Leonardo – Mona Lisa’s secrets

Hi everyone and welcome back to Exploring Art with Alessandro. and today we are going to understand why Mona Lisa is so famous and is considered one of the greatest masterpieces in the whole art history.

Not only: I am going to show you that even what we thought we knew, like her name and identity, it’s probably not so obvious .

We’ll analyze the painting in each part focusing the attention on details that are not real details, but fundamental features, untangling them to show you how every single particular is consequence of the mind of the greatest genius ever : Leonardo da Vinci.

Yes, because to understand Mona Lisa we need to try to understand Leonardo since this is not a normal portrait, but the greatest psychological portrait ever painted. And that’s why our feelings in front of it are always so blurred and weird.

Leonardo – Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa - Leonardo da Vinci
ARTIST: Leonardo da Vinci
NAME Mona Lisa
LOCATION Louvre Museum, Paris
YEAR 1503–1507 (perhaps until 1517)
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 77 × 53 cm (30 × 21 in)
MATERIAL Oil on panel

The first surprises Leonardo – Mona Lisa

The first surprise is that the painting is kind of small , so when you reach the big hall inside the Louvre Museum you can feel a bit disappointed realizing how isolated is the portrait on the wall. But, as soon as you walk toward Mona Lisa, the magic happens since you start to forget the crowd around you and you get captured by her eyes that make you feel alone with her and your feelings.

However, we still need to remember that we are in front of an object. I don’t want to sound disrespectful, but it’s still the creation of a man, yes, a genius, but something inanimate, not a real human. And this object is not a canvas, but a piece of wood . Not even a fancy wood since it is just a poplar panel painted, however, with a new technique for Italian Renaissance: the oil.

The oil paintings in fact began to become more popular just at the end of 1400 and Mona Lisa was probably started around 1503 and 1506. So, she is old and, like us, even Mona Lisa has some wrinkles : 500,000 to be precise. Not bad if we consider she is more than 500 years old. Beside the joke, the surface is still in good conditions, except in a couple of points. In particular here in the elbow where a madman threw a stone in 1956.

Mona Lisa - face detail
Mona Lisa - face detail

Who was Mona Lisa…?

Now that we know more about the “object”, it was something necessary to have some details that are going to be useful soon, now we can talk about the person. Who was Mona Lisa and so why we call her also Gioconda?

Her identity is reported by the great Italian Renaissance artist, writer and historian Giorgio Vasari who wrote one of the most important art-historical books: Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects on which he says: “Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife.”

Vasari wrote these words in 1568, 50 years after the painting has been completed and reached France with Leonardo himself in 1516.

That means that, probably, Vasari never saw the painting, but he describes it very accurately thanks to the information he was able to get in Florence. And he also wrote an important episode : since Mona Lisa was beautiful, Leonardo wanted to have comic entertainers in the room to make her smile. Looking at the result they were not so good since she looks more melancholy than happy.

Now pay attention because what I have just reported is not a silly detail, but a first important clue .

The mysterious woman Leonardo – Mona Lisa

Like I said, Vasari described Mona Lisa in any detail, even saying how eyelashes and eyebrows were so well painted to look real. However, looking at the painting, we cannot see any eyelashes and eyebrows . And there is more. Francesco del Giocondo, the man who commissioned the portrait, was a rich merchant with a questionable reputation since he was also a usurer. Could a superstar like Leonardo da Vinci accept to work for him? Plus, there is no evidence of a contract, a receipt or payment between the two or even any track of the painting in Francesco’s will when he died. Maybe it got lost, destroyed…? It is still a mystery.

Moreover, going back to Francesco del Giocondo’s wife: her name was Lisa Gherardini and that’s why Mona Lisa or Madonna Lisa (in Italian it means Ma’am, Madam). And Vasari said that, at the time of the portrait in 1503, she was 24. Does she look so young to you?

So, there are still many doubts about her real identity. However, let’s move now to read the painting. And this time I want to start in a different way: with the background.

Mona Lisa - Leonardo da Vinci

The painting – Background

We can see a landscape created using aerial perspective with mountains, a river, and just two pieces of evidence of the human presence: a road and a bridge. Some experts say that Leonardo was inspired by natural landscape in Northern Italy, others Tuscany, another theory is that he invented it.

In particular, if we look at the weird mountains in background, some “experts” suggest that the landscape is consequence of Leonardo’s creativity that makes the scene a bit surreal.

Well, that makes me a bit mad because in other videos you can hear this theory. However, if these “experts” research more among valid resources they would know that the landscape was a collage of places that Leonardo knew very well . For example, the mountains are real and they are visible in Tuscany, in Valdarno region.

Valdarno - Tuscany -Mona Lisa mountains
Valdarno - Tuscany

Even the bridge was inspired by one of the old Tuscan bridges . So, we are talking about locations nearby Leonardo’s birthplace in Vinci, Florence. And it makes me mad because we are looking at a masterpiece on which the greatest genius ever put all himself, who he was as human and his memories: a heritage of a great artist and man. Leonardo – Mona Lisa

Ponte Buriano Arezzo - Tuscany

Leonardo’s tricks – part 1

And we can tell that Leonardo was a genius because he applied a smoky blue aerial perspective that gives the idea of real depth amplified by a not clearly defined vanishing point. Plus, even the imbalance between the (higher) rocky horizon to the right, compared to the (lower) flatlands stretching away on the left, adds a slightly surreal atmosphere to the picture. And, at the same time, it creates also a sense of movement since we don’t have a real straight horizon.

The fading blue landscape has also another purpose: make the face even more visible . In fact, if you look carefully: our attention is always pulled to Mona Lisa’s face. How Leonardo was able to do that?

He did it applying the classical pyramid structure , well-known since antiquity, but that, thanks to Humanists, Renaissance artists discovered and adopted once again. As you can see, with the pyramid structure, the focus is pushed from the bottom to the top.

And that is even more amplified thanks to the smart combination of another trick: the use of a gradient color in background. There is a very dark brown on the bottom, that gets lighter in the middle and, in this transition zone, the light brown fades into a yellow/greenish color that is a perfect connection to the light blue of the top that, not by chance, is a sort of border lane from which the neck and head of Mona Lisa start.

Leonardo’s tricks – part 2

Mona Lisa is sitting on a chair in a three-quarter position and, of course, that’s not casual. The idea is to give a three-dimensional volume to the figure, making the scene look real and, at the same time, giving a sense of movement.

Movement is one of the biggest challenges in a painting, in particular on a portrait. But Leonardo was a genius so he used the landscape to reach that purpose. He did, like I said before, thanks to a not straight horizon, but also using the sinuosity of the road on the left and the river on the right that seem to match the soft folds of Mona Lisa’s clothes.

Clothes that are apparently not super fancy. They are quite simple and plain. Be careful: they are not poor. And we can tell that because of the quality of the lace and even the thin veil she is wearing (probably really expensive back then). They are just not flashy. But look how Leonardo painted every single fold in a perfect realistic way, playing with the shades. In particular on the velvet of the forearms that is lighter to create another balanced transition zone between the dark dress and the hands .

Like this, even this lower section is perfectly balanced and coherent with the softness of the hands. Hands that are often not considered enough, but they are really important because they show a relaxed Mona Lisa. They are elegant even if a bit chubby and the skin seems really soft. During Renaissance, their position seems to have been a symbol of loyalty.

Mona Lisa’s uniqueness

Mona Lisa is not wearing jewelry and this is a big contrast with what we usually expect from a portrait on which the protagonists often wear their best clothes to show off their status and power. Here instead it seems that Mona Lisa is depicted more like other type of portraits: the religious ones. Where, for example, the Madonna is painted in simple clothes and without accessories.

It seems Leonardo wanted to put Mona Lisa in the middle between the two genres. So, not a religious figure for sure, but not even as a usual portrait subject since the focus has to be on the person more than the clothes and jewelry.

Leonardo’s tricks – Mona Lisa’s face

Everything was painted with one purpose: pulling the attention on her face. And it’s here where we can see all Leonardo’s genius. Since there are two main questions that we are always trying to answer to: “is she looking at the viewer”? And “is she smiling or not”?

The more we try to understand it, the more we are confused right? Well let me explain to you why and so we’ll have the answers.

First of all, it’s fundamental to say that Leonardo was a great observer and he studied human bodies, and faces of course, his whole life. And he used to take notes of that in his amazing drawings that are still considered artistic and scientific masterpieces as well (by the way, he risked many times to get in trouble for some of those, but we’ll see that in another post).

This great knowledge allowed him to paint different human expressions playing with the eyes, nose, mouth… to reach the feeling he wanted to communicate.

What he did on Mona Lisa’s face was to mess up with her features to create confusion in the viewer. Of course, he did it on purpose and he did it using a technique called “sfumato” meaning “smoky”.

We can define sfumato using Leonardo’s words: “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane”. It is a painting technique for softening the transition between colors avoiding any use of lines and that creates trouble to our eye that struggles to focus on specific points or details. The technique is obtained blending colors to be sure that there is no evident contrast between them, adding layers and layers of oil colors. As you can imagine, this is easy to describe, but really difficult to do since Leonardo had to paint without leaving visible brush strokes. And he continued to add layers for years.

Thanks to this technique, Leonardo, who is considered the most prominent practitioner of sfumato, has been able to simulate also the air thickness, giving to the landscapes a real depth of field. He reached those results after years of research in optics and human vision and in Mona Lisa he applied all his knowledge.

Her charm secrets

He used sfumato also to paint her brown eyes with the consequence that there is not a real point on which we can focus and that’s why we don’t understand if she is looking at us, even if we move, or she is not at all.

The same technique has been adopted for the main other feature that would help us to understand Mona Lisa’s facial expression: the mouth. If you look carefully, the lips are almost the same color of the skin and they are defined just by an awesome use of shades. Even here there are no lines, but an intense use of sfumato to blend the different colors.

Let me show you with a little visual experiment. Even isolating her mouth it’s hard to say if she is smiling or not, right? Same for the eyes. In the everyday life we can identity a human expression easily by looking at even just one of the two.

Mona Lisa - eyes detail isolated
Mona Lisa - mouth detail isolated

Conclusion Leonardo – Mona Lisa

Because of the sfumato, on Mona Lisa that’s not possible and, if we look at her face all together, this effect is even more amplified and we are totally confused.

All of this is combined to a great use of light and shadows that creates a soft chiaroscuro effect (another great technique that I suggest you to discover in my other videos and website) that helps to give volume to the face without compromising the sfumato.

To answer our two questions: “is she looking at the viewer?” and “is she smiling or not?” it seems that the answer is more on the feeling we have at the moment we are looking at her, than on the logic. And I want also that you consider a couple of things: when I started to talk about the painting I was trying to describe it as what it is, so a painting, an “object”. But, the more I was describing it, the more I moved to a human dimension. Talking about “her”, Mona Lisa, instead of “it”. Even if, apparently, her real identity is still a mystery.

And the more I was talking about her, the more we were learning and understanding Leonardo because this is a great heritage that a genius, a great artist and a great man left to us.

Watch the video, so you can enjoy the graphic effects. And the surprises are not over because in the next episodes we will continue our journey in art, so subscribe to my channel if you haven’t done it yet and check my Patreon to support this project.

Thanks! Ciao Leonardo – Mona Lisa

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