Title: The Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)
Artist: Leonardo da Vinci
Date: c. 1503–1506, probably continuing until c. 1517
Culture: European Art, Italian Renaissance
Scale: 77 cm × 53 cm (30 in × 21 in)
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Mona Lisa depicts a young woman sitting in an upright position in a piece of furniture that resembles an armchair. The model’s arms are folded beneath her chest, and her entire posture and demeanor appears quiet and reserved. Mona Lisa’s gaze is especially remarkable: it is fixed on the viewer. The woman’s facial expression is difficult to read: at the first glance, it comes off as blank. However, upon further observation, Mona Lisa’s face starts looking mysterious; it must be her soft dreamy eyes and faint smile that give this enigmatic impression. The woman is sitting in what seems to be an open loggia with black or grey pillars on both sides. Behind her is a picturesque scenery with a lake surrounded by mountains.
Mona Lisa bears many defining characteristics of the Renaissance era in art. The way the female model is presented in the picture reminds of many Renaissance depictions of the Virgin Mary: at the time, she was seen as the incarnation of ideal womanhood (Kemp and Pallanti 100). The model’s posture reflects the traditions of Flemish portraiture: the three-quarter profile and the vertical positioning between the columns (Kemp and Pallanti 100). The loggia where Mona Lisa is sited is considered to be a medium between the main subject (the woman) and the distant scenery.
The general impression that the portrait creates is that of great mystery but at the same time of peacefulness and serenity. One of the elements of the painting that contribute to such an impression is its pyramid-shaped composition. The body of the woman creates a dark, almost symmetrical triangle in the center of the picture surrounded by lighter, blended landscapes. This type of composition does not imply movement or dynamic, which together with the understated drapery, gives the Mona Lisa a sense of balance.
The Mona Lisa showcases da Vinci’s contribution to the art of oil painting: the refinery of sfumato. The sfumato technique allows for smooth, almost invisible transitions from one color to another due to subtle gradations in tone and shade (Vasari 208). In the Mona Lisa, the use of sfumato is evident in the soft lines of Lisa del Giocondo’s face, especially around its contours, eyes, and mouth. The Mona Lisa is not the first precedent of da Vinci using sfumato: previously, he showed his mastery of the technique in The Virgin of the Rocks.
The picture looks strikingly realistic: it is alive and breathing. Technically, this aliveness might have been achieved by the means of aerial perspective, of which da Vinci was a pioneer (Vasari 156). Aerial perspective or atmospheric perspective is defined as the effect that the atmosphere has on the way an object looks. More distant objects look lighter and paler while those that are closer to the viewer are more defined and detailed. In the Mona Lisa, the woman’s face is painted in great detail while the background consists of subtler lines and more generalized, blended shapes.
The Mona Lisa depicts Lisa del Giocondo, an Italian noblewoman and member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany. According to the scarce information that is available about del Giocondo, she led an ordinary middle-class life (Kemp and Pallanti 102). Married in her teen years to a merchant who later became a local official, she gave birth to five children (Kemp and Pallanti 89). The painting was commissioned by del Giocondo’s family, which was nothing extraordinary back in the 16th century. Like many other affluent families, the Gherardinis were art lovers and patrons and liked to have an official portrait for each member. The scale of the portrait, however, was quite extravagant and larger than what noblemen and women would typically commission. It seems that the Gherardinis had quite an ambition in society and went for a status symbol such as an extravagant, lush painting.
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In a broader context, the Mona Lisa proved to be an influential work for its own era as well as subsequent art periods. Even before its completion, the Mona Lisa changed the art of Florentine portraiture. Raphael, who frequented da Vinci’s workshop, took inspiration in the painting’s format and composition (Vasari 278). Raphael’s works such as Young Woman with Unicorn, Portrait of Maddalena Doni, La velata, and Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione drew on da Vinci’s ideas and techniques. During the Victorian era, the Mona Lisa was praised for its mysticism and romanticism (Vasari 279). Today, the painting is still a recognized and guarded masterpiece. It has its place in the popular culture and gave rise to innumerous interpretations, references, and even parodies.
Probably the most famous da Vinci’s painting, the Mona Lisa was painted in the Second Florentine period. By the beginning of the 16th century, da Vinci had already been an accomplished painter and a trailblazer of Renaissance art. When in 1505, Leonardo returned to Florence after a long hiatus, he was welcomed with acclaim and received the status of a renowned native son (Vasari 231). As a scientist, painter, and the member of the architecture committee, da Vinci was a household name among the wealthy. The Mona Lisa was one of his commissions that he was working on until he received an even bigger order, The Battle of Anghiari.
There are a lot of speculations about whether Lisa del Giocondo had a special kind of relationship with Leonardo da Vinci. Isaacson recounts two explanations as to why the Mona Lisa has the facial expression that she has. The first is simplistic: the painter hired dancers and musicians to keep the model entertained and in high spirits. The second, however, seems closer to the reality: da Vinci studied human anatomy and psychology for years to know exactly how to paint emotion. Due to optical illusions and techniques, it seems as if Gioconda changes her facial expression from melancholic to almost mischievous.
Gender Studies/Feminist Analysis
Del Giocondo is portrayed as a reserved, faithful wife, which is seen in the way her right hand rests upon her left hand. It is difficult to say whether the representation of Lisa del Giocondo in Mona Lisa is feminist or empowering. Da Vinci did exaggerate her success and wealth through her clothes to match her family’s aspirations (Kemp and Pallanti 121). Otherwise, the painting did not find a place in the feminist movement, nor did it contribute to the development of gender rhetoric.
The Mona Lisa strikes me as a painting that is simple and incredibly complex at the same time. I think that while the main purpose of the painting was to depict a member of a noble family, da Vinci went an extra mile with this work. The Mona Lisa shows the depth, versatility, and enigma of human personality that is perceptible even without words.
Isaacson, Walter. “The Science Behind Mona Lisa’s Smile.” The Atlantic, 2017. Web.
Kemp, Martin, and Giuseppe Pallanti. Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting. Oxford University Press, 2017.
Vasari, Giorgio, et al. Lives of Leonardo da Vinci. Getty Publications, 2019.