The Mona Lisa Mystery: Who is Mona Lisa, and Why is It the World’s Most Famous Painting?


The Art Heist

On 21st August 1911, it was a Monday morning in the French capital, Paris. It was quite bustling. People were going to work in their offices when suddenly, three men came out of the Louvre museum. The three had spent the previous night in the museum. And now, they were carrying an important property of the Louvre Museum. that was hidden in a blanket while they tried to escape. They went to a nearby railway station and caught the train at 8.45 in the morning and disappeared. The whole world was unaware of the fact that they had stolen a painting. Not an insignificant painting. The world’s most famous painting. The Mona Lisa. Today, the value of this painting is close to $1 billion. What is the reason behind this? What are the secrets hidden in the Mona Lisa? Why is this the most famous painting in the world? Let’s understand the mystery of the Mona Lisa.

The Origin of the Enigma

Mona Lisa was painted in 1503 by an Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. And this man was so amazing, that you won’t even believe it. Not only was he a painter, but also an engineer, scientist, sculptor, architect, and theorist. He had knowledge of so many subjects be it painting, cartography, astronomy, anatomy, botany, hydrology, geology, optics, or even palaeontology.

Leonardo da Vinci’s Masterpiece: Unraveling the Secrets of the Mona Lisa

 let’s get to Mona Lisa. Which was his most famous painting. But who was this person in the painting? People have always been curious about the identity of the woman in the painting. The first revelation about this was made by an Italian artist named Giorgio Vasari, who wrote the autobiography of Leonardo da Vinci in 1550. According to Vasari, this woman was Lisa Gherardini. She was married to a silk trader who lived in Florence, Francesco Giocondo. He believed that Francesco had commissioned this painting of his wife and that’s the origin of the names of this painting. The first name that we all know, Mona Lisa, derived from Madonna Lisa. Traditionally, in Italian, the word Madonna was used to mean Madam. So, Madonna Lisa meant Madam Lisa. The word Madonna was later shortened to Monna. Monna with a double N. When this was written in English an N was dropped and Monna became Mona. So Mona Lisa means Madam Lisa or Lady Lisa. And then comes Mona Lisa’s other name which is La Gioconda. After her marriage, Lisa Gherardini became Lisa Giocondo. Interestingly, in Italian, Giocondo means light-hearted or cheerful. Meaning, bright and joyful. And today, Mona Lisa is very famous for her smile. So that’s where it got its name, La Giocondo. In French, the word Giocondo is written with a J, like this, Joconde. So that’s why when you go to the Louvre Museum in Paris and see the painting of Mona Lisa, in French, it would be identified as La Joconde.

From Italy to France: The Odyssey of the Mona Lisa

 Now, the interesting thing is that in 1550, despite this revelation, people were not ready to believe that Vasari’s narrative was correct. Many theories started to emerge about this woman being someone else. Some people said that she was Leonardo da Vinci’s mother. Some said that this was a painting of a queen from the Italian aristocracy. The most interesting theory was that in this painting, da Vinci painted himself. That this painting is not of a woman. but in fact a self-portrait of Da Vinci. Where he imagined how he would have looked had he been a woman. This theory was promoted by artist Lilian Schwartz in an article in 1987. She used digital tools to try to show similarities between Leonardo Da Vinci’s face and Mona Lisa’s image. With this logic, any two faces can be seen as similar by placing them on top of each other. But today, we can say with a lot of certainty that the woman painted here is indeed Lisa Giocondo. A professor living in Florence researched this for 25 years and found the archives and in 2004, he discovered clear evidence to prove this fact. He also found that the da Vinci family had a close relationship with Francesco Giocondo’s family. He also found a record that Lisa’s marriage was registered on 5th March 1495 when Lisa was 16 years old and Francesco was around 30 years old. He found that Leonardo da Vinci’s father and Lisa’s husband knew each other very well. And it’s possible that this painting was commissioned not by Lisa’s husband, but by Leonardo’s father. Pallanti says that when the Mona Lisa was painted, Lisa was 24 years old. And that there might have been two reasons for painting this. The first reason is that in 1503, when Francesco and Lisa bought their home, or the second reason is that in December 1502, when their second son was born. The second reason seems more probable because three years before this, in 1499, Lisa lost her daughter.

The Making of an Icon: Understanding the Unique Features of the Mona Lisa

 If you look at this painting closely, you will see a veil over Lisa’s hair. Many people call it a mourning veil. It is a veil that is worn when someone in the family has passed away. Now, one question arises here if Da Vinci was Italian, Mona Lisa was Italian, then why is this painting in France today? Well, the thing about this is that in the year 1516, the king of France, King Francis I, invited Leonardo da Vinci to live in France. And so, da Vinci moved from Italy to France. And took with him the Mona Lisa. Historical records aren’t clear about this, but it’s believed that da Vinci hadn’t completed the painting yet. 15 years after starting the painting, he was still working on this painting, trying to modify it and make it better. Meanwhile, in the year 1519, Leonardo da Vinci passed away during his stay in the French palace. And the king kept this painting as a part of his Royal Collection. About 150 years, in 1797, when the French Revolution happened, this painting was taken out of the palace and handed over to the Louvre Museum.

Why Mona lisa was stolen

 The interesting thing is that this is the reason why the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. The mastermind of this theft was Vincenzo Peruggia. He stole this painting together with his two friends. He was an Italian Nationalist. He believed that this painting belonged to Italy. Not in France. And so after stealing it, they took it to Italy. Stealing such a famous painting was a risky job especially when the value of the painting was in millions of dollars. let’s know the speciality of this painting. Why is it so special? First of all, the Mona Lisa was not painted on paper, canvas or cloth. Instead, it was painted on poplar wood. In those days, it was the favourite wood of Italian painters. Secondly, this painting isn’t large.  This is where it hangs in the museum. This painting is only 77 cm by 53 cm. But still, it is considered so special because, in its time, in Italy, this was the first painting which focused so closely on the person. This is a half-length portrait. These types of shots are very common in photography today. But no one used to make such paintings in those days. If you look at the overall colour grading of this painting, you will see a lot of brown and yellow shades. It looks like a very dull painting. It is so yellowish that at one point, a professor declared Lisa a cholesterol patient. But there are two reasons behind this. First, a varnish layer has been applied to this painting so that moisture does not affect the painting badly. It looks like a dull painting. It is so yellowish that once a professor had declared Lisa to be a patient with high cholesterol. But there are two reasons for this. First, there is a layer of varnish on top of this painting. So that there are no ill-effects of moisture on this painting, since it was painted on wood. So it’s necessary to protect it from humidity and moisture. And secondly, over time, there was bleaching. Originally, when this was painted, it used to be more bright and colourful. Some people tried to recreate this painting to see how it would have looked originally.

Deciphering Mona Lisa’s Smile: Leonardo da Vinci’s Artistic Mastery and Scientific Curiosity

Da Vinci used a very special painting style in this painting, known as Sfumato. The technique of blending. The background you see in this painting is a landscape. It is the Arno Valley in Italy. There are no clear boundaries or outlines between the background and Mona Lisa. In some places, Mona Lisa’s hair is blended with the landscape. Blurring the outlines and blending the colours is the technique of Sfumato. This is the secret behind Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile. Look at Mona Lisa’s smile carefully. The more you look at this smile, the more serious this face will look. But now look into Mona Lisa’s eyes. Suddenly, you will see Lisa smiling more. If you look at any part of the painting, be it the background, Mona Lisa’s forehead or her eyes, you will see the effect. Lisa’s face starts smiling more when you don’t focus on the smile. To perfect this smile, da Vinci spent the most time. He spent many nights in a hospital in Florence, where he used to go and remove the skin of dead bodies. He wanted to study the facial muscles and nerves and how they work together to create a smile. He wrote in his book that “the muscles which move the lips are more numerous in man than in any other animal.” It was very difficult for him to dissect the muscles of the lips because the muscles here are tiny and numerous. During this experiment, da Vinci studied horses as well. He compared human expressions to that of horses. In the notes, he wrote, “Notice whether the muscle that raises the nostrils of the horse is the same as that which lies here in man.” Hardly, throughout history, any other artist has dissected the faces of a horse and a human and done these experiments. His obsession with Mona Lisa’s smile didn’t end here. After this, he did research on optics as well. He found that the light rays don’t merge together into a single point on our eyes, rather they spread out over the entire retina. The centre of the retina, known as the Fovea, helps us see the finest details. On the other hand, the rest of the retina picks up shadows and black-and-white imagery more. Using this knowledge, he focused on the shadows in such a way that even when you see the Mona Lisa in your peripheral vision, as in, if you are looking this way and Mona Lisa is on the other side, even if you are not paying attention to Mona Lisa, the effect of her smile is still there. When you look at her smile closely, you will see that its central line is a flat line, is why when you look at her smile, it looks like she is not smiling at all. But on the other hand, the shadows created using the Sfumato technique, have such an effect that when you look elsewhere, your peripheral vision sees that smile and its shadows are reflected. And then you feel that Lisa is smiling.

A Tale of Two Paintings

How would it feel if I told you that the Mona Lisa is not one painting, rather two paintings. This is not a conspiracy theory, it’s the truth. Mona Lisa’s painting, as we know, a similar painting was created at the same time. The story of this second Mona Lisa began in the year 1504 when another legendary artist named Raphael made a rough sketch using pen and ink. This sketch looked something like this and if you compare it with the Mona Lisa in Louvre, you can see a huge difference. In this sketch by Raphael, you can see two columns behind Mona Lisa. Here, the researchers believed that Raphael must have made his drawing based on the Mona Lisa painting. So, it was initially brushed off. But this theory was disproved by a German art historian in 1993. And Professor Pallanti, whom I had mentioned earlier, who had been researching the identity of the Mona Lisa for 25 years, confirmed that Raphael actually lived right in front of the Giocondo family in Florence. So, does this mean that Raphael made an original painting on the same subject, with the same woman in the same pose? This seems quite unbelievable. Another answer to this question could be that another Mona Lisa painting exists which inspired Raphael to make this drawing. And this second Mona Lisa painting was revealed to the world in 1914. A novelist living near London, John R. Eyer, had a new version of the Mona Lisa. This is the new Mona Lisa painting. The same painting based on which Raphael made his drawing. This second Mona Lisa is 3.5 inches longer and 5 inches wider than the one in the Louvre. If you compare these two paintings, you will notice three things. First, the woman in this new Mona Lisa looks much younger. Second, the head in this new painting is tilted a little forward. And third, the expressions of this new Mona Lisa are very straightforward and clear. There is nothing mysterious about her smile that is in the Mona Lisa in Louvre. The two columns in the background are the ones seen in Raphael’s drawing. Due to these reasons, a new theory is coined by the experts. That Leonardo da Vinci was actually working on two Mona Lisas. Leonardo da Vinci painted both these Mona Lisa. But the Isleworth Mona Lisa that was later discovered was the first version of da Vinci’s painting. He was experimenting with his style then. And this is why the Mona Lisa in that painting looks younger than the other Mona Lisa. This theory remains a topic of debate to date. In 2010, the Mona Lisa Foundation started an investigation on the Isleworth Mona Lisa to find out the secret behind it. And they came up with another theory. They said that the face and hands of this new Mona Lisa were indeed painted by da Vinci. But the background was painted by an inferior artist. Perhaps, a person working in Leonardo’s workshop had finished this painting. Both these theories remain mere theories because no solid evidence has been found on either side. Coming back to the theft of the Mona Lisa, it was found that the mastermind of this theft, Vincenzo Peruggia, was an employee in the Louvre Museum. One day, he hid in some corner in the museum and spent the night there after which, the next morning, he walked out with the painting. He believed that since Leonardo da Vinci was an Italian, this painting should be in an Italian museum. When the news of the theft spread, it made headlines all over the world. Scores of detectives were put to work to look for the thief. But no one could find him. For two years, Peruggia hid this painting at his home. He wondered what he could do with it. The whole world was looking for it. Finally, he became impatient and tried to sell the painting. He tried to sell this painting to an art dealer in Florence To Giovanni Poggi. Giovanni became suspicious and saw the stamp on the painting to confirm that it was the stolen painting. He was being sold the most wanted item in the world. Because of this, Vincenzo was caught and was sentenced to 6 months’ imprisonment. The painting was sent back to the Louvre Museum and was hung up on 4th January, 1914. Today, this painting is displayed there, behind bulletproof glass, in strict climate-controlled conditions where humidity is maintained at 50% +/- 10%, temperature is strictly maintained at 18°C to 21°C. Perhaps the most interesting part in this story is that only after this theft did Mona Lisa’s popularity start increasing. And it became the world’s #1 famous painting. That’s right. Before the theft, the Mona Lisa was not very famous. People who were interested in art, knew about the Mona Lisa but the common folks did not know about the Mona Lisa.

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