With La Gioconda, aka Lisa del Giocondo or Mona Lisa, we are talking about a woman of painting. Not a painter, as we had already done with Artemisia Gentileschi or Frida Kahlo, but precisely of the interpreter of a painting.
A painting that is still considered today the most enigmatic ever and that has inspired not only centuries of assumptions but also a plethora of artists after the undisputed one of Leonardo Da Vinci.
But what do we know so far about the true story of the woman behind La Gioconda? Let’s find out together. And why today? On July 15, 1542, at the age of 63, the woman behind the painting died. We will also take the opportunity to answer some of the questions we have always asked ourselves about this picture.
La Gioconda, the painting
We know that every day, several thousand visitors flock to the Salle des Etats of the Louvre Museum in Paris to admire La Gioconda … but always from a good distance. If you too want to take a look: Louvre Museum Official Website.
La Gioconda is an oil on wood measuring 77 by 53 cm, a treasure kept in an isothermal box behind an armored glass that protects it from heat, humidity and bullets.
The compositional technique makes it one of the most studied works in the history of art and by artist apprentices. The portrait shows Lisa del Giocondo half-length, turned to the left, but with her face almost front, turned towards the viewer.
Her hands are placed in the foreground, while in the background, beyond a sort of parapet, a river landscape opens up, with rocky peaks and spurs, typical of Leonardo’s painting. The protagonist wears a heavy low-cut dress with embroidery along the chest and sleeves of different fabric.
On her head she wears a transparent veil that keeps her loose and long hair still, which also falls on her shoulder where a light drape is placed. The geometric weaves that are used for embroidery are called: vincian knots and represent the “logo” of Leonardo. We have already talked about their origin and their meaning in: La Chitarra di Leonardo.
The technique is really modern, which makes the painting still appreciated today. There are optical effects created by the position of the young woman’s eyes and smile. You really seem to be constantly observed by her, which demonstrates Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific and anatomical knowledge.
As for the famous smile of the Mona Lisa, testimonies tell that a group of musicians played during the painter’s working hours to maintain this happy attitude.
Why is the painting called La Gioconda?
The question of the identity of the woman represented by Leonardo da Vinci has long stirred up the world of art history. This now seems to be decided by specialists, even if uncertainties remain. The woman in question would be Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a Florentine textile dealer.
The name “Mona Lisa” therefore derives from the patronymic of her sponsor, a diminutive of “Madonna Lisa”, another way of saying Madame, so to speak. On the other hand, the name Giocondo even if it refers to being Giocondo’s wife, also means “smiling” and it is the enigmatic smile of the woman that has sparked many theories.
For example, that the young woman represented is none other than one of the favorites of Giuliano de Medici, sovereign of the Florentine Republic. Or even that she was Leonardo da Vinci himself.
It seems that these theories have been refuted, attributing the face of the painting to Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, which we celebrate on the occasion of the anniversary of her death. Her tomb is located in the convent of Sant’Orsola in Florence, as revealed by the carbon 14 tests on the bone remains coeval to the burial of today’ protagonist.
Why is La Gioconda in Paris?
The work was begun in 1506 and we know that Leonardo da Vinci actually worked on the painting for several years. For this reason La Gioconda is not with the commissioner of the work, because its creator took too long and therefore remains a sort of style exercise on which Leonardo would work for at least another ten years.
When Leonardo da Vinci arrived in France at the court of Francis I in 1516, the artist took the canvas with him and continued to take it back and forth. The king fell under the spell of the Mona Lisa’s smile and bought the painting which entered the royal collection in 1518.
That is why it is located in France and not in Italy. Until 1911, when the painting was stolen from the Louvre. For three years the work was not found, before finally being discovered in Italy in 1913.
The culprit was an Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia, a craftsman employed at the Louvre. His act was aimed at returning the job to his native country. Hiding in a museum closet at night, he steals the painting. Even Picasso and Apollinaire are suspected, praising the destruction of the works of the past. The funny thing is that the painting hung in Peruggia’s kitchen for two years, then found by an antique dealer to whom the thief tried to sell it.
La Gioconda is one of the most famous icons in the history of art. The image of her has been used by other artists in a symbolic way. If we think of the figurative arts we rememberthe Dadaist Marcel Duchamp who chose the Mona Lisa as the target of his provocations, adding the mustache to a reproduction of the painting and ironically titling it L.H.O.O.Q., that pronounced in French can also sound like Elle a chaud au cul which translated means “She’s hot in the ass”, or “she’s excited”.
Botero repainted it in a chubby version while Basquiat made it an icon with a biting smile. In both cases we could not expect anything else. And how to forget Andy Warhol , who reproduced the painting in series, as a poster, while the more contemporary Banksy made a mujahideen version, with rocket launchers on his shoulder. Banksy actually has a lot in common with Lisa del Giocondo. If for the latter her identity has been revealed after centuries, who knows when we will find out who Banksy really is?
Numerous uses and citations of the icon-symbol in the world of literature (think of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code), music, television and advertising. In 1950 Elvis dedicates Mona Lisa to our protagonist today while a few years later in Italy the singer-songwriter Ivan Graziani was inspired by the historical theft of 1911 for the song Mona Lisa, imagining a maniac who closes himself in the museum and begins to deface the work. And where do Litfiba stand?
It does not matter that more than 500 years have passed since its creation, La Gioconda still exercises a unique power of attraction today and it is impossible not to be fascinated, intrigued or bewildered when you meet her gaze.