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The Mona Lisa Smile Mystery

Who Is This Enigmatic Woman ?

The Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa history

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) did not make life easier for art historians. Not only did he not sign all of his paintings, which makes authentication of his works difficult, but, in the case of Mona Lisa, there is no reference to the painting, no trace of order or payment. No known written reference to the painting indicates that it was painted by anyone other than Leonardo da Vinci. It is one of the rare paintings which is certainly attributed to the great Florentine master of the Renaissance. Other than that, it is the subject of endless expert debate.

Mona Lisa secrets

The life and work of Leonardo da Vinci have many gray areas and so few facts that it is difficult to make a good hypothesis. The Mona Lisa poses multiple questions: when was it painted, did someone order it, and why did Leonardo da Vinci keep the painting rather than giving it to the person who ordered it? There remains one last mystery, and not the least, which interests us here more particularly: who was this woman with an enigmatic smile?

The Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre in Paris

Mona Lisa Louvre Museum

The Mona Lisa is on display at the Louvre in Paris, behind bullet-proof glass and, according to the museum's press service, it is seen by 6 million people each year. Everyone jostles in front of her to try to catch a glimpse of the famous Mona Lisa smile, agreeing that it is one of the most popular works of art in the world. How many, however, turn away from it and wonder why Mona Lisa is the subject of all this agitation? It has become such a familiar image, reproduced so many times, even so parodied, that when faced with its true representation, which is actually quite small, people sometimes experience disappointment.

Mona Lisa facts

The fame which the painting enjoys today dates back to the 19th century. Romantic writers began to rave about it, reciting litanies taken up by all the esthetes of the time. Here is what the famous English art writer and critic Walter Pater writes about the Mona Lisa: “The presence which rose so strangely above the waters expresses that over the course of a millennium, men have come to desire. Its carnal beauty is entirely shaped from the inside. Place it for a moment next to these white Greek goddesses, these beautiful women of Antiquity; imagine their rout in front of this beauty in which passed the soul and its procession of diseases! All the thoughts, all the experience of the world were engraved, flowed into this interior of which they purified the form and kneaded the expression: it is the naive sensuality of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of Middle Ages with its spiritual ambition and ethereal love, the return of paganism, the sins of the Borgia. She is older than the rocks among which she sits ”. At the start of the 20th century, an event made headlines in the press around the world: on August 22, 1911, we discovered that the painting, kept in the Louvre, was stolen.

In the tumult that follows, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who once shouted that it was necessary to “burn the Louvre”, is arrested and Pablo Picasso, known to hate the Mona Lisa, is questioned by the police. Since there is not the slightest evidence against them, they are both released. Several years later, a former Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, was arrested while trying to sell the Mona Lisa at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. He claims that as an Italian patriot, he is only trying to restore the Mona Lisa to its true homeland. But this excuse is discredited by the scam in which he is involved: he had indeed tried to sell copies by claiming that they were originals. Peruggia will finally get a few months in prison, and the Mona Lisa is returned to the Louvre and elevated to the status of world celebrity which it still enjoys today.

If we would so much like to know the identity of the woman who lends her enigmatic smile to the Mona Lisa, it is because the painting has become extremely famous. Everyone laughs at who was the model for Botticelli's Birth of Venus, apart from a few art historians who really have nothing else to do, and we are interested in the model that chose Vermeer for The Girl with a Pearl Earring only because of the book and film of the same name (and, no, it wasn't Scarlett Johansson). But, despite her notoriety, the quantity of hypotheses put forward on this subject is all the more surprising since Giorgio Vasari tells us who she was in his book The Lives of the Artists.

Who is Mona Lisa ?

Vasari (1511-1574) is described as the first art historian and his work is a source of much knowledge about Italian Renaissance artists. It is not always completely reliable, but it is almost contemporary with Leonardo da Vinci. Even if he did not arrive in Florence until after the artist's death, it is believed that he actually met the woman he identified as the subject of Mona Lisa. According to him, it was the wife of the Florentine fabric and silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo whom he designated under the name of "Mona Lisa", which means "Lady Lisa". His father, Antonmaria Gherardini, was a wealthy man and owned a land near Florence. In Italy, the painting is called La Gioconda, which can be translated as “the happy woman” or “the carefree woman”. The title is undoubtedly a play on words on the name of Lisa del Giocondo that the artist painted with a smile on her face.

One might assume that this story is enough to solve the problem, but the truth is perhaps less obvious. One of the most frequently argued arguments against Lisa del Giocondo as a model for the painting is that her family had relatively modest means and social status, while portraits were almost always commissioned by members of the Florentine aristocracy. Over the years, many hypotheses have been put forward, ranging from the possible to the improbable, to the limit of ridicule. Some have assumed with the greatest seriousness that the model was the mother of Leonardo da Vinci, or the lover of him, or the great Leonardo himself who would have made his self-portrait in transvestite. We could read more serious hypotheses from the pen of Antonio de Beatis, who visited Leonardo da Vinci in France during the last years of his life, while he was staying at Fontainebleau as a guest of King Francis 1. De Beatis writes that he saw a painting which he describes as being the portrait of a Florentine lady, without giving any further details, except that Leonardo da Vinci would have told him that it had been commissioned by Julien de Médicis ( 1479-1516). If this were the case, it is difficult to understand why a member of such a noble family would have ordered Leonardo da Vinci to paint the portrait of the wife of a merchant. We therefore thought of a multitude of alternatives, most of them wealthy women or very related to the Medici, such as Constanza d'Avalos, who became the Duchess of Francavilla, as well as Isabelle d'Este, the Marchioness of Manchua. In terms of aristocracy, these two ladies fit the profile perfectly, the only problem being that neither of them was from Florence.

The hypotheses put forward for all the other candidates find similar results: not impossible, but not very likely either. According to an alternative solution, Leonardo da Vinci would have tried to paint the portrait of an idealized woman rather than a specific subject, even if the painting started as an order which was not completed. More recently, the current of opinion has revived in favor of Lisa del Giocondo, in particular after the discovery in 2005 of a note written on the back of a book by Agostino Vespucci, a contemporary Florentine official, and naming her as the subject of a portrait undertaken by Leonardo da Vinci. It also gives the date of 1503, which corresponds to what we know about the movements of Leonardo da Vinci at the time. He had just returned to Florence after a period in Cesena and there is no archive of these works immediately after his return. Antonmaria Gherardini is believed to have been a friend of Leonardo da Vinci's father, and he could very well have painted the portrait of the daughter of an old family friend before other opportunities arose. There is of course no way to prove this scenario, just as there is no way to prove the assumptions made about another potential candidate. But, on the preponderance of the evidence, Lisa del Giocondo, the merchant's wife from Florence, prevails before all the other ladies, as aristocratic as they may have been.