Originally identified in 1550 by Giorgio Vasari as Monna Lisa, this portrait is certainly Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous opus. In 1625, Cassiano del Pozzo called it LaGioconda and today it goes by both names, although in English it is usually known as The Mona Lisa.
The project was outlined in about 1503–1506, but took far longer to finish, and the identity of the model is the subject of much debate. While some believe it to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine Francesco del Giocondo, others say it is the mistress of Giuliano de’ Medici, who commissioned the work. There are even some who think it is a portrait of Leonardo’s mother.
Unlike sitters for most Renaissance portraits, Mona Lisa does not wear ostentatious jewellery or a lavish gown, nor does she have a complicated hairstyle; her tresses are without ornament and tumble loose to frame her face, with a delicate veil. The expression of the woman about whose mystery and ambiguity so much – too much – has been written, is due in part to the complete absence of eyebrows, in the fashion of the time, and also to her lips, pursed in her now-famous smile, which betrays no contraction of her facial muscles.
Mona Lisa is posed against a landscape illuminated by diffused light, which draws the eye to the outline of her hair. The backdrop is the essence of poetry and dreamlike meditation typical of Leonardo’s pictorial layout.
On closer observation we see how the soft contours of the woman’s gown mimic the curve of the mountain path; the folds of her sleeves are inspired by the waves of the lake and the fronds of the trees.
The colours complement the model of these references: the bronze dress matches the shades of the earth and rocks, while the pale skin contrasts with the dark and vibrant tones of the mountain panorama.
In this painting as elsewhere, Leonardo uses the sfumato technique he invented during his first Florentine period and applied to almost all his works. It is interesting to note that he uses coloured shadows, three centuries ahead of the Impressionist invention, once again demonstrating his revolutionary genius, far ahead of his time.
With TheMona Lisa, Leonardo created a portrait using an innovative formula: on one hand more monumental, on the other, more poetic. Before him, portraits had no mystery. It was almost as if artists depicted subjects without a soul and when they became aware of this, they tried to distract the observer with symbolic gestures, objects and texts. Only TheMona Lisa conveys a sense of enigma: indeed the soul appears as an inaccessible peak there.