Venus in Blue Jeans

Charles Nicholl

  • Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting by Donald Sassoon
    HarperCollins, 350 pp, £16.99, September 2001, ISBN 0 00 710614 9

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa may be ‘the world’s most famous painting’ but almost everything about it is obscure. We don’t know precisely when it was painted, we don’t know for certain who she is, and as we stare at her puzzling features for the umpteenth time we are inclined to ask ourselves: what is it about her? It is that question, in all its historical and cultural ramifications, which is addressed in Donald Sassoon’s elegant and comprehensive study of the Mona Lisa phenomenon.

‘She is older than the rocks among which she sits’, wrote the Victorian aesthete Walter Pater, poetically if not very gallantly. In more measured terms she is getting on for five hundred years old. The Louvre, where she has sat for the last two hundred or so, will be celebrating her quincentenary next year, though in doing so they are only guessing like the rest of us. According to a rather tenuous account of the painting in Vasari’s Lives of the Artists (1550), Leonardo began the portrait after his return to Florence from Milan at the beginning of the 16th century, and worked at it, off and on, for four years: this has been translated for convenience to a date of ‘c.1503-07’. Proponents of this date point to Raphael’s sketch for his portrait of Maddalena Doni, which incorporates some characteristic elements of the Mona Lisa, and which may suggest that Raphael had seen a preparatory sketch for the latter, or perhaps a full-scale cartoon, during his own visit to Florence in 1505. Against this, there is anecdotal evidence (earlier and in some ways more authoritative than Vasari) which links the painting to Giuliano de’ Medici, third son of Lorenzo il Magnifico. Leonardo’s known relationship with Giuliano belongs to the years 1513-15 (and to Rome rather than Florence). Given Leonardo’s circuitous working habits – his tendency, both personal and professional, to recycle a subject in various different versions – it is possible that both dates are broadly correct, and that the Mona Lisa is a cumulative portrait, begun around 1503 and completed, with a different face, more than ten years later. How it would have looked when he painted it is another unknown: her currently crepuscular aspect is the result of several centuries of protective varnish, tinged yellowish by oxidisation. As early as 1625, a viewer complained of the picture being ‘so damaged by a certain varnish that one cannot make it out very well’. This is another aspect of the picture’s obscurity – what the pro-restoration lobby would call its illegibility. She wears this veil of lacquer, with its thousands of tiny lesions or craquelures, and it will be a brave or foolhardy curator who dares remove the veil to see what lies beneath.

Though it now sounds indispensable, Mona Lisa was not used as a title for the painting until the 19th century. The source for the name is once again Vasari, who stated confidently that the woman in the picture was a certain Monna Lisa del Giocondo. (‘Mona’ or ‘monna’ is a form of address rather than a name: an abbreviation of madonna, literally translated as ‘my lady’ but as used in 16th-century Italy something more like ‘Mistress’ or ‘Mrs’.) To Italians the painting is and always has been La Gioconda (and to the French, La Joconde or Gioconde). This may be a reference to the same Lisa del Giocondo, but the title has a perfectly plausible existence without her. Giocondo is an adjective, meaning ‘jocund’, so this traditional name for the painting could have originated as a purely descriptive title – the witty or playful one, the joker-lady, perhaps even the tease.

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