DA VINCI’S GREATEST MYSTERY
Uncover the secrets behind the most famous smile in history
Few works of art have intrigued and puzzled as much as the Mona Lisa, a painting that has been described as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”. Big words for such a small painting (the piece is just 77cm tall and 53cm wide), yet Leonardo da Vinci’s half-length portrait of a mysterious gentlewoman with an enigmatic smile has intrigued and puzzled the art world since its creation more than 500 years ago.
She has hung in the Louvre, Paris, for more than two centuries, escaping the Nazi art looting of World War II as well as a daring theft, and finally achieved a wall (although not yet a room) of her own in 2005. Today, she smiles down at an average 1,500 visitors an hour, many of whom exclaim loudly at the painting’s small size but jostle to pose for a photo next to the famous image – a box to be ticked on tourist itineraries in Paris.
Leonardo da Vinci is generally thought to have begun painting the Mona Lisa (also known as ‘La Gioconda’) in Florence in 1503, although the exact date is unknown. In 1502, the artist had entered the service of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, taking on the role of military architect and engineer.
The pair spent several months travelling throughout Italy as part of the Duke’s campaign to conquer the Romagna, a sprawling and lawless region north of Rome. Da Vinci was given a free pass to inspect fortifications and construction activity across the Duke’s domain, sketching city plans and marching alongside his army. But in 1503, da Vinci – then aged 51 – returned to Florence. There he took on several commissions, including the now lost ‘Battle of Anghiari’, created for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – and the painting we now know as the Mona Lisa.
WOMAN OF MYSTERY
Theories as to the identity of the woman depicted are many. They range from da Vinci’s own mother – he was born to an orphan named Caterina di Meo Lippi, who had an affair with his father, lawyer Ser Piero da Vinci – to a mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, ruler of the Republic of Florence from 1512-16. Other proposed sitters include Princess Isabella of Naples, a Spanish noblewoman named Costanza d’Avalos and an unnamed courtesan.
One particularly controversial theory is that the Mona Lisa is, in fact, a portrait of da Vinci himself, painted in the guise of a woman. In 1986, American artist and computer technician Lillian Schwartz used image processing and pattern recognition to juxtapose a red
“Da Vinci is thought to have begun the Mona Lisa in Florence in 1503”
chalk self-portrait of da Vinci from 1518 (when he was in his 60s with the face of the Mona Lisa. Schwartz claimed that the eyes, hairline, cheeks and nose were identical.
Despite being widely dismissed by most art historians, the self-portrait theory hung around. In 2010, a team of scientists and art historians from Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage campaigned for permission to exhume da Vinci’s presumed remains in order to compare the shape and features of the skull with that of the Mona Lisa.
Research is ongoing, with DNA and carbon dating confirmation needed first, to prove that the artist’s remains are where we think they are. They were supposedly moved after the French Revolution, from the chapel of SaintFlorentin at the Chateau d’Amboise in the Loire Valley to the castle’s chapel of Saint-Hubert; currently, a plaque placed above the grave warns that it is only the ‘presumed’ location of da Vinci’s body.
The most likely explanation as to the name of the woman pictured was made
in 1550, in Giorgio Vasari’s book The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters,
Sculptors and Architects. In it Vasari states that “Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa his wife.”
The del Giocondo theory was supported by the discovery, in 2005, of a 1477 edition of Cicero’s Letters to
his Friends, within which was a juicy handwritten note in a margin. Dated October 1503, the note was from Agostino Vespucci, a secretary and assistant to Niccolò Machiavelli, Second Chancellor of the Signoria of Florence. It mentions the ‘Battle of Anghiari’ commission and also refers to the fact that da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo at the time of writing.
Despite this, new theories still abound. In 2016, Silvano Vinceti, head of the National Committee for Cultural Heritage, proposed that the androgynous style of the Mona Lisa could indicate that she was not only based on Lisa del Giocondo, but also on da Vinci’s male apprentice and possible lover Gian Giacomo Caprotti – known as Salaì (Little Devil).
The Mona Lisa’s forehead, nose and smile, claims Vinceti, are strikingly
similar to other paintings by da Vinci, for which Salaì is known to have been used as a model, including portraits of St John the Baptist and St Anne, and a drawing known as ‘The Incarnate Angel’.
But, as the contemporary evidence seems to suggest, the Mona Lisa is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. So who was this obscure Florentine noblewoman?
Born in 1479, Lisa was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany who, in 1495, aged just 15, became the second wife of wealthy Florentine cloth and silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, a man nearly twice her age. Lisa went on to bear him six children – four of whom survived childhood – and was stepmother to her husband’s son by his first wife, just a year old when his mother died.
Quite why da Vinci agreed to accept a private commission for a relatively obscure merchant is unclear. He was, by then, an accomplished artist who had created works of art for the likes of Ludovico il Moro, the Duke of Milan; presented designs for the dome of Milan Cathedral; and completed his famous ‘The Last Supper’ for the monastery of Santa Maria delle Grazie.
Some historians have proposed that in early 1503, when he is believed to have started the painting, da Vinci had no source of income, so may have been forced to take on a private commission. It also seems his father knew Francesco before the commission was made, and that the men even socialised together.
Little is known as to why Francesco del Giocondo might have commissioned a portrait of his wife. It may have been to commemorate the fact that, in April 1503, the couple had moved out of shared accommodation and into a house of their own. Another reason may have
“Quite why da Vinci accepted the commission is unclear”
“Her enigmatic smile was put down to disability caused by muscle weakness”
been the birth of the couple’s fifth child (and second son), Andrea, in December 1502.
SECRETS OF THE SMILE
The painting itself gives us little in the way of clues as to the story behind it. The dark, transparent gauze veil that covers her hair has often been interpreted as a sign of mourning, but was in fact an item of clothing commonly worn as a mark of virtue.
A three-dimensional scan completed in 2006, which used laser and infrared scans ten times finer than a human hair, was able to penetrate the dark, centuries-old paint and varnish to reveal details of her gauze dress, of a style thought to have been worn by early 16th-century Italian women during pregnancy or just after giving birth. The Mona Lisa pregnancy theory was also suggested in 1959, when British doctor Kenneth D Keele claimed the sitter’s “puffy neck”, was due to an enlarged thyroid gland, a condition he believed indicated that she may have been pregnant when the painting was made.
More recently, another doctor asserted that Mona Lisa suffered from thyroid problems. Dr Mandeep Mehra, medical director of the Heart & Vascular Centre at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, claimed in September 2018 that the painting’s subject demonstrates classic signs of hypothyroidism: hair loss, swollen hands, yellowed skin and a possible goitre (or lump) in the neck. Her enigmatic smile, meanwhile, was put down to a possible disability caused by muscle weakness.
Mehra’s theories are not the first time that Mona Lisa’s health has been placed under the microscope. Her expression has also been attributed to high cholesterol – allegedly demonstrated by signs of a build-up of fatty acids around her eyes. The Italian scientist behind the claim, Vito Franco of the University of Palermo, believes he has detected subcutaneous accumulation of cholesterol in the hollow of her left eye, and a fatty tissue tumour. Healthy or not, whatever the sitter’s identity and the reasons behind the Mona Lisa’s commission, the painting never ended up on the walls of the del Giocondo family home. After only a few months, da Vinci was forced to halt work on the piece when he was called upon to start the ‘Battle of Anghiari’, in late 1503.
Da Vinci probably worked on the Mona Lisa off and on over the next few years; he is commonly believed to have completed it around 1506. But infrared examination of a restored copy of the Mona Lisa – painted in parallel with the original – revealed that the depictions
of rock formations in the background of the piece were actually based on a drawing made by da Vinci some time between 1510 and 1515. Further study of the original identified some of these same rock formations.
This means that the actual date of the Mona Lisa’s completion could be as late as 1519, the year the great painter died. The evidence convinced many art historians and, in 2012, the Louvre itself made the bold decision to change the official dates associated with the Mona Lisa from 1503-06 to 1503-19.
As with much of the Mona Lisa’s history, what happened to the painting after da Vinci’s death continues to divide academic opinion. In 1516, da Vinci moved to France, beginning work at the Château du Clos Lucé in Amboise at the invitation of the King of France, Francis I. Da Vinci is said to have arrived with three of his paintings: ‘St Anne’, ‘St John the Baptist’ and the Mona Lisa.
An inventory of his possessions at his death in 1525 indicates that da Vinci’s apprentice Salaì was in possession of the Mona Lisa. But a royal receipt from 1518 contradicts Salaì’s ownership, detailing a transaction apparently facilitated by Salaì, in which the Mona Lisa enters the French royal collection. Astonishingly, the two conflicting pieces of information could indicate that da Vinci created not one, but two Mona Lisas during his lifetime.
The first is thought to have been painted in 1503-06 using Lisa del Giocondo as a model, and was most likely left unfinished. A second Mona Lisa, which probably used the earlier version as a model, is now thought to have been started by da Vinci in around 1513. It is this version that we are now so familiar with today.
If this is indeed the case, what happened to the first Mona Lisa? According to the Mona Lisa Foundation, the original was acquired in Italy by an English nobleman named James Thomas Benedictus Marwood, who brought it back to his manor in Somerset in the 1770s. There it remained until 1913, when it was rediscovered by art historian and curator Hugh Blaker, and brought to his studio in Isleworth, London.
The painting, widely known as the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ or the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’, also depicts a darkhaired woman with enigmatic smile – a younger version of her Louvre counterpart. Its inferior background, however, has led many to propose that da Vinci – if he did paint it - had another artist work on the piece alongside him.
To complicate matters further, a French scientist – who used multispectral scanning to penetrate the paint in 2015 – revealed that beneath the later Mona Lisa are as many as three different paintings. These are believed to include
“The Mona Lisa’s completion could be as late as 1519, the year da Vinci died”
an early study of a head, a portrait of a woman wearing a headdress of pearls and what could be the original portrait of Lisa Gherardini.
A DA VINCI CODE?
Hard facts seem to be few and far between when considering the Mona Lisa. But she wasn’t always the world’s most famous painting. Early commentators praised the artwork for its realism, yet it wasn’t until the 19th century that it started gaining the mass recognition it now enjoys.
Until 1804, when the Mona Lisa went on public show in the Louvre, few people even knew of her existence. For some 200 years after da Vinci’s death, it had been kept relatively hidden, travelling between the palaces of Fontainebleau, the Louvre and Versailles with a string of French kings.
Napoleon, who seized France’s magnificent collection of art on behalf of the French people, described the Mona Lisa as the “Sphinx of the Occident” (the West). He was so enamoured with the painting that rather than putting it on public display at the opening of the Louvre in 1793, he hung the artwork in the bedroom of his Tuileries Palace suite. But in 1804, the painting finally moved into the Louvre, where it has remained for much of the past 200 years.
Nineteenth-century visitors who were captivated by the enigma of her smile raved about her beauty. She is a “sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously”, declared the French poet and novelist Théophile Gautier in 1859, while Walter Pater’s essay of 1869 described her as “older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave”.
Her mysterious smile may have inspired countless writers and artists, but the Mona Lisa had bigger secrets waiting to be discovered. Technological advances in the 21st century have meant that experts have been able to study the Mona Lisa in minute detail – in some cases going beyond the very paint that created her. Magnification of her eyes has revealed tiny letters hidden in her dark pupils: the right eye appears to have the letters LV while her left eye has the letters CE or B. Beneath the three-arched bridge that stands behind her left shoulder, the number 72 can be made out. One theory is that the numbers refer to 1472, the year in which a devastating flood destroyed a bridge in the village of Bobbio in northern Italy. If this is true, the Mona Lisa’s landscape may not have been an idealised image painted from da Vinci’s imagination, but a specific location. The mystery of the Mona Lisa only seems to deepen with every investigation and examination, and questions that have been raised since her creation more than 500 years ago show no signs of being answered. For now, it seems, we must content ourselves with theories and speculation until she sees fit to give up her many secrets.
The Mona Lisa is on public display in the Louvre in Paris. Her smile is enigmatic, knowing – and a challenge to every researcher who has tried to trace the sitter’s identity
ABOVE: A skilled cartographer, da Vinci created this map of Imola, the stronghold of Cesare Borgia
Leonardo da Vinci was the original Renaissance Man, a polymath whose skills extended far beyond painting
LEFT: ‘La Tavola Doria’, a sketch from an unknown artist of the central portion of da Vinci’s unfinished ‘Battle of Anghiari’
TOP: Is the smiling lady actually a man? Lillian Schwartz compares Mona Lisa with an aged da Vinci LEFT: Da Vinci dreamed of human flight throughout his life
ABOVE: Suspected bust of Isabella of Naples, who was part of Aragon’s royal family
Silvano Vinceti during the opening of the del Giocondo family crypt – he hoped to recover DNA from Lisa Gherardini’s sons
Work to identify Lisa Gherardini’s remains at the Convent of St Ursula in Florence began in 2012
‘The Last Supper’ imagines how each of the apostles reacted at the moment Jesus announced that one of them would betray him
Was Salaì the model for the Mona Lisa? That ‘Mona Lisa’ is an anagram of ‘Mon Salaì’ has fuelled speculation
Salaì is thought to have been a muse for both of these paintings, ‘The Virgin and Child with St Anne’ and ‘St John the Baptist’