Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa has long been the subject of speculation regarding both the lady's identity and the meaning of her enigmatic smile. Dan Brown plays on this mystery in The Da Vinci Code, where the main characters point out symbols of the sacred feminine in the portrait.
Mona Lisa Facts and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code
Da Vinci Code Claim 1: The Mona Lisa has been stolen twice, most recently in 1911 - it was found 2 years later in a trunk in Florence. There was weeping in the streets.
Reality: Mostly true. The Mona Lisa was indeed stolen in 1911. A major investigation was launched and there was a major public outcry. However, many also had fun with it: and cartoons and silly songs were written about the theft. The painting was found in a trunk in Florence, when the thief tried to sell it. It had been hidden in Paris until then. I have found no evidence for the previous theft that Brown mentions.
Da Vinci Code Claim 2: Leonardo considered the Mona Lisa his best work and carried it with him everywhere he went.
Reality: Probably. We do know he did not give it to the person who commissioned it, and it was one of three paintings Leonardo had with him in France.
Da Vinci Code Claim 3: "Mona Lisa" is an anagram of Amon L'Isa - a combination of the Egyptian god and goddess of fertility - which is a clue to its symbolic meaning.
Reality: False. This cannot be so, since "Mona Lisa" both post-dates Leonardo and is used mainly by English speakers. Moreover, all names post-date Leonardo and we do not know what Leonardo named the portrait.
Da Vinci Code Claim 4: The Mona Lisa is a symbol of the sacred feminine and the balance between the sexes.
Reality: Highly unlikely. There is no evidence for this.
Documents and Historical Evidence
In the 16th century, historian Giorgio Vasari described a portrait of a lady named madonna (my lady) Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. It has been generally assumed that he was referring to Leonardo's portrait, and the portrait's names are based on this assumption. Thus English-speakers call it the Mona Lisa; Italians call the painting La Gioconda; French-speakers call it La Joconde.
But there are reasons to doubt that Vasari was referring to the portrait we know as the Mona Lisa. First, he never saw the painting himself so his description may not be entirely accurate. Second, some details don't match: Vasari described eyebrows with "hair that grows thickly in one place" and "parting lips." Our Mona Lisa has no eyebrows and her mouth is closed.
The only other contemporary description is by a secretary of Cardinal Louis of Aragon, who visited Leonardo in Amboise. Leonardo showed the secretary three pictures the artist had brought with him to France, including "one of a certain Florentine lady, done from life."
Writer Lynn Picknett, a major source for Dan Brown, states that Leonardo kept the Mona Lisa "with him until his dying day." (Mary Magdalene, 2003). But other than the fact he had it with him in France when he met with a cardinal's secretary, I have not been able to find any evidence for this.
The Mona Lisa next turned up in the bathroom of the Palace of Fontainebleau, which Henri IV restored in the 1590s. For centuries, the Mona Lisa was mostly neglected by the public and the art world, and her early days in the Louvre were spent in the curator's office.
The Mona Lisa owes her modern fame to the 1830s Romantic poet and novelist Théophile Gautier, who penned these admiring words:
her] sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners in a violet penumbra, mocks the viewer with such sweetness, grace and superiority that we feel timid, like schoolboys in the presence of a duchess.
It was also in the mid-19th century that artists of the emerging Symbolist movement began to appreciate the Mona Lisa and associate it with feminine mystique. Critic Walter Pater, in his 1867 essay on Leonardo, described the lady of the painting as a kind of mythic embodiment of eternal femininity, who is "older than the rocks among which she sits" and who "has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave."
The portrait's fame continued to grow and was further heightened by the theft of the painting in 1911. Swiped by an Italian security guard, the Mona Lisa was recovered in December 1913 when the thief attempted to sell it in Florence. It was wrapped in a red cloth in a trunk, among his "wretched belongings."
Secondary Sources and Experts The Encyclopedia Britannica's article on Leonardo da Vinci says this about the Mona Lisa:
The Mona Lisa set the standard for all future portraits. The painting presents a woman believed to have been the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a prominent figure in Florentine government—hence, the alternative title to the work, “La Gioconda.” The portrait presents the subject from just above the bust, with a distant landscape visible as a backdrop.
Although utilizing a seemingly simple formula for portraiture, the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and landscape has placed this work in the canon of the most popular and most analyzed paintings of all time. The sensuous curves of the woman's hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating valleys and rivers behind her.
The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting—especially apparent in the sitter's faint smile—reflects Leonardo's idea of the cosmic link connecting humanity and nature, making this painting an enduring record of Leonardo's vision and genius. The young Raphael sketched the work in progress, and it served as a model for his Portrait of Maddalena Doni (c. 1506).
- The Louvre Museum - "Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo" - details and images
- PBS Treasures of the World - "Theft of the Mona Lisa" - lots of interesting information and historical photos
- The Mona Lisa on the Web - large collection of web resources and images
- Mona Lisa Mania - site dedicated to the Mona Lisa