Un­cover the se­crets be­hind the most fa­mous smile in his­tory

History Revealed - - FRONT PAGE -

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.


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.


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.


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’

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.