Da Vinci's Code

Professor Christopher Witcombe, Art History


Leonardo's Life, Art, and Writings

Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503-07
Oil on panel, 2 ft 61/4 in x 1 ft 9 in
(Louvre, Paris)

The following includes edited excerpts from Jack Wasserman, Leonardo da Vinci, (New York: Abrams, 1975), and Laurie Schneider Adams, A History of Western Art (Madison: Brown and Benchmark, 1994)

Of the three paintings seen by a visitor in Leonardo's studio in France in 1517 one one described as the portrait of a certain Florentine lady. This portrait is believed to be the Mona Lisa which Giorgio Vasari described in his biography of Leonardo published in 1550. It is Vasari who first introduced the sitter as the wife of the Florentine Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanoli del Giocondo (hence the appellation "La Gioconda" in Italy, or "La Gioconde" in France). Furthermore, Vasari seemed to imply that the painting was begun in 1503 and finished in 1507, and that it had belonged to François I (1494-1547), the king of France.

The royal ownership was confirmed nearly a century later when the Italian antiquarian Cassiano dal Pozzo in 1625 saw a portrait of a woman at the Chateau of Fontainebleau in France and identified her as a certain "Gioconda".

The subsequent history of the Mona Lisa is relatively uncomplicated: it remained in the French royal collection until 1805, when it entered the Louvre in Paris.

See also the text provided by the Louvre on The Faces of the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is covered with layers of dirt and varnish that disguise an incredible delicacy, transparency, and luminosity of the painting. No one dares to clean the portrait for fear of damaging it! Only with infra-red photography can we get some small idea of the original lightness of touch with which Leonardo executed it, of the richness of his modeling, of the most subtle gradations of light and shadow, and of the inimitable treatment of surfaces that creates the illusion of an atmospheric veil around the face. Infra-red photographs further reveal the true character of the landscape, whose forms are not the hard and heavy galvanic eruptions they appear to be to the naked eye; they are instead fragile and foam-like elements of nature that virtually evaporate into mist. The landscape is a mysterious and evocative place in which the only evidence of human existence is vestigial, taking the form of the bridge on the extreme right of the panel.

The figure forms a pyramid shape in three-quarter view, seen within the cubic space of a balcony. The observer's point of view is made to shift from figure to landscape. The figure is seen from the same level as the observer, but the viewpoint shifts upwards in the landscape. The light also shifts, bathing the figure in soft subdued yellow tones and the landscape in a grey-blue sfumato. As a result, the rocky background, which is imaginary, has a hazy, misty quality.

These contrasts serve to distinguish the landscape from the figure. At the same time, however, Leonardo has created formal parallels between the figure and landscape that indicate their relationship. For example, the form of the sitter repeats the triangular mountains, and her transparent veil echoes the filtered light of the sfumatomists. The curved aqueduct on the right continues into the highlighted drapery fold over her left shoulder, and the spiral road on her right is repeated in the short curves of her sleeves. These in turn correspond to the line of her fingers.

Leonardo has emphasized costume, detail, texture, and a linear contour that surrounds the form with a clear and uninterrupted continuity. In addition, he has juxtaposed large areas of densely saturated colors that differentiate and yet unify into a distinct and decorative pattern the dress, shawl, blouse, anatomy, hair, and headpiece. The whole is illuminated by a diffused sunlight that casts delicate shadows on the face and neck.

Such formal parallels do not explain the mystery of the figure, whose expression has been the subject of songs, stories, poems, even other works of art. The enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa is the subject of volumes of scholarly interpretation. Vasari says that Leonardo hired singers and jesters to keep the smile on her face while he painted. According to Sigmund Freud, the smile evoked the dimly remembered smile of Leonardo's mother:

    For Francesco del Giocondo Lionardo undertook the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife, and left it incomplete after working at it for four years. This work is now in the possession of Francis, King of France, at Fontainebleau.

    This head is an extraordinary example of how art can imitate Nature, because here we have all the details painted with great subtlety. The eyes possess that moist lustre which is constantly seen in life, and about them are those livid reds and hair which cannot be rendered without the utmost delicacy. The lids could not be more natural, for the way in which the hairs issue from the skin, here thick and there scanty, and following the pores of the skin. The nose possesses the fine delicate reddish apertures seen in life. The opening of the mouth, with its red ends, and the scarlet cheeks seem not colour but living flesh. To look closely at her throat you might imagine that the pulse was beating. Indeed, we may say that this was painted in a manner to cause the boldest artists to despair.

    Mona Lisa was very beautiful, and while Lionardo was drawing her portrait he engaged people to play and sing, and jesters to keep her merry, and remove that melancholy which painting usually gives to portraits. This figure of Lionardo's has such a pleasant smile that it seemed rather divine than human, and was considered marvellous, an exact copy of Nature.

    from a translation of Giorgio Vasari's Life of Leonardo da Vinci
    See also Life of Leonardo

The Mona Lisa has facial features animated by a crisp sense of personality which is largely communicated by the steady gaze directed at the beholder and by lips that are shaped in response to inner feelings. She uses her alluring charm to establish an emotional rapport that is real and mutual.

Color has been reduced almost to a monotone, light has become a concentrated and resonant element, and details and lines have been used both sparingly and unobtrusively. Indeed, color, light, details, and line have all been made subservient to the full and monumental volume of the figure. The head in particular, now well structured and fleshy, stands forth emphatically and, together with the landscape, carries the full burden of the painting's expressive content.

Leonardo was unwilling to part with the picture, and took it with him in to the court of Francis I of France where he died in 1519. It then became part of the French royal collection and was later trimmed by about an inch on either side.