Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Mystery of the Mona Lisa Solved ... Maybe

For reasons that have never been clear to me, the identity of the sitter of this painting has been controversial since the mid 20th century. Vasari in his chapter on Leonardo in Lives of the Artists identifies the woman in this painting as Lisa Gherardini Giocondo, the wife of a young Florentine silk merchant by the name of Francesco Giocondo. Vasari says that Leonardo painted it on the occasion of their marriage. Ever since, the painting has been known as Mona Lisa (old Florentine dialect that means "My Lady Lisa"), or La Gioconda, "The Smiler" which is a play on the name Giocondo. Until the 20th century, no one ever thought to question that identity.

Since the mid-20th century, there have been all sorts of proposed alternative identifications such as the Duke of Milan Francesco Sforza's mistress Cecilia Gallerani, or the Duke's long suffering Duchess Caterina Sforza, or Isabella d'Este, or Leonardo's mother (supposedly done from memory), or Leonardo's boyfriend, bodyguard, and assistant Salai, or even Leonardo himself.
In the 1990s, the best scholar on Leonardo in the English language, Martin Kemp, did something no one thought to do, and that was to go looking through the city records in Florence for information on Lisa Gherardini. It turns out that there was a lot about her. She had married young (as did most women of the time). The Gherardini's were very close friends with Leonardo. He lived at their country villa for many years, including the years 1503 and 1504 when the painting was made. It was probably painted at that villa (which still exists). Lisa Gherardini would have been the right age for the woman in the painting. The artist probably knew her very well, and they may have been close friends. Kemp believed that despite all the laser scans and computer analyses of the mysterious face comparing the sitter to this or that person, Vasari may have been right all along, that the sitter was indeed Lisa Gherardini.

In 2005, a scholar in the University of Heidelberg made a discovery that appears to have ended the controversy once and for all. While cataloguing rare books in the university library, Dr. Armin Schlechter discovered a note written in the margin of a 1477 edition of Cicero's Epistulae ad Familiares. It was written by Agostino Vespucci, cousin of the famous explorer and a secretary to Niccolo Machiavelli when he was Chancellor of the Florentine Republic. In that note, Vespucci praises Leonardo as a new Apelles (a celebrated painter from Antiquity) for his work on the portrait of the wife of Francesco Giocondo, Lisa Gherardini, that the painting was made to commemorate the birth of her son Andrea, and writes a date of October 1503. That appears to be the end of the controversy and since then, there have been no more "experts" coming forward to claim that the painting is Leonardo in drag.

Agostino Vespucci's note from October 1503 in the margin of Cicero's Epistulae.

But it's still not over. Now an Italian art historian named Silvano Vinceti wants to exhume the remains of Lisa Gherardini and subject them to detailed technical analysis. To what end is not clear to me. He does not dispute that she is the subject of the painting. Lisa Gherardini died an old woman in 1542, almost 40 years after she sat for Leonardo. I doubt that she died with exactly those same features that we see in the painting. I say let her rest in peace.

Leonardo never really finished the painting. He last worked on it 3 years before his own death in 1519. But then, the impulsive and undisciplined Leonardo left a lot of paintings and other projects unfinished at his death.

The painting was a revolution in portraiture. For the first time, a sitter in a portrait turned to look at and see us the viewers, and to recognize our presence. For the first time, a portrait looks back at us. In its day, the painting was very famous, even if the secretive Leonardo made sure that the painting's fame was mostly by reputation. A handsome young smooth talker named Raphael charmed the old man into letting him take an extended look at the painting. The painting changed the young man's life. Most of Raphael's portraits would be variations in some form of Leonardo's Mona Lisa. By the mid 17th century, the painting sank into obscurity. Its current fame is the creation of the 19th century, of writers like Walter Pater and circles of Symbolist writers and poets who very much admired its mysterious appeal.


Dan Topp said...

Is it true that the painting was cut down to it's present size at some point?

Counterlight said...

Yes, It was cut down on the sides. Originally there were columns partially visible on both sides, but now they've been cut out. I would guess this was to fit the picture in a certain frame.

monalisamissing said...

Actually the Mona Lisa was never cut down. When Louvre experts took the Mona Lisa out of its frame and examined it in 2004, they saw the edges where Da Vinci stopped had painting. It's about 1/4 around the entire panel. If the painting had been cut down, the paint would have gone right to the edge. To find out more about the Mona Lisa and its incredible theft in 1911 by Vincenzo Peruggia, check out the link to my upcoming documentary - The Missing Piece

Counterlight said...

Well, what do you know. It appears that you are right about the trimming.