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Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa is an oil painting on poplar wood. It measures 77cm by 53cm (30 inches by 21 inches).
The Mona Lisa is an oil painting on poplar wood. It measures 77cm by 53cm (30 inches by 21 inches).

The Mona Lisa (Italian: La Gioconda; French: La Joconde), less commonly rendered as the Monna Lisa, is an oil painting on poplar wood by the famous Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. The painting shows a woman with an introspective expression, smiling slightly in what is sometimes described as an "enigmatic smile." The Mona Lisa is often described as the most famous piece in art history; few other works of art are as romanticized, celebrated, or reproduced.

Leonardo began the Mona Lisa in 1503 and completed it three or four years later. The painting, once stolen, now hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France.



It is unclear exactly when Leonardo finished the painting. He started in 1503, finishing it three or four years later.

The painting was brought from Italy to France by Leonardo in 1516 when King François I invited the great painter to work at the Clos Lucé near the king's chateau in Amboise. The King bought the painting for 4,000 écus.

The painting first resided in Fontainebleau, later in Versailles. After the French Revolution, it was moved to the Louvre. Napoleon I had it moved to his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace; later it was returned to the Louvre. During the Franco-Prussian War of 18701871, it was moved from the Louvre to a hiding place elsewhere in France.

The Mona Lisa was stolen on August 22, 1911. On September 7, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be "burnt down", was arrested and put in jail on suspicion of theft. His friend Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning, but both were later released. At the time, the painting was believed lost forever. It turned out that Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia stole it by simply walking out the door with it hidden under his coat. The theft was master-minded by Eduardo de Valfierno , a con-man who had commissioned the French art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the painting so he could sell them as the missing original. Because he didn't need the original for his con, he never contacted Peruggia again after the crime. After having kept the painting in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was finally caught when he attempted to sell it to a Florence art dealer; it was exhibited all over Italy and returned to the Louvre in 1913.

During World War II the painting was again removed from the Louvre and brought to safety, first in Chateau Amboise, then in the abbey of Loc-Dieu and finally in the Ingres Museum in Montauban.

In 1956, the lower part of the painting was severely damaged after an acid attack. Several months later someone threw a stone at it. It is now being kept under security glass.

From December 14 1962 to March of 1963, the painting was lent to the United States and shown in New York City and Washington D.C. Prior to the tour, the painting was assessed for insurance purposes at $100 million. According to the Guinness Book of Records, this makes the Mona Lisa the most valuable object ever insured. [1]

As an expensive painting, it has only recently been surpassed by Pablo Picasso's Garçon à la pipe, which was sold for $104.1 million on May 4, 2004. However, due to inflation and the Mona Lisas continued popularity, if the painting's value was to be re-assessed, it might very well exceed $104.1 million. Fortunately, the Mona Lisa was not damaged on the U.S. tour, so the insurance value turned out to be a purely hypothetical number.

In 1974, the painting went on tour again and was exhibited in Tokyo and Moscow before being returned to the Louvre for good, where it resides today.

Identity of the model

The identity of the model of Mona Lisa is not definitively known; however, art historians have speculated many possible models over the years. Many believe that the model used for the painting may have been the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy silk merchant of Florence and a prominent government figure. This belief stems primarily from a statement made by Leonardo during the last years of his life, speaking of a portrait "of a certain Florentine lady done from life at the request of the magnificent Giuliano de' Medici."

Da Vinci's first biographer, Vasari, described the portrait as being of an actual person named Mona Lisa, the wife of the socially prominent Francesco del Giocondo. It is known that Del Giocondo, a wealthy member of the bourgeoisie class holding a position of political authority in Florence, really existed. However, little is known about his wife, Lisa Gherardini, born in 1479, except that she married del Giocondo in 1495. There is no historical evidence to demonstrate that she could have been the mistress of a Medici or the woman whom da Vinci referenced.

A later anonymous statement created confusion when it linked the Mona Lisa to a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo – the origin of the controversial idea that it is the portrait of a man.

The alternative title to the work, La Gioconda, stems from a text written later, in 1625, which refers to the work as a "half-figure portrait of a certain Gioconda." However, it should be noted that in Italian gioconda means a light-hearted woman.

Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs suggests that the Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait. She supports this theory with the results of a digital analysis of the facial features of Leonardo's face and that of the famous painting. When flipping a self-portrait Leonardo previously painted of himself and merging with an image of the Mona Lisa using a computer, the features of the faces align perfectly. Critics of this theory suggest that the similarities are due to both portraits used in the comparison being painted by the same person using the same style.

The historian Maike Vogt-Lüerssen of Adelaide argued after researching the subject for 17 years that the woman behind the famous smile is Isabella of Aragon , the Duchess of Milan , for whom Leonardo da Vinci was the court painter for at least 11 years [2]. The pattern on Mona Lisa's dark green dress, Vogt-Lüerssen believes, indicates that she is a female member of the house of Visconti-Sforza . The Mona Lisa portrait was the first official portrait of the new Duchess of Milan and was painted in spring or summer 1489. Moreover, only the Duchess of Milan was allowed to be depicted as the Virgin with Child and the main female saint of Milan, Catherine of Alexandria [3]. Over 50 pictures show Isabella of Aragon in this role, and the resemblance to the Mona Lisa is evident.


The Mona Lisa set the standard for all future portraits. The portrait presents the subject from just above the bust, with a distant landscape visible as a backdrop. Leonardo used a pyramid design to place the woman simply and calmly in the space of the painting. Her folded hands form the front corner of the pyramid. Her breast, neck, and face glow in the same light that softly models her hands. The light gives the variety of living surfaces an underlying geometry of spheres and circles, which includes the arc of her famous smile. Sigmund Freud interpreted the 'smile' as signifying Leonardo's erotic attraction to his dear mother; others have described it as both innocent and inviting. Still others, as devious or even sad. However, such mysterious smiles were a common feature of portraits during Leonardo's time.

Detail of the face, showing the subtle shading effect of sfumato, particularly in the shadows around the eyes.
Detail of the face, showing the subtle shading effect of sfumato, particularly in the shadows around the eyes.

Many researchers have tried to explain why the smile is seen so differently by people. The explanations range from scientific theories about human vision to curious supposition about Mona Lisa's identity and feelings. Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University argued that the smile is mostly drawn in low spatial frequencies, and so can best be seen with one's peripheral vision [4]. Christopher Tyler and Leonid Kontsevich of the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute in San Francisco believes that the changing nature of the smile is caused by variable levels of random noise in human visual system [5]. Historian Maike Vogt-Luerssen argues that Isabella of Aragon (his identification of Mona Lisa) was sad because her husband was impotent, a heavy drinker and beat her often. Isabella described herself as "The most unhappy wife of the world."

Although utilizing a seemingly simple formula for portraiture, the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and landscape has placed this work in the canon of the most popular and most analyzed paintings of all time. The sensuous curves of the woman's hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating valleys and rivers behind her. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting—especially apparent in the sitter's faint smile—reflects Leonardo's idea of the cosmic link connecting humanity and nature, making this painting an enduring record of Leonardo's vision and genius.

Behind the figure, a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge give only the slightest indications of human presence. The blurred outlines, graceful figure, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and overall feeling of calm are characteristic of Leonardo's style.

The painting was one of the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape. One interesting feature of the landscape is that it is uneven. The landscape to the left of the figure is noticeably lower than that to the right of her. This has led some critics to suggest that it was added later.

The painting has been restored numerous times; X-ray examinations have shown that there are three versions of the Mona Lisa hidden under the present one. The thin poplar backing is beginning to show signs of deterioration at a higher rate than previously thought, causing concern from museum curators about the future of the painting.

Role in popular culture and avant-garde art

The Mona Lisa is, perhaps, the most widely known portrait in the Western world. It has acquired iconic status in popular culture, similar to Edvard Munch's The Scream. The Mona Lisa is frequently reproduced, finding its way on to everything from carpets to mouse pads.

The avant-garde art world has also taken note of the undeniable fact of the Mona Lisas popularity. Because of the painting's overwhelming stature, dadaists and surrealists often produce modifications and caricatures.

As a cult painting , the Mona Lisa has enjoyed countless references in both popular culture and avant-garde art. Some of the most notable include:

  • In 1919 , Marcel Duchamp, one of the most influential dadaists, made a Mona Lisa parody by adorning a cheap reproduction with a moustache and a goatee, as well as adding the rude inscription LHOOQ (which means "She has a hot arse" when read out loud in French). This was intended as a Freudian joke, referring to da Vinci's alleged homosexuality.

  • In 1950, "Mona Lisa", a ballad sung by Nat King Cole comparing his love to the painting, was the #1 Billboard Pop single for 8 weeks and went on to sell 3 million copies. The song was written by Jay Livingston and Ray Evans for the film Captain Carey, USA and was awarded an Oscar. "Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you, you're so like the lady with the mystic smile."
  • In 1963 , pop artist Andy Warhol started making colorful serigraph prints of the Mona Lisa. Warhol thus consecrated her as a modern icon, similar to Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley. At the same time, his use of a stencil process and crude colors implies a criticism of the debasement of aesthetic values in a society of mass production and mass consumption.
  • A song, "Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters" appears on Elton John's 1972 album, Honky Chateau .
  • The 1979 episode "City of Death" of the science fiction television series Doctor Who revolves around da Vinci making copies of the Mona Lisa. The story suggests that the painting now in the Louvre is painted on top of the message "This is a fake" written in modern felt tip pen. The painting nonetheless is authentic.
  • In the 2003 comedy Looney Tunes: Back In Action, stuntman DJ Drake (Brendan Fraser) looks through an embedded "X-ray" lens in a playing card — a queen of diamonds with Mona Lisa as Queen — to examine the original Mona Lisa at the Louvre, discovering a hidden map under the painting.

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Last updated: 12-07-2004 02:33:02