Famous Painters and Paintings: Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa

About the famous painting Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, history of the artwork.


THE PAINTING: Mona Lisa. Mona--or Madonna--Lisa was painted from a living model, Lisa Gherardini, who would become the most looked at woman who ever lived and the subject of a portrait called the best-known painting of all time.

The real Mona Lisa was born into a large impoverished family in 15th-century Naples. When she married, in 1495, she became the 3rd wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. She began to sit for Leonardo da Vinci in 1503. His portrait of her--which took 4 years to paint and was never finished--he called Mona Lisa.

During the painting of the portrait, Giorgio Vasari, a gossipy art critic writing in 1568, reported: "Mona Lisa was very beautiful, and while Leonardo was drawing her portrait, he engaged people to play and sing, and jesters to keep her merry, and remove that melancholy which painting usually gives to portraits. This figure of Leonardo's has such a pleasant smile that it seemed rather divine than human."

Critics have speculated on Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile. Was the smile coquettishly directed at Da Vinci? Was the smile one of satisfaction due to the knowledge that, as the wife of a much older man, she might one day inherit his great fortune? Or was the smile due to Da Vinci's inability to handle lips? For despite his knowledge of practical anatomy he was weak in depicting the human face.

King Francis I of France paid 4,000 gold florins (equivalent of $1,470 today) for the painting of the Mona Lisa. He brought the portrait to Paris, where it eventually became the center of attraction at the Louvre.

There is some evidence that Mona Lisa was more woman than madonna. Art historian C. J. Bulliet stated: "There is a legend of a nude Mona Lisa that Leonardo made, a nude that has disappeared--and a legend of many sketches for this nude, likewise vanished--sketches made from the naked body of La Gioconda."

In 1911 a patriotic Italian, Vincenzo Peruggia, determined to return the masterpiece to its native land, stole the Mona Lisa by hiding the canvas under his coat, and took it back to Italy. It was recovered in 1913.

In 1962, before the painting was to be shipped to the U.S. for exhibits in Washington, D.C., and New York City, insurance appraisers put a value of $100 million on it.

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