The most famous painting in the world, more people know her face than perhaps any other face on earth. Presidents, dictators, musicans come and go but her.... she stays put.
Her sfumato style elicits many secrets. Is she really a self-portrait of Da Vinci? Is she a play on gender, looking androgynous but having a name that's an anagram of the divine union of male and female (Amon, the Egyptian God who reaks masculinity and his counterpart I'lsa. Combined, Amon I'lsa).
Some of these secrets are far-fetched. Da Vinci is famously portrayed to have been in many secret socities over his life. Many say that the Mona Lisa's illustrious smile portrays a secret that only she knows, perhaps the secret is that she isn't the real Mona Lisa.
Look, I know what you're thinking.
"Conspiracies are one thing. But the painting being fake?"
The painting isn't fake. It could very well be painted by Da Vinci. It's just not the Mona Lisa.
in his 1550 book Le Vite, by Varsari (which features a biography of Da Vinci) details a 1525 document that lists the assets of Salai (Gian Giacomo Caprotti, a student of Da Vinci and perhaps his most intimate mate. But that's a story for another time.) This document describes the Mona Lisa, in possession of Salai.
Scholars believe Da Vinci started work on the Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1506 (comissioned by Francesco del Giocondo for his wife Lisa del Giocondo.) and took it to france with him in 1517
Vasari describes this with:
He took Leonardo to make for Francesco del Giocondo the portrait of his wife Mona Lisa, and four years later he left it imperfect, which is now the work of King Francis of France in Fontanable. And in this of Leonardo there was such a pleasant grin that it was more divine than human to see it.
Vasari, who often told white lies to make his subects seem more impressive, talks about the Lisa in great detail:
seeing that the eyes had that lustre and moistness which are always seen in the living creature, and around them were the lashes and all those rosy and pearly tints that demand the greatest delicacy of execution
Vasari describes other beautiful aspects of the Mona Lisa, such as her eyebrows:
The eyebrows, through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural.
Not to menti.... wait... Did you miss it?
She doesn't have any eyebrows!
Vasari, always one to tell white lies to extend the truth, appears to have lied here. Or has he? Why would he lie about the eyebrows of all things, and not say, how strong and msucular Da Vinci was?
And to desribe them in such exquisite detail.
Vasari describes many other artworks by Da Vinci, all of them abrupt and short. His comments on the Last Supper, one of the greatest masterpieces of all time, is primarily about how Da Vinci went about the work (and not about the painting). And other paintings, just a mere sentence.
It is clear that Vasari must have seen the Mona Lisa. If he affords paintings he has not seen 1 or 2 sentences from other people (especially when the Mona Lisa was not as loved as it is today, Leonardo's most popular works would be the ones he published. He never sold or gave the Mona Lisa to anyone. Although as a counter-point, there is evidence that the Mona Lisa was in France by 1530s – a country Vasari has likely never visited. Due to record keeping at the time there is no evidence he has seen it or not seen it).
Despite being so afloof with his analysis, Vasari fails to mention 2 glaring issues with the Mona Lisa we see. The first is the Xantelasma portrayed between the eye and the nose. A yellowish mildew that's around her eyes, a place Vasari described in such detail it is hard to tell if he was blind when looking at the painting for missing this,
The other is a lump on the Mona Lisa's hand, perhaps Da Vinci kept these in because the real Mona Lisa did indeed have these things, but the real question is why didn't Vasari talk about it?
Vasari, 30 years after the death of Da Vinci, states that the Mona Lisa is incomplete.
Another point to make is why would Leonardo carry it for ~20 years across half of Europe, out of all the paintings he could have taken? He took many more, sure. But he left plenty, and why this one comission which he never completed or gave to the patron?
The personal secretarty of the Cardinal of Aragon who accpomanied him to Cloux on a visit to Leonardo on the 10th and 11th of October 1517 (Leonardo famously never finished comissions, it is believed this meeting was to see what he was doing instead of painting his comissions) details what Leonardo was working on:
In one of the villages, the Lord and we others went to see Florentine Leonardo da Vinci, more than LXX years old, a painter etc. of our times, who showed his lordship three pictures: one of a certain Florentine dona, a painting of a beautiful painting, facto at the request of the quondam Magnifico Giuliano de 'Medici, the other of St. John the Baptist young and one of La Madona and the son who was placed in the lap of s. Anna, all perfectly perfect, even if from him to get some paralysis on the right, one cannot expect a good thing.
The Mona Lisa, comissioned by Francesco Del Giocondo, does not appear in the list.
One year later, The Louvre details that King Francesco 1st brought the Mona Lisa, and when Leonardo dies he leaves no paintings in his will (but they were in his house, which is why Salai had some).
A painting that Leonardo did not have in France (as detailed by the secretary) was somehow sold in 1518 to the King.
If the painting in the Lourve is not the Mona Lisa, what could it be?
On the 11th of October 1517, from the Royal Residence in Blois, de Beatis writes in his diary the works waiting to be conducted in Fountainebleau. In particular he writes:
There was also a picture in which a certain Signura di Lo'bardia (Lady of Lombardy) of natural beauty is pointed towards oil: but to me not as Signora Gualanda.
Therefore scholars believe the one shown in the Lourve is actually the painting of Signura Di Lo'bardia.
There are 2 important things to note before I conclude:
- Leonardo often painting things, and his students copied them to learn how to do it. Leonardo also added finishing touches himselves to his students paintings, meaning that a students painting might be confused for one of his own.
- France has an interested in pretending it is the real Mona Lisa, for it is visited 30 million times a year and is one of their largest tourist attractions.