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The Mystery of the Mona Lisa: Who Was the Woman Behind the Painting?


Is there a painting that has received wider publicity and acclaim than Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa? I do not think so. Other than the masterful artistry that went into its making, the Mona Lisa has an intriguing past that makes it all the more interesting.

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The Mona Lisa is a half portrait of a lady sitting formally upright with her hands in her lap with a landscape setting in the background. The most intriguing aspect of the painting is the woman’s smile which is there but if looked at too closely seems to disappear. To others, the Mona Lisa does not seem to be smiling at all. She looks melancholy, sad, somber, distracted, preoccupied, or secretive. How the painter achieved this is by using the sfumato technique which was relatively new at the time. Leonardo blurred the sharp edges to give it a softened feel. He also left the areas around Mona Lisa’s mouth and eyes in shadow so that it cannot be said with certainty whether she is smiling or not.

Suggestions that have been put across on the identity of the Mona Lisa

It is not clear when da Vinci started and finished the work on Mona Lisa. This has contributed in part to the ambiguity of the identity of the woman in the painting. It has been said that he might have begun painting it between 1503 and 1507, put it aside for almost four years before picking up the work again when he was living in France. This was followed by another stint of no work before he resumed it and finished just before his death in 1519. But there is also evidence from Vasari’s accounts that suggests that the painting was done for Guliano Medici, and the relationship the painter had with Medici was in the later years from around 1513 onwards (Muntz, 1898).

There have been forwarded various theories on the identity of the woman who sat for this famous painting.

Giorgio Vasari wrote in his 1550 biography that the Mona Lisa was done for a Florentine silk merchant Francesco Del Giocondo in honor of his wife who had just given birth to their second child. That is how the painting came to acquire the title of Mona Lisa. ‘Mona’ is the shortening of Madonna which is an honorary title in Italian same as the English madam. The painting is in other terms called ‘la Joconda’ that translates to jovial or jolly which is a play on the sitter’s name Giocondo and tells about her nature (Muntz, 1898).

Another theory that persisted was that Leonardo da Vinci made the painting for Guilano de Medici in honor of Pacifico Brandino who was his mistress at the time. De Medici was Leonardo’s patron and this is why the theory might have been plausible. This was inferred from the documentation on a comment made by Antonio de Beatis in his memoir. De Beatis, who was the secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona recounts a visit made to the Master’s studio where they were shown three pieces he was working on. One of these might have been the Mona Lisa which Leonardo referred to as a painting he was doing for Magnifico Giulano de Medici and that it was of a lady from Florence. But the painting is known to be a Florentine lady and Pacifico was not s, and this theory did not hold (McMullen, 1975).

The other person who was also forwarded as the possible sitter for the Mona Lisa was the duchess was Isabella of Aragon, the Duchess of Milan. Leonardo painted for her husband for over eleven years. It was said that the painting of the Mona Lisa might have been commissioned for her (McMullen, 1975).

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It was even suggested that the painting of the Mona Lisa might originally have been for Isabella d’Este of Mantua because there is a similarity between the chalk sketches done of her and the final Mona Lisa portrait if looked at in profile (McMullen, 1975).

In the seventeenth century, the Mona Lisa’s reputation was slightly tarnished as speculations began to grow that she might have been a courtesan. But this theory did not last long. Father Pierre Dan took it upon himself to reinstate her honor and firmly dismissed the idea of her being a courtesan and declared her to be a lady of virtue (Sasson, 2001).

It has also been speculated that the Mona Lisa was a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself. This theory contemplates that Leonardo painted himself as a woman. If the Mona Lisa is looked at closely, there is an essence of androgyny about her because of the strong almost masculine jawbone (Sasson, 2001).

Another common theory was that of the portrait being of Leonardo’s mother, Caterina and this could explain the resemblance between the portrait and the artist. This theory was brought up by Sigmund Freud who said that the portrait was the artist’s way of expressing a childhood nostalgic recreation of his mother. This theory was supported by the fact that Leonardo was very fond of the painting and had it with him everywhere he went even at the time of his death in 1519 (Sasson, 2001).

However, the most widely accepted theory on the identity of the woman in the Mona Lisa painting is that she was Lisa Del Giocondo, the wife of a merchant from Florentine merchant Francesco Del Giocondo. Some documentation was found that listed the possessions of Leonardo’s student and friend of over three decades Giacomma Caprotti. The inventory had a list of the paintings in Caprotti’s possession at the time of his death in 1524 and one of these was titled ‘La Jaconda’. This supports Vasari’s assertion that the painting was titled ‘La Giocondo’ after Lisa Giocondo (Bramly, 2005).

It was not until 2005 that the identity of the Mona Lisa as being Lisa Del Giocondo was affirmed by a librarian at the University of Heidelberg in Germany. Dr. Armin Schetler uncovered the mystery of the Mona Lisa by reading the notes scribbled on the margins of a book in 1503 by Agostino Vespucci. The book itself was ‘Epistolae ad familiare’ written by Cicero. The notes confirmed that the lady who sat for the portrait was Lisa Gerhadini Giocondo, the wife of Fransesco del Giocondo (Kemp, 2006).


So the identity of the Mona Lisa after half a century of guessing and speculation can almost be laid to rest with certainty. However not counting who the woman in Leonardo da Vinci is, it remains a masterpiece in and of itself that shall continue to be held in awe for as long as it shall remain in existence.

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  1. Bramly, Serge. Mona Lisa. New York: Assouline, 2005
  2. Kemp, Martin. Leonardo Da Vinci: The Marvellous Works of Nature And ManLondon: Oxford University Press, 2006
  3. McMullen, Roy. Mona Lisa: The Picture and the Myth Itasca, Illinois: Houghton Mifflin, 1975
  4. Müntz, Eugene. Leonardo da Vinci: artist, thinker and man of science Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1898
  5. Sassoon, Donald. Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting Sydney: HarperCollins, 2001

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