Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mona Lisa Myths


It's arguably the most famous painting in the world. Leonardo da Vinci's painting Mona Lisa is instantly recognizable -- even people who have no interest in art can still identify it. 

For all of its fame though, (or perhaps because of it) there are a lot of myths about the Mona Lisa. I'm not going to list all of them (we'd never get done here!) but some of the main ones are:

1) The identity if the woman in the painting is unknown or is Leonardo in drag. 

2) Leonardo carried the painting with him for the whole of his painting career. 

3) The woman in the painting has no eyebrows or eyelashes because women in her time removed them for being "too sexual."

For the record, I never thought I'd have "eyebrows" and "sexual" together on this blog.






The identity if the woman in the painting is unknown or is Leonardo in drag

This one only makes sense if you don't speak Italian. Mona Lisa (in modern Italian it would be Monna Lisa, the spelling has changed a bit) translates as "My Lady Lisa." The particular Lisa in question is Lisa del Giocondo. 

The picture above is a snipped of the Heidelberg manuscript (Shelf mark D 7620 gt. INC) [*] where Agostino Vespucci notes that Leonardo is working on a portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo. The dates match up perfectly for the age of the painting Mona Lisa.

Just for fun, the painting is only called Mona Lisa in English, in French it's called La Joconde, and in Italian the painting is known as  La Gioconda. Both of these titles are puns off of the real Lisa's last name of Giocondo.


Leonardo carried the painting with him for the whole of his painting career

Leonardo did work on the painting for a very long time, but he didn't start it until sometime in 1503 - 1504. That's only 15 years before his death. 

There were a couple reasons it took so long. The most obvious one is the way he painted the Mona Lisa. It was made using slow drying oil paints, and before one layer could be added to another, it would take hours to dry. Mixing the colors using crosshatching, it required painstaking attention to detail and a lot of layers. A similar painting style and a similar sized portrat took another artist over 3,000 hours to complete. [**] And that was a young man, not a 52 year old man with health problems. [***]



The woman in the painting has no eyebrows or eyelashes because women in her time removed them for being "too sexual"

While it is true that for portions of the Middle Ages and the Renascence, it was fashionable for women to remove their eyebrows (and some went as far as removing their eyelashes), Mona Lisa's were removed by over-zealous cleaning. 

It's easy to forget that the Mona Lisa is over 500 years old, and that she's actually changed a bit in looks during that half-millennium. Thanks to modern technology, we're able to determine that the picture above is what the Mona Lisa looked like when she was brand new. She had eyebrows and eyelashes, very small ones. This particular painting above is actually from Leonardo's own workshop. It's a true-to-life copy made by one of his apprentices. Sadly what saved her (and why she's in such better condition than the other Mona Lisa) is that was was painted over and forgotten about in a museum vault. [****]

1 comment:


  1. wonderful. text could use some corrective editing, not the factual kind. stuff like was was

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