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Renaissance Top 48: Mona Lisa


Leonardo Da Vinci, Mona Lisa, ca. 1503- 1505, oil on wood, 2'6 1/4'' x 1'9''. Louvre, Paris.



Leonardo's Mona Lisa is probably the world's most famous portrait. It was made in the High Renaissance period, specifically 1503-05, a time of renewed interest in perspectival systems, the human anatomy, and classical culture, all depicted in this work of art. Leonardo, along with Raphael, Michelangelo, and Titian, all define this time of rising in art and paint, in both technical and aesthitic manners. Artists during this time were given higher status, and successfully claimed their high positions by their fine works. 

The Mona Lisa is believed to a be a painting of a famous Florentine's wife, Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, which was probably requested by the husband for decoration of the home. However, it is also believed that Leonardo loved the painting so much that he carried it wherever he went until in France it was eventually sold to Francois I, either by Leonardo or one of his assistants. Little else is known about the historical context of the painting. 


The subject of the painting has been a topic of debate for many years, but Renaissance biographer Giorgio Vasari has asserted that she is Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine. "Mona Lisa" is another way of saying "Ma Donna" in Italian, or "My lady". She appears in half length view, with her hands folded quietly and softy as she sits on a chair, and her gaze focused on observers, engaging them psychologically. The reason viewers say that the Mona Lisa may look different at different times is because of the light and shadow Leonardo blurred at the corners of her eyes and mouth. This allowed for one form to blend into another, leaving a lot up to the imagination. This is also what makes that ambiguous smile so famous. It cannot be told whether she is truly happy, or if she is just being playful and teasing the viewer. Before being cropped, the painting also featured columns on either side of the subject, giving the impression that she was sitting in front of a loggia. The remnants of these can be seen on either side of the subject. The entire background of the Mona Lisa is a landscape. It consists of roads and bridges that lead to nowhere, and plays a huge part in the lingering appeal the Mona Lisa gives off. It is vast, mysterious, and uninhabited. It also seems to be more than just a background, but also an imposing presence within the picture, the expanse and curvature inidicating no mere scene but a portion of the globe itself. 



The painting is 2'6'' x 1'9''. What gives it the air of mystery is the blending of light against dark and the hazy quality that the blending gives the painting. Leonardo pioneered sfumato, the layering of thin translucent glazes in the manner of smoke without lines or borders. The lines in the painting are not clear cut and defined. The subject's outline almost blends right into the background of the portrait. When looked at closely, it can be seen that Leonardo blurred the outside edges of the portrait and gave a sharper focus to the middle, so the face of the subject would get more attention. Leonardo's color choice is also significant. It makes the atmosphere of the picture darker and somewhat more intimidating and mysterious. He chooses to use dark shades and blacks and browns, and contrasted with the Mona Lisa's light skin, gives her a soft glow and makes her stand out. The lighting in the picture is also made to soften the appearance of the subject. It gives the painting a faint illumination. It seems as if the Mona Lisa were a soft, glowing light emerging from the shadows. The smaller distance between the sitter and the viewer heightens the intensity of the visual impressions while the landscape suggests greater spatial depths and atmospheric intensity. 


Reams have been written about this small masterpiece by Leonardo, and the gentle woman who is its subject has been adapted in turn as an aesthetic, philosophical and advertising symbol, entering into irrelevant parodies in the modern world. It's main function that makes it notable though is it's convincing representation of an individual, rather than an icon of status. The ambiguity and haziness of the painting serves to disguise rather than reveal the human psyche, leaving a lot up to the viewer to determine what she may be thinking. Formally, the Mother of God was regarded as the ideal to which every honorable woman would aspire, and this reflected the formal parallels between depictions of her and portraits of women. Even the smile of the Mona Lisa is related to those of the Virgin. She also matches contemporary views on feminist charm; the beauty of a contented, modest female smile was a reflection of that woman's beauty, and also of her virtue. External beauty was an embellishment of virtue in those days, and Mona Lisa was a new ideal to aspire to.