Knowing who Mona Lisa was does not answer the questions that persist; if anything, it augments them.
In recent years art historians have accepted that the sitter for the Mona Lisa portrait was Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a silk merchant from Florence, but still the controversy lingers. It is as if we wanted more from this story than history is willing to give us.
When approaching the subject of Leonardo’s most celebrated work, the portrait of Mona Lisa (or Madonna Lisa, as she would probably have been called), it is interesting to remember that the painting should never have remained in Leonardo’s possession, which it did until the day he died. It was a commission requested by Lisa’s husband, Francesco, who offered the work to Leonardo in full expectation of receiving the goods when the painter had finished. But that just didn’t happen. We can imagine Francesco’s irritation when the painting was never delivered — letters must have been written, explanations sought. We might also imagine his wife’s irritation at being made to sit for weeks with no result to show for it, but for whatever reason, Leonardo did not give the portrait up. Instead he carried it around with him wherever he went, and worked on it time and time again for nearly two decades. One result is a many-layered portrait, rich in detail and subtlety; another is the making of a mystery.
Picture the scene: a woman, married of course, sits for her wedding portrait. What would she be wearing? Her status was not a low one. As the wife of a silk merchant she would have been obliged to dress well. Jewels would have been required, hair elaborately dressed. She would probably not be wearing a plain green dress, with not a gem in sight and her hair falling onto her shoulders with neither coiffed pleat nor pin, and it is highly unlikely that the background to the painting would have been anything other than a drape or a floral arrangement of some kind.
When we look at the earlier portraits Leonardo was commissioned to paint, we see him including symbols of the family name, such as a juniper shrub for Ginevra de’ Benci, or an ermine for Cecilia Gallerani.
Are we then to think that this grandiose backdrop to Lisa’s portrait was in some way a representation of who she was? That is doubtful. The landscape we see behind her has a primitive quality to it. It is as though we are witnessing the carving of valleys or the rise of mountains. The world was being made behind Lisa’s back, and in all likelihood she was sitting there with the two greyhounds she kept, largely ignorant of what was going on in the head of the interesting older man on the other side of the panel. What, then, was he thinking?
Giorgio Vasari, who wrote about the lives of the great Renaissance men about fifty years after Leonardo’s death, says he saw Leonardo working on a painting of a woman with an interesting background and hinted at the identity of the subject. He added that, ‘in the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse’, a comment that foreshadows future observations, namely that the eyes of Mona Lisa follow you, or that her smile is an enigma — one moment you see it, the next it disappears.
Why does the eye see a thing more clearly in dreams than the imagination when awake?
– Leonardo da Vinci
– Leonardo da Vinci
To make sense of these riddles, we need to examine what is actually there, or what we see. I say this emphatically because although he is not so well known for it, Leonardo was perhaps the only person of his époque to understand how we see. Optics was his passion, or it became his passion once he had started to understand the human body in general through his work on dissections. What did he find out that changed his way of thinking, and how might it shed light on his attachment to the portrait of Lisa?