Possibly the most famous portrait in the history of art, Leonardo da Vinci’s ’Mona Lisa’ c.1503-1506, is housed at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. The painting is alternatively known as ‘La Gioconda’, with the sitter believed to be Lisa Gherardini; the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine textile merchant. Although the work was commissioned by Giocondo it did not become part of his personal collection. Instead, Leonardo kept the painting and it travelled with him to France, and to the Italian cities of Rome and Milan.
Acknowledged and praised in his own lifetime, Leonardo greatly impressed his artistic contemporaries in Italy and in France. The Italian painter and architect Giorgio Vasari (1511- 1574), who is famous for his biographies of Italian artists, introduced his chapter on Leonardo in his ‘Lives of the Artists’ (1568) thus: ‘In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvellously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill.’ This skill is vividly apparent in ‘Mona Lisa’, where his smooth layering of oils renders the brushstrokes indistinguishable. The oils are laid on and blended more like tempera; a quick drying paint, which is applied quickly in thin, semi-opaque or transparent layers. Utilising never before seen techniques, Leonardo blends tones into one another to create shadowy and smoky outlines.
The technique, which became known as Sfumato, (Italian: ‘evaporate’) helps create the atmospheric effects, so obvious in ‘Mona Lisa’. The background of the painting is deliberately vague and hazy, having fewer distinct outlines than the foreground. Leonardo was one of the first artists to employ this technique to add depth to his work; this practice is known as aerial perspective. In shades of muddy browns and dull yellows, ‘Mona Lisa’ today appears rather sombre. This is due to the painting’s layer of varnish, which has yellowed and dulled over the years. The shadows around the eyes and mouth of ‘Mona Lisa’ are particularly intriguing and her smile has been much discussed throughout the years. Is she smiling or is she not? The science behind it is this. A viewer, on first seeing the canvas, is most likely to look at her eyes. At this point, the viewer’s eye picks out and processes details such as colour, leaving peripheral vision to process details of her lips. Since peripheral vision is imprecise and cannot determine fine detail, it incorrectly computes the shadow’s on her cheekbones as a smile. This trickery on the eye facilitates one of the most intriguing and beguiling viewing experiences in art history. It is apt that the alternative title, ‘La Gioconda’, reflecting the sitter’s name, also means ‘light hearted’ in Italian; a happy serendipity, when considering her ‘smile’.
Throughout the centuries, the painting has been in the possession of some illustrious owners. The King of France, Francis I, acquired the work in the 1530s and held private viewings, for the upper class, at the 16th century château of Fontainebleau. In the 1650s it was placed in the Louvre while it was still a Royal Residence and in the 1800s Napoleon had it hanging in his bedroom in the Tuileries. When the painting was finally able to be viewed by the masses at the Louvre, which opened to the public in 1793, ‘Mona Lisa’ became a legend. Poets and writers idolised and idealised her in their writings. The work’s fame greatly increased in the 20th century when various unfortunate acts befell it. Its theft in 1911 by Vincenzo Peruggia caused such a scandal that it captured the imagination of millions around the world. Astonishingly, when the painting was stolen, it was twenty-four hours before anyone noticed that it was missing. As with the mourning of a loved one, thousands visited the museum to lament its loss, leaving cards and flowers where the painting had once hung. ‘Mona Lisa’ also became the subject of plays, swiftly making her a household name. Following an extensive investigation, the painting was finally recovered and returned to the Louvre in 1913.
Two attacks occurred in 1956. In the first, acid was thrown at the painting and in the second it was further damaged when a rock was thrown at it. Most recently, on August 2, 2009, a Russian woman was arrested for throwing a mug of hot tea directly at the painting. Had it not been protected with bullet-proof glass, it would have been a direct hit on the work. The triplex glass box protecting ‘Mona Lisa’ was a gift from the Japanese following its tour to the Tokyo National Museum in 1974; 1.5 million viewers attended the exhibit. ‘Mona Lisa’ is the most reproduced and most parodied portraits of all time; consider Marcel Duchamp’s work 'L.H.O.O.Q.', where he painted ‘Mona Lisa’ with a moustache. Songs (Mona Lisa), films (Mona Lisa Smile) and even flowers (‘Mona Lisa’ Lily) have been named after this famous artwork. It is testament to Leonardo's genius that, five hundred years after its creation, we are still in awe of this magnificent work.
Rachel C. Smith 2009 United Kingdom
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