Sunday, May 21, 2017

Mysteries of the Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci's
Mona Lisa {PD}
What is left to be said about the painting, the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic work of art? Perhaps, not much, but the recent discoveries beneath the varnished surface of a close copy could tell art lovers more than meets the eye.

Let’s go back to what’s known about the original first. While many art historians have speculated through the centuries, the general consensus  points to the subject of the painting to be Lisa Ghirandini. Her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant of Florence, is thought to have commissioned it for their new home. Leonardo likely created the painting between 1503 and 1506. Well, that is the first painting, possibly, now referred to as the Isleworth Mona Lisa. It’s speculated it was left unfinished while Leonardo went onto other projects. Years later possibly between 1510 and 1517, some art historians now believe he began work on the Mona Lisa which hangs in the Louvre.

An early witness, Agostino Vespucci, wrote that Leonardo da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, in 1503. He also mentions that it is left unfinished as other works of da Vinci have been. A biographer, Giorgio Vasari, suggests the same information in his writing. His description points to a younger-looking version.

Isleworth Mona Lisa {PD}
(the possible earlier version)
In 1517, when Leonardo was living in France, at the pleasure of  King Francis I, the Cardinal of Aragon visited his studio. The cardinal’s secretary and diarist, Antonio de Beatis described seeing several portraits, one which fits the description of the Mona Lisa we are familiar with today. In the second portrait the subject has been aged several years. His interest in anatomy and aging could also be reflected in the different looks of each portrait. The near-perfect proportions are reminiscent of his mathematical genius, despite the difference in size. 

Why would Leonardo da Vinci paint two versions of the Mona Lisa? It wasn’t unusual for him to paint several versions of one painting. He painted two of the Virgin of the Rocks, possibly the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, and others. 

Even more interesting was the renewed interest in an anonymous copy of the Mona Lisa in possession of the Prada Museum in Madrid since 1819. Around five years ago, a researcher in the technical documentation department took a deeper interest in the painting. Using modern technology, such as infrared reflectography, radiography, and digital imaging, she discovered the drawings underneath, the corrections made, and how they were identical in both the copy and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre.

This was evidence that the copier sat next to Leonardo da Vinci and copied his every move. The copy until recently had a black background, but cleaning and restoration took away the yellow glow of varnish and the darkness of time, and revealed what was beneath. A comparable background to the original Mona Lisa’s in more vibrant color was uncovered, along with a more definable arm rest and even the contours of her waistline. 

Prada Museum Mona Lisa
copy revealed {PD}

Portraiture of the Renaissance was the only way to preserve a likeness, though not affordable to the common man. Leonardo’s subject is nearly facing forward with just a slight movement of the shoulders to the side. There is a warmth, three-dimensionality, and perspective of this painting that has drawn many to question its story and led to many copies.

Today, the best-known version of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, hangs alone on a wall in the Louvre, roped off, behind bullet-proof glass. As I waited last June for a glimpse of this ordinary-sized painting, I could see that its status as the most famous painting in the world showed no signs of slowing down. 

For more fascinating, in-depth information regarding the history and copies of the Mona Lisa go to these links: The Mona Lisa Foundation, the Kahn Academy, and this New York Times article.

Kathleen Rouser has loved making up stories since she was a little girl and wanted to be a writer before she could read. She desires to create characters, who resonate with readers and realize the need for a transforming Savior in their everyday lives. Her first full-length novel, Rumors and Promises, was published by Heritage Beacon Fiction, an imprint of LPC Books, in April, 2016. Its sequel, Secrets and Wishes will be released this coming fall. 

Previously a homeschool mother of three, she more recently has been a college student and sometimes a mild-mannered dental assistant by day. Along with her sassy tail-less cat, she lives  Michigan with her hero and husband of 35 years, who not only listens to her stories, but also cooks for her.


  1. Replies
    1. You're welcome! Thanks for leaving a comment, Connie R.

  2. Wow! This post was very informative about the original paiting of Mona Lisa. Thank you for sharing, Kathleen.

    1. So happy you found this post informative, Marilyn. Thank you for stopping by and leaving
      a comment too. I started out writing about the Prada museum piece, but wound up having
      to do much background research!