Her portrait is one of the best-known and most readily recognized images in the world. The artist who painted her likeness is as famous as the picture: a restless, ambitious man with many talents, who completed few paintings because his expertise as a civil and military engineer and scientist was constantly in demand among the noblemen of his country.
The sitter came from a prominent but not wealthy aristocratic family. She married a moderately successful merchant. A pun on his surname, del Giocondo, has become the nickname for the portrait: “La Gioconda,” the “Cheerful Woman.” She and her husband raised five children. The couple apparently loved each other; they and their children prospered modestly and lived happily uneventful, middle-class lives, in a turbulent and politically unstable city not noted for uneventful lives. The merchant apparently commissioned the portrait of his wife to celebrate their first purchase of a home and the birth of one of their children. The artist labored over the painting for three years, but regarded it as incomplete. He never delivered it to his client, nor did the client pay him. The portrait remained in the artist’s possession for the rest of his life; when he died in a foreign country, the picture was bequeathed to his assistant, who sold it for a small sum to the country’s king. The painting has resided in that country for nearly five centuries.
Why has this portrait of Lisa del Giocondo by Leonardo da Vinci become so famous, so copied, so caricatured and mocked? By the standards of da Vinci himself, it is not an extraordinary work; critics hold several other da Vinci paintings in higher esteem. The composition of La Gioconda seems static and symmetrical, the background landscape conventional and undistinguished, the sitter plainly dressed and unadorned, and her expression mask-like and inscrutable. How could so plain a portrait of so unremarkable a subject—among the myriad plain portraits of unremarkable people painted during the Renaissance—have inspired such fascination, ridicule, and adoration?
The answer may have two aspects.
The first aspect is related to the modern emergence of mass-media. Although well-known among visitors to the Louvre, the picture began attracting global attention in the nineteenth century, when publishing became mechanized and artwork was first widely reproduced in books and magazines. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, color lithographic reproduction was perfected, making inexpensive art books and prints available to a large audience. In 1911, Lisa’s portrait received unexpected publicity when it was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian museum employee who wished to see it returned to Italy. It appeared in Italy in 1913, was widely exhibited there, and then was returned to the Louvre. Since that time the portrait and the rumors surrounding its disappearance (Picasso and the French poet Apollinaire were once suspects in the theft) have never left the public imagination.
The second aspect is the picture’s plainness. Da Vinci’s genius as a painter imbued an understated portrait of an unassuming sitter with an atmosphere that irresistibly draws the viewer into the picture. A portrait in which the subject gazes straight outwards, at a right angle to the portrait’s surface, gives the impression that the subject’s eyes follow a viewer about the room. This is a well-known illusion. Usually it elicits a briefly disquieting feeling in the viewer, who shrugs it off with a laugh or a shudder, and then moves on to look at other works. But Lisa’s portrait is different: once her image takes hold of our attention, it does not let go for some time. We stare at her and our fascination grows. There is nothing extraordinary about her except her smile, which is as demure as her bearing. The smile is too modest to be joyous, too faint to be smug; what can it mean? Our eyes and imaginations roam outward from that smile across the rest of the picture, only to return to the enigmatic smile. Lisa’s dress and the plainness of her surroundings afford us no clue. We have not solved the mystery, but we sense that it exists.
From that point begin the stories and theories. Frustrated or dissatisfied with an unanswered question, each of us formulates an answer. Artists and writers have ventured many explanations; some serious, some joking. The portrait has inspired many parodies, satires, and appropriated artworks; also many meditations on art and philosophy.
In history, the pull of the Mona Lisa upon our imaginations can be likened to a scene in a theater: its legend, loss, and reappearance shine a spotlight on the portrait; the image of Lisa confronts the audience with a smiling, motionless soliloquy in pantomime. But as in a theater, the image of the actor is finally a mirror in which we, the audience, see our inner lives and selves reflected.