Painted by the great Italian master Leonardo da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance, the Mona Lisa is one of the most famous portraits in the world. The enigmatic eyes and smile of the woman captured in the painting have been the subject of poems, songs, and films, and crowds from all over pack into the Louvre museum to get a glimpse of her firsthand. In terms of the Mona Lisa’s worth, the portrait continues to be one of the most valuable paintings in the world.
Yes, the Mona Lisa is a real person. The Mona Lisa is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. However, this theory has been contested by other scholars who claim that there isn’t enough evidence to fully support it.
As a result, the identity of the woman in the Mona Lisa remains somewhat of a mystery to this day.
The answer is not so simple. This article will explore the various theories that have tried to determine the true identity of the now-iconic female subject staring out from within the frame of da Vinci’s most well-known painting. To better understand how the Mona Lisa continues to remain such an enigma for scholars and art admirers alike, we first need to explore the main ideas about her possible identity.
A Merchant’s Wife
The most widely accepted theory about the identity of the Mona Lisa’s sitter originates from the art historical account of Giorgio Vasari, who in 1550 wrote that the portrait depicted a Florentine woman named Lisa Gherardini. Giorgio Vasari was one of the first scholars to write a biographical account of Leonardo da Vinci’s life and work, and his claim pointing to Lisa Gherardini is affirmed by most art historians.
So, if you believe Vasari, the Mona Lisa was indeed a real person. Let’s get into a little bit about who she was.
Lisa Gherardini, 24 years old in da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, was the second wife of a successful Florentine silk merchant by the name of Francesco del Giocondo. This explains a lot about the meaning of the painting’s title – Mona being a shorthand for “Madame,” followed by Lisa, her first name. In fact, the painting is known in Italian as La Gioconda, referring to the woman as the wife of Giocondo, which is echoed in the painting’s French title La Joconde.
Scholars believe that the Mona Lisa was commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo for the event of Lisa’s second pregnancy. This claim is supported by the fact that she is depicted wearing a transparent modesty veil in the portrait, which was typically worn by pregnant women during the Renaissance. Lisa and her husband would go on to have five children by the names of Piero, Andrea, Giocondo, Camilla, and Mariette. Lisa Gherardini passed away in 1542, at the age of 63.
The belief that Lisa Gherardini is the Mona Lisa is also backed up by recovered documents revealing that Leonardo da Vinci’s father, Ser Piero da Vinci, was both notary and neighbour to Lisa and Francesco. Francesco’s discovered will is signed by Ser Piero, proving that the two were acquainted with one another. This relationship puts the Giocondo family in clear connection with the da Vinci family.
According to Vasari, Leonardo da Vinci started the portrait of Lisa in Florence at the start of the 16th century. In terms of how long it took to paint the Mona Lisa, da Vinci worked and reworked the Mona Lisa for at least four years.
The painting is roughly estimated to have been completed between 1503 and 1507. If you’re interested in the dimensions of the Mona Lisa, you might be surprised to find out that the portrait is fairly small in comparison to other larger Renaissance artworks.
A Medicean Mistress
Another theory about the woman painted in the Mona Lisa associates her with the famous and powerful Medici family. The Medici family held great power and influence during the Renaissance, and a claim dating back to 1517 in France suggests that the Mona Lisa was a portrait commissioned by Giuliano de Medici.
Leonardo da Vinci was patronized by the Medici family between the years of 1513 and 1516, and it is believed that Giuliano had the artist model the Mona Lisa after a Florentine woman he admired.
Counter Arguments and Alternative Theories
Despite the evidence suggesting that the Mona Lisa is a depiction of Lisa Gherardini, there are still doubts surrounding the accuracy of this theory. Unfortunately, no actual documentation exists to prove that Francesco del Giocondo commissioned da Vinci to paint a portrait of his wife, so the theory still remains inconclusive.
One hope for finding definitive proof lay in the planned excavation of Lisa’s remains. Through an examination of Lisa’s body, researchers believed that her facial features could be technologically rebuilt and visually compared to the portrait. However, when Lisa’s body was uncovered, researcher Silvano Vinceti noted that no evidence of a skull remained, making a facial comparison to the Mona Lisa impossible.
Other art historians reject the Lisa Gherardini theory on a more artistic basis. Certain scholars claim that the woman in the portrait couldn’t have been the Lisa that Vasari referred to, because the style of the painting is far more aligned with that of Leonardo da Vinci’s later artistic work after 1510. By 1510 da Vinci was already back in Milan, which would have made an encounter with Lisa Gherardini in Florence impossible.
Other scholars believe that the woman in the Mona Lisa is not a real woman at all. As an artist, Leonardo da Vinci tended to spend a lot of time altering and adjusting his paintings years after he first began working on them.
For this reason, some art historians believe that the woman in the portrait is not an individual woman, but rather a collection of women fictionalized into a single face through several years of reworking.
The visual identity of the woman is made further ambiguous by the fact that the painting has undergone many layers of varnishing to preserve da Vinci’s work. The varnishing has left the portrait with a yellow glow as a result of oxidation.
The Mona Lisa’s identity has remained a historical mystery for so long that countless ideas have been floated around about who she is. More controversial theories have stated that the woman is Leonardo da Vinci’s very own mother, while others insist that she was simply an unknown noblewoman or a prostitute.
In fact, the mystery of her identity is one of the reasons why the Mona Lisa is so famous. Because of her enigmatic nature, the woman of the Mona Lisa has often been romanticized as a seductive female heroine, the muse of many literary and cinematic representations.