinci never delivered the painting to any patron, but kept it for himself until his death in 1519. More recently, Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs performed a digital comparison of Mona Lisa with a drawing purported to be a self portrait of da Vinci. Based on similarities between the two likenesses, Schwartz claimed that the painting was a self-portrait of da Vinci in female form. This theory, too, is untenable since the attribution of the alleged sel portrait is dubious. What seems most probable is that Mona Lisa is not a portrait at all, but da Vinci’s image of the ideal woman.

Regardless of the subject, the painting demonstrates da Vinci’s superb use of sfumato, that is, soft, hazy outlines that create a mysterious mood. Using this technique da Vinci succeeded in making the woman’s expression ambiguous. Much ink has been spilled on the precise nature of Mona Lisa’s smile; indeed, her demeanor seems to change depending on the angle from which she is viewed.

Mona Lisa has had a tortured history since da Vinci’s death. It was purchased by Francis I for 4,000 gold pieces. Later it hung in Versailles and in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom before finding its way into the collection of the Louvre. In 1911, it was stolen from the Louvre only to reappear in a hotel room in Florence two years later. After someone sprayed acid and damaged the lower half of Mona Lisa in 1956, the painting was hung behind a double layer of protective glass.

 
 
 

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