The Mona Lisa Mystique


“La Jaconde (La Giaconda)”

Mona Lisa. A woman who had so intrigued many a poet to songs of adulation and musing, to writers who wrote extensively about her mysterious smile, speculating with great imagination and embellishment on who she really is. Such is the interest placed upon this magnificent painting of Leonardo da Vinci, the famed Renaissance Man. It would be fair to say that she is one of the most well-known women in the world, and also among the most famous paintings ever made.

But who is she really? Why had this woman so beguiled us for centuries?

Allow me to re-trace my steps from the time I took an interest to get to know her, to finally unveiling that shroud of intrigue that had kept our famous woman such an enigma.

LeonardoWhen I was in college, I knew absolutely nothing about this famed painting, although the Mona Lisa was already a painting most familiar to me visually. To make matters worse, speculations abound with regards to her identity even before I was able to scrape what little facts I could out of our library’s Art section. One of the first controversial idea I came upon is that the Mona Lisa is da Vinci’s cross-dressed self-portrait. How they came about this notion was due to the very way da Vinci painted Mona Lisa’s face, which undeniably fits with his very own geometrically, as seen in the photo on the right (I shall return to this issue in a short while, so let’s move on). It somehow allegedly affirms speculations surrounding his sexuality, about how he wished he were a woman and therefore painted himself as Mona Lisa. Even then, I could not quite take the concept seriously.

In my readings, however, I learned that the Mona Lisa was commissioned by a wealthy merchant named Francesco del Giacondo. It was a portrait of his wife, Lisa Gherardini. However, da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa painting with him wherever he went throughout his life, even to  his death. If it were a commissioned painting, then why did he keep it?

Was he in love with her? Was this a classic tale of unrequited love; of a love that can never be? Well, that would be such a fantastic tale to read about, however it is highly unlikely. There is reason to believe that da Vinci was a homosexual and was — in his youth — arrested for sodomy charges.

Salai as John the Baptist  c. 1514

Salai as John the Baptist

Then there’s also that famous speculation about how the Mona Lisa is really a portrait of his lover — who happens to be a man. Gian Giacomo Caprotti is his name and he is none other than Da Vinci’s favorite student! He is also much better known as Salai (which means  “the devil” — a moniker attributed to him by da Vinci when he was ten and was a chronic troublemaker). For about 30 years, the two lived and worked together. Da Vinci willed his vineyard to Salai upon his death. If you will notice the portrait of Salai as St. John the Baptist with that of the Mona Lisa, the resemblance is quite striking.

Another speculation is that the Mona Lisa used to be part of a huge painting cut down by the columns, which can now only be seen peeking from the sides. However, studies of the painting had shown that no cutting down were made at all, debunking the said conjecture.


The Prado Mona Lisa

Then, just early last year, a remarkable discovery was made in Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. They found a copy of the Mona Lisa, which was said to be painted by a pupil alongside da Vinci at about the same time. If you will take a look at the Prado Mona Lisa and put it side-by-side the Louvre Mona Lisa, they look exactly alike (save for the color and the Prado Mona Lisa’s slight tilting of the head). Not only are the Prado Mona Lisa’s colors very vibrant, it is also well-preserved! You get to see clear details on the collar of her dress,the sheer shawl draped over her shoulder, the column base peeking out from the sides, her sleeves in striking cadmium red, and the background with all its colors and details replicating exactly that of da Vinci’s own. This must be how the Louvre Mona Lisa must have looked like before it was thoughtlessly kept in King Louis XIV’s bathroom and was terribly exposed to all sorts of destructive elements, contributing to its now obscured colors.

The question now is — who painted the Prado Mona Lisa? Who could this esteemed pupil be who painted such a magnificent painting alongside his master? Well, many speculate and argue that the Prado version is Salai’s own handiwork. Which leads me to another interesting speculation I came upon not so long ago which borders onto the absurd: the Mona Lisa is Salai and da Vinci’s imaginary daughter; an amalgam of both their faces; a portrait of the child they could never have together! In fact, Mona Lisa is an anagram of ‘Mon Salai.’ Plausible? I chuckle at the thought.

Then sometime a few weeks ago I happened upon the most interesting and the most plausible of explanations on who Mona Lisa really is. But to do so, we have yet again to refer to written records made by credible people from the past; people who actually saw and wrote about this greatly admired painting: Mona Lisa is none other than Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giacondo, that rich merchant I have earlier mentioned. It was Giorgio Vasari, a famed biographer of Renaissance artists, who made mention of this detail in his book ‘Lives of the Artists.’ He also said that the painting was left unfinished, which does not quite fit the description of the the Louvre Mona Lisa.

So what was he talking about?


Raphael’s sketch of the Mona Lisa

Clearly, Vasari was referring to another Mona Lisa and this copy would have to be a much earlier version to the Louvre Mona Lisa.

One evidence presented is that Vasari was referring to a 1503 copy when he wrote ‘The Lives of the Artists.’ The Louvre copy was dated 1517 and was said to be commissioned by Giuliano de Medici, an important figurehead to one of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Italy at that time.

What’s more, we have Raphael (another remarkable Renaissance painter) to thank for further proof! He drew an inspired copy of the earlier Mona Lisa!

It is a little known fact that Raphael was apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci for a short time in his youth. While under da Vinci’s tutelage, Raphael made sketches of the Mona Lisa that da Vinci was still painting at that time. It fits perfectly Vasari’s description of the Mona Lisa. The columns are very visible, while the background seems rather bare and unfinished.

There’s also another account made by one Gian Paolo Lomazzo, a leading Art historian and critic during his time, who made mention of the two paintings by da Vinci: He identified them as The Mona Lisa and La Gianconda!!

Indeed, there are two paintings of the same woman! One commissioned by the husband (Mona Lisa), and another by a wealthy and powerful figure (La Giaconda). So if the Louvre painting is officially called La Giaconda, then the Mona Lisa must be somewhere else. But where on earth is it now?

In 2004, a bank in Switzerland released a painting kept there by one Henry F. Pulitzer for forty years. He sold his entire fortune just to get hold of this painting, which used to be in the possession of renowned Art collector Hugh Blaker, who immediately knew it he was gazing at the very Mona Lisa Vasari spoke of upon laying his eyes on it at the Somerset home of a nobleman, whose family had had the painting for 100 years. It is now called the Isleworth Mona Lisa (after Blaker’s Isleworth studio), to distinguish it from the Louvre copy.

Not only does the Isleworth Mona Lisa fit Vasari’s description and Raphael’s drawing, the woman in the portrait is very young and very pretty — which fits the year it was painted. It is believed that Lisa was in her early 20’s when she was first painted, and in her 30’s when the famous Louvre copy was made.

We have The Mona Lisa Foundation to thank for the incredible efforts made to preserve the painting and spread the news that da Vinci’s original Mona Lisa has been found!


The Isleworth Mona Lisa

Returning to the speculation about how da Vinci’s face fits so perfectly on Mona Lisa’s face, the reason had much to do with da Vinci’s passion for Mathematics. If you will measure all three Mona Lisas, you will see that they are all geometrically positioned to conform to the Golden Rule (or Section or Ratio — another little-known da Vinci fact). See The Mona Lisa Foundation’s article on the subject by clicking this link.

As to why he kept the Mona Lisa painting with him ’till his dying day, well, one can only guess that da Vinci knew this to be his greatest life’s work. It was his favorite. I suppose, like me, if I like any of my work very much, I’d rather keep it than give it away.

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