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.
Vasari’s ‘Monna Lisa’ certainly existed. She was Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, born in Florence on 15 June 1479. She married Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo in 1495, at the age of 16; he was a well-to-do businessman in his mid-thirties, already twice widowed. By 1503, the presumed earliest date for the portrait, she had borne two sons, and a daughter who had died in infancy. But is Vasari right that this otherwise obscure 24-year-old Florentine housewife is the woman whose portrait now hangs in the Louvre? No mention is made of her in other early sources; in fact some of them implicitly argue against her. The painter Gianpaolo Lomazzo, for instance, who knew Leonardo’s executor Francesco Melzi, described the woman in the picture as a Neapolitan. (Lomazzo elsewhere throws a spanner in the works by describing La Gioconda and Monna Lisa as two distinct works: this is by no means impossible.) Another old tradition, that the Gioconda was a ‘courtesan’, does not tally at all with the historical Lisa. This idea was current in the mid-17th century, when Father Pierre Dan felt compelled to clear her name: she was, he insisted, ‘a virtuous Florentine lady, and not as some have said a courtesan’.
Two scraps of documentation exist for the painting prior to Vasari’s account. The first mention of it is by Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, whose diary records their visit to Leonardo’s studio in France in August 1517. There the ageing maestro showed them three paintings: two of these, the enigmatic St John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with St Anne, are now in the Louvre; the third, which is almost certainly the Mona Lisa, was described by de Beatis (and, it is implied, by Leonardo himself) as the portrait of ‘a certain Florentine lady, done from life at the instigation of the late Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici’. This has led to the dating controversy mentioned above, and to other candidates for the famous face. There is Giuliano’s mistress, a young widow named Pacifica Brandino, who bore him a child in 1511 – the funereal black veil which covers the Mona Lisa’s hair might allude to her widowhood. And there is the beautiful Isabella Gualanda, who was in Rome at the right sort of time; who is mentioned suggestively in de Beatis’s diary on the day after his visit to Leonardo; and who turns out to be a cousin of Cecilia Gallerani, whose portrait Leonardo had painted (the Lady with an Ermine) in Milan in the late 1480s. Either of these women might plausibly have been painted at Giuliano’s ‘instigation’, and the resulting portrait might have remained in Leonardo’s hands when Giuliano became a married man, as he did in early 1515. However, neither of them was from Florence, which is required by de Beatis’s diary entry (though Isabella Gualanda does fulfil Lomazzo’s criterion by being Neapolitan). These trails tend to double back on themselves, and the rival claimants start to look pretty thin. As Sassoon drily observes, it is mainly the ‘paucity of evidence’ which ‘keeps the experts divided’.
The other early document, unearthed in the Milanese archives about ten years ago by Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi, seems to strengthen the case for Vasari’s Lisa. It is an inventory of the possessions of Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as ‘Salaì’ (or Little Devil), who was Leonardo’s pupil and companion for nearly thirty years. This document, occasioned by Salaì’s sudden death in January 1524, lists a number of paintings. Some of these have titles corresponding to known works by Leonardo, and the high values assigned to them suggest they were thought of as originals rather than copies. Among these is ‘a painting called La Joconda’, priced at 505 lire. Whether this is the original or a copy, it shows that the painting was known as La Gioconda some years earlier than Vasari’s identification of its subject as Lisa del Giocondo. This strengthens Vasari’s case but does not prove it: he may be erroneously elaborating what was actually a descriptive title. (A small documentary curiosity which has not been commented on: in the original imbreviatura listing Salaì’s goods, the painting is not in fact referred to as ‘La Joconda’, but as ‘La Honda’. Discarding the supernumerary Latin ‘h’, one arrives at the curious idea that the clerk who wrote this list thought the painting was called La Onda, or ‘The Wave’. In a strictly chronological sense this is the painting’s first known title.)
There are many other identifications. One line of argument is that the Mona Lisa began life as a portrait of the rich and capricious Isabella d’Este. Leonardo’s black chalk drawing of her, probably done in Mantua in 1500, has something of the pose, and (if you turned her face from the profile) something of the look of the Mona Lisa. For Freud the famous half-smile was a recovered memory of Leonardo’s mother; for others the painting is an idealised portrait representing no one in particular, or it is a depiction of Chastity. All in all, it may be best to follow the example of Martin Kemp, whose 1981 study of the artist laconically captioned the painting Portrait of a Lady on a Balcony – though even this will not satisfy those denizens of the Mona Lisa websites and news groups who believe that she is really a man, and perhaps even Leonardo himself in drag.
No doubt the mysteries of her identity are an essential part of the appeal. The various solutions are self-cancelling: in a sense she has less identity now than she did a hundred years ago, when everyone cheerfully accepted the Vasari version. The face in the portrait is ‘indeterminate’, Sassoon observes, and so becomes a ‘terrain for infinite variations’. It is these variations which are the true subject of his book. He canters entertainingly through the painting’s early years, but his main concern is with its transformation into a global cultural icon. An element in this was essentially a historical accident: the fact that the painting came to France with Leonardo in 1516, rather than staying in Italy, and that it ended up in the Louvre as a result. Why did gorgeous Leonardo ladies like Cecilia Gallerani and Ginevra de’ Benci (both seemingly sexier than the sallow, broad-browed Gioconda) not catch the collective imagination as she did? One answer is that during the 19th century – the key period in her route to celebrity, according to Sassoon – the Gioconda was drawing the crowds in Paris, while Cecilia and Ginevra were languishing in private collections in Krakow and Liechtenstein.
The myth of the Mona Lisa was born out of 19th-century Northern Europe’s fascination with the Italian Renaissance in general, and Leonardo in particular. It was also, Sassoon shows, intimately bound up with the morbid Romantic fantasy of the femme fatale: that idea of an ensnaring, exotic, decadent belle dame sans merci which so exercised the contemporary male imagination. An important figure in the Gioconda’s elevation to fatal status was the novelist, art critic and hashish-smoker Théophile Gautier. For him she was ‘this sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously’; her ‘divinely ironic’ gaze intimates ‘unknown pleasures’; she ‘seems to pose a yet unsolved riddle to the admiring centuries’ and so on. As Sassoon hardly needs to add, Gautier was projecting onto the painting ‘images and fantasies haunting his own psyche’. In a telling aside during one of his rhapsodies, he remarks: ‘she makes you feel like a schoolboy before a duchess.’ Another who quaked in her presence was Jules Michelet. The author of an immensely long official history of France, he, too, was drawn into this demi-monde of Gioconda worship. Looking at her, he wrote, ‘you are fascinated and troubled as if by a strange magnetism’; she ‘attracts me, revolts me, consumes me; I go to her in spite of myself, as the bird to the snake.’ Similarly, in the Goncourt brothers’ journal for 1860, a famous beauty of the day is described as ‘like a 16th-century courtesan’, who wears ‘the smile full of night of the Gioconda’. Thus the Mona Lisa was co-opted into this chorus line of dangerous beauties, alongside Zola’s Nana, Wedekind’s Lulu, and Baudelaire’s Creole belle, Jeanne Duval.
The famous paragraph by Walter Pater, first published in the November 1869 issue of the Fortnightly Review, was certainly influenced by this extended bout of Gallic swooning. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 (1936), Yeats paid Pater’s flagrantly purple prose the compliment of chopping it up into free verse, in which form it sits more happily:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
Like the vampire,
She has been dead many times,
And learned the secrets of the grave;
And has been a diver in the deep seas,
And keeps their fallen day about her . . .
Oscar Wilde (‘The Critic as Artist’, 1891) comments perceptively on this seductive Pateresque blarney – ‘the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is, and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing’ – but the idea of the Mona Lisa’s ‘secret’ continued to reverberate. In Forster’s A Room with a View (1907), Lucy Honeychurch’s sojourn in Tuscany gives her a touch of the Gioconda mystery: ‘he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci’s, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things she will not tell us.’ Others reacted more sceptically, as in Somerset Maugham’s story, ‘Christmas Holiday’, where a quartet of art-lovers ‘with reverence gazed at the insipid smile of that prim and sex-starved young woman’. Iconoclastic young critics like Roberto Longhi poured scorn on the painting, and even Bernard Berenson – though hardly daring to question ‘a shaman so potent’ as Pater – confessed to his covert dislike of this revered work: ‘she had simply become an incubus.’ When T. S. Eliot called Hamlet ‘the Mona Lisa of literature’ he meant it in a negative sense: that the play was no longer seen for what it was, but had become, like the painting, a receptacle for subjective interpretations and second-rate theories.
The other life-changing event in the career of the Mona Lisa was her abduction from the Louvre on the morning of Monday, 21 August 1911. The thief was a 30-year-old Italian painter-decorator and petty criminal, Vincenzo Peruggia. Born in the village of Dumenza, near Lake Como, he had been in Paris since 1908, one of thousands of Italian immigrants in the city: ‘les macaroni’, as the French dubbed them. He had worked briefly at the Louvre, which was why he was able to get into the building unchallenged – and out again, carrying the Mona Lisa stuffed under his workman’s smock. A police hunt ensued, but despite his criminal record, and despite having left a large thumb-print on the frame, Peruggia’s name never came up. Among those suspected of involvement were Picasso and Apollinaire; the latter was imprisoned briefly, and wrote a poem about it. Peruggia kept the painting in his lodgings, hidden under a stove, for more than two years. Then, in late November 1913, he sent a letter to an antique-dealer in Florence, Alfredo Geri, offering to ‘return’ the Mona Lisa to Italy. He demanded 500,000 lire. The letter was signed: ‘Leonardo Vincenzo’, with a PO box number in the place de la République in Paris. On 12 December, Peruggia arrived in Florence, by train, with the Mona Lisa in a wooden trunk, ‘a sort of seaman’s locker’; he checked into a low-rent hotel, the Albergo Tripoli-Italia on via Panzani (still in business, though now called – what else? – the Hotel La Gioconda). Here, in the presence of Alfredo Geri and Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi, Peruggia opened the trunk, revealing some old shoes and woollen underclothes, and – as Geri relates – ‘after taking out these not very appetising objects’ he ‘lifted up the false bottom of the trunk, under which we saw the picture . . . We were filled with a strong emotion. Vincenzo looked at us with a kind of fixed stare, smiling complacently, as if he had painted it himself.’ He was arrested later that day. Efforts were made to turn Peruggia into a cultural hero – Gabriele d’Annunzio was as vocal as usual – but at his trial he proved a disappointment. He said he had first intended to steal Mantegna’s Mars and Venus, but had decided on the Mona Lisa instead because it was smaller. He was imprisoned for 12 months; he died in 1947.
The theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa were, in Sassoon’s view, the clinching of her international celebrity. Both unleashed a swarm of newspaper features, commemorative postcards, cartoons, ballads, cabaret-revues and comic silent films. These are the heralds of the painting’s modern existence as global pop-icon. Marcel Duchamp’s defaced Gioconda of 1919, saucily entitled L.H.O.O.Q. (i.e. ‘Elle a chaud au cul’, or ‘she’s hot in the arse’) is the most famous of the send-ups, though it is predated by more than twenty years by the pipe-smoking Mona Lisa, drawn by the illustrator Sapeck (Eugène Bataille). And so the way is open for the endless versions: for Warhol’s multiple Gioconda (Thirty Are Better than One); for Terry Gilliam’s animated Gioconda in the Monty Python title sequence; for William Gibson’s ‘sprawl novel’ Mona Lisa Overdrive; for the classic citations in Cole Porter’s ‘You’re the Top’, Nat ‘King’ Cole’s ‘Mona Lisa’ and Bob Dylan’s ‘Visions of Johanna’; for the spliff-smoking poster and the novelty mouse-pad. Personally I suspect that I first became aware of the Mona Lisa through the Jimmy Clanton hit of c.1960, which began: ‘She’s Venus in blue jeans,/Mona Lisa with a pony tail.’ This allusion seems to have escaped the net of Sassoon’s compendious research, though its wonderful bubblegum blandness illustrates well enough the fate that has befallen this mysterious and beautiful painting.