This article was published by Yakima Valley Community College's Mainsprings, an annual collection of outstanding student works nominated by professors, in 1996.
Spanning almost fifty years as an accomplished artist, the portraiture of Leonardo da Vinci is only one small aspect of the man's genius and unquenchable thirst for knowledge. He worked not only as an artist, but also as an engineer, architect, machinist, hydraulicist, astronomer, geologist, mathematician, physicist, botanist, and optician – if not more. Da Vinci is not only considered one of the most important Renaissance artists, but possibly one of the greatest minds known to man. His most famous works, such as The Last Super and The Mona Lisa, have become icons of popular culture. Most Americans can more easily identify the title and artist of these paintings done over half a millennium ago than the capital city of Nevada (Carson City).
Leonardo da Vinci was born in the village of Anchiano on the outskirts of the tiny town of Vinci in 1452. His father was San Piero, a successful notary, and his mother was a peasant woman named Caterina, about whom little is known. At five years old, he went to live with his Father who had since married Ajbiera Amadori. She died when Leonardo was five. After his second wife's death, Piero moved his son to Florence and apprenticed him to Andrea Verrochio. Verrochio was considered one of the premier artists of his time. His studio helped shape the talents of artists including Botticelli and Perugino, both of whom have been immortalized for their later works.
In August of 1473, Leonardo left his master's shop and joined Florence's artist guild, the corporation of San Luca. In 1482, he moved to Milan where he offered his services to Ludovico il Moro. He stayed in the city of Milan until going to the Sforza castle in 1490. From then on, Leonardo did a series of "odd jobs" such as painting The Last Super and Cecelia Gallerina (commonly known as "Lady with an Ermine"). In 1499, he left the area if Milan due to the invasion of Louis XII and returned to Florence. He there was commissioned, most likely by a prominent citizen of Florence, Francisco del Giocondo. He asked Leonardo to paint his young second wife, Lisa. This "odd job" between his stays in Milan would later on make him a permanent and influential historical figure.
The Mona Lisa stands at 38 ¼ by 21 inches. Howerver, it was originally larger; the horizontal rectangle was cut at the top where a half circle was. This was done by the French to fit in a particular frame. Itg is a picture of (what looks like) a woman sittingon a porch or verandah looking through a window frame. The woman wears a very simple dress and scarf over her left shoulder. Her medium length dark hair is covered with the sheer black scarf and she has no shown eyebrows. She is shown with her left arm resting on the chair, folded under her right. She is shown from the waist up in front of an almost surreal background of crags, rocks, a road over her right shoulder and what looks to be a river.
The style of the painting is of the High Renaissance because it demonstrates the atmosphere of perfect calm held ideal in the Renaissance. The piece dates between three years, 1503 to 1506. It is currently located at the Louvre in Paris, France.
Like many other artists in the Renaissance, da Vinci believed in geometrical composition for planning his paintings. The Mona Lisa was planned with the shape of a truncated cone. For descriptive purposes, her shape is that of a megaphone. The top of the woman's head constitutes the opening with the walls horizontally and outward, gradually increasing in width. The curved shape of the woman's arms form the rounded bottom. The color of The Mona Lisa has changed since Leonardo's time. Due to numerous restorations and general aging, we are left with the basic undertones of yellow and green. The Gioconda (as she is sometimes called) is the main focus of the painting and retains some balance in itself. The background, however, is not perfectly balanced. On her right, the river and road awkwardly counterbalance mountains and a bridge. Hartt describes the repetition of shape in both the subject and landscape:
…motif after motif is continuous in figure and landscape. The locks of hair falling over the subject's right shoulder blend with rocky outcroppings through which a road winds, the translucent folds of the linen scarf over the left shoulder are continued in the line of a distant bridge".
Analysis and Interpretation
Lisa di Antonio Maria Gheradini, the woman most likely shown, was in her mid-twenties and not to be considered good looking even by the standards of her time. The characteristic lack of eyebrows can be interpreted as the then fashionable look achieved by shaving the eyebrows, which was popular for women in Renaissance times. Her representation of absolute simplicity is culturally significant. Unlike many portraits of the time, there is an absence of elaborate clothing, jewelry, and hairstyle/headdress. Her waist-up pose is also cited as culturally impacting. Hartt comments on her waist-up view as:
"Not just a bust, but the whole women sits there, majestic as in a full length portrait. This is a wholly new format, and was followed almost without exception in Italian portraiture – and indeed northern Europe as well…through the nineteenth century. The result, Leonardo's invention, is that the subject looks larger and grander in Quattrocento portraits, in keeping with the new dignity of High Renaissance ideal of human experience."
Her smile has been described as "enigmatic". The overall expression on her face alludes to the fact of inner content or possibly even an aristocratic attitude. There are two suggestions about this. The first, as suggested by many modern art historians, is that the Mona Lisa has a smile that reflects the attitude of the time – more efficiently described as sprezzatura. This word is untranslatable from Italian, but is literally the air of aristocracy. The second was suggested by French art historian Jacques Franck. He contends that the damage to the painting, such as the cracking around the eyes and mouth, have changed the expression of the woman in the painting. These cracks are only visible close up, but he notes the particular vulnerability of the piece due to Leonardo's technique of "minute tonal shifts, modeling and shading". Franck also suggests that da Vinci originally gave her a calmer, more serene look that has changed due to this barely visible damage.
The background of the Mona Lisa has also been highly interpreted. Most scholars believe that this was a fantasy landscape da Vinci created and thereby sparked a movement of surrealism. In one text, "Treatise on Painting", cited by Bortolon, Leonardo comments on the background:
You may see in those stains the images of various landscapes, outlines of mountains, rivers, crags, trees, plains, manifold valleys, and hills; you may also see in them battles and lively gestures, strange figures, a quick play of human faces, apparel and a thousand things that you will reduce to good and integrated form.
On the other hand, two amateur sleuths may have discovered the actual location of the landscape elements. Carlo Starnazzi, a paleontologist at the University of Florence, claims that the lake on the left is Lake Chiana; the winding road is actually a canal that links the lake to the Arno River. These all lie in the area of eastern Tuscany, 40 miles from the city of Florence, an area which Leonardo knew intimately.
This piece was commissioned by an affluent Florentine citizen, Francesco del Giocondo. It has been hinted that there could be other possibilities for its commission. Bortolon suggests that it may also be Constanza d'Avalos, the Duchess of Francavilla and mistress to Giuliano d'Medici, who had Leonardo keep the piece so his new bride would not be made aware of his other lover. It could possibly even be a man in disguise. Despite its questionable identity, the Mona Lisa has had a very adventurous historical life. After da Vinci's death, it was purchased for 4,000 ducats by Francis I of France and placed in the royal collection at Fontainbleau. During the reign of the avid art collector and King of England, Charles I, he asked for the hand of Henrietta of France and the painting as part of her dowry. The French politely declined. On August 21, 1911, an obscure mason from Italy, Vincenzo Peruggia, stole the picture and took it to Italy where it was found in Florence several months later. It was immediately returned to the Louvre undamaged.
Due to the well-kept records of the Italians we have many clues as to who the Mona Lisa was and what exactly the background may be. This piece commemorates the attitude of the elite. Her mysterious smile, due to actual work or damage to the painting, shows the interest and curiosity of the artist about such subjects as the mysteries of the human spirit, of sensuality, and of things barely hinted at that fire the imagination. Her knowing expression and element of mystery, not only in the piece itself but in its general history, ensure it as a continually studied image. The Mona Lisa is, was and will be an immortal image in the minds of many generations.
Reference materials and endnotes available upon request.