Lisa del Giocondo

Lisa by Raphael
Raphael’s drawing (c. 1505) “Portrait of  Woman”, after Leonardo; today in the Louvre along with his painting

June 15 is the birthday of Lisa del Giocondo, born Lisa Gherardini in Florence in 1479.

Like many girls, she was married by 15. She was lucky to marry a wealthy silk merchant since she didn’t have a rich dowry. He was nearly twice her age, but the alternative was likely that she would been sent to a convent.

It was her young beauty that attracted Francesco del Giocondo. The marriage arrangement gave him a portion of her father’s farmland. By today’s standards, the marriage seems odd but it appears to have been a happy married life.

Around 1503, Francesco commissioned a local artist named Leonardo da Vinci to paint his wife’s portrait. It may have been to mark their purchase of a home or to commemorate the birth of their second son.

Usually, Leonardo painted aristocrats on commissions but he was between jobs at that time and probably thought Francesco’s political connections might get him bigger commissions.

La Gioconda (La Joconde), as the painting is also known, is painted in oil on a wood (poplar) panel. He chose a closer view of the subject than usual for a portrait of this type. It seems normal to us now but was rather revolutionary. His choice had an immediate influence on other artists of the region.

Leonardo was easily distracted in his many projects and when he received a more lucrative commission to paint The Battle of Anghiari, he set aside Lisa’s portrait. The battle painting was a joint project with Michelangelo to decorate the Palazzo Vecchio.

He took the unfinished Lisa portrait with him when he left Florence. It was never delivered to Francesco and Lisa. We don’t know if he had been paid for it. He eventually finished the portrait and made its way into the court of the French King Francis I.

DaVinci MonaLisa1b.jpg
Comparison to the drawing “Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk” which is often identified as Leonardo’s self-portrait.

One of the many theories about the painting is that it is more of a self-portrait or at least he used himself as a model. The theory has been supported by digital analysis of the facial features of the woman in the painting and those of what is thought to be a Leonardo self-portrait. But notes scribbled into the margins of a book by its owner in October 1503 say that Leonardo is working “on the head of Lisa del Giocondo.”

We don’t know very much about Lisa del Giocondo because women’s lives were rarely recorded in the early 16th century except for their births, marriages, and deaths, and the baptisms of their children.

Dianne Hales’ Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered points out that “Lisa’s life spanned the most tumultuous chapters in the history of Florence, decades of war, rebellion, invasion, siege, and conquest — and of the greatest artistic outpouring the world has ever seen.”

The painting was kept at the Palace of Fontainebleau until Louis XIV moved it to the Palace of Versailles, where it remained until the French Revolution. After the French Revolution, the painting was moved to the Louvre. It did spend a brief period in the bedroom of Napoleon in the Tuileries Palace.

The painting was not really well known outside the art world. In the 1860s, French intelligentsia began to speak and write about it as a masterwork of Renaissance painting, but it really didn’t become well known among the general public until 1911. That summer, the painting was stolen from the Louvre.

After some initial confusion about the painting’s whereabouts, it was confirmed that it had been stolen. Oddly, French poet Guillaume Apollinaire came under suspicion. He was arrested and imprisoned and he implicated his friend Pablo Picasso. Picasso was questioned but both men were exonerated when a Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught. He rather easily had carried out the theft by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet, and walking out with the painting hidden under his coat after the museum had closed.

Lisa is visited by 6 million people a year who visit it at the Louvre. How would the subject and its painter feel about it being inside a temperature and humidity-controlled box of bulletproof glass? Probably very surprised. Possibly, quite honored that it was still of interest after 500 years and that people were so interested in preserving

MonaLisaShield.jpgMona Lisa behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre Museum CC BY-SA 2.0, Link

We believe that Lisa died in 1532. She is thought to have been buried at the convent of Sant’Orsola in Florence Though she was not a nun, her daughter Marietta was a nun there.

Think Like Leonardo

One of da Vinci’s lesser-known paintings Salvator Mundi  (see note at bottom of this article)

It is easy to take the opinion that Leonardo da Vinci is the world’s most creative genius. You can debate that opinion but you have good evidence on your side.

I was fascinated with Leonardo when I first encountered his notebook drawings as a child. I know I did some biography book report on him in elementary school and built a model of his helicopter. It didn’t fly, but then either did Leonardo’s.

In my adult life, I came across How to Think Like Leonardo da Vinci by Michael Gelb, and that got me thinking about Leonardo’s approach to thinking and creating. I taught several workshops using that book. They were fun to teach and participants always seemed to enjoy them too. (Gelb also published an actual workbook version of the book too.)

When Walter Isaacson’s biography, Leonardo da Vinci, was published I eagerly read that too. It’s excellent and gives you much more about da Vinci’s life and it changed my ideas about him.

One thing that we sometimes overlook about Leonardo is that for all the ideas, drawings, models and theories he had, he actually produced very little work.  He was probably an easily-distracted genius and might even be labeled today as having attention deficit disorder. This is another thing that makes me feel closer to Leo. I too have many more ideas for poems than poems, more sketches than paintings, more outlines for novels that will never be written and more To-Do lists of things I will never do.

Leonardo da Vinci was a painter. He created two of the most famous paintings in history –  The Last Supper and the Mona Lisa. But his lifetime output of paintings (as far as we know) was only a few dozen. Enough to make him a great painter, but certainly not the focus of his life.

If you were to engrave his headstone with “painter” I’m sure he would prefer that you add scientist and engineer.

Actually, he might suggest making it larger and including his interests in anatomy, fossils, birds, fluid dynamics from the heart to water pumps and viaducts, flying machines, botany, geology, and weaponry.

He is a great example of someone who blended the humanities and the sciences.

He certainly received some acclaim and patronage in his life, but he was also somewhat on the outside. He was born illegitimate, which in his time carried a harsh undeserved penalty.  He was gay. Even that he was a vegetarian and left-handed made him odder than others. He was heretical which didn’t help in a church-ruled place.

But he was brilliant, inquisitive, imaginative and all his oddity probably made him even better at thinking differently. Think out of the box? I doubt that Leonardo had any idea that there was a box.

In Gelb’s book, which reads like a workbook for the reader, he discusses what he calls da Vinci’s 7 principles that explain how his thought process worked.

From da Vinci’s notebooks, inventions, and works of art, each of Gelb’s principles is a lesson.

My favorite of them is connessione, the term for the appreciation of the interconnectedness of all phenomena and probably all things. To me, that is the greatest gift that a student, teacher, artist, writer or anyone in any profession can have.

It’s not a fair coverage of the principles or a workshop to list here the other principles, but as an introduction, these are the other six.

  • Curiosita – an insatiable curiosity
  • Dimostrazione – testing knowledge through experience
  • Sensazione – the continued refinement of the senses
  • Sfumato – a willingness to embrace ambiguity
  • Arte/Scienza – developing a balance between art and science
  • Corporalita’ – cultivating fitness and poise

Sfumato, the willingness to embrace ambiguity, is interesting because we usually think of ambiguity as a bad thing.

For Leonardo, it was firstly a painting technique which involves blending the edge between colors so that there is a soft transition. “Sfumato” in Italian translates to soft, smoky, vague or blurred. It was popularized by the old masters of the Renaissance in order to almost dreamy depictions. In the notebooks, da Vinci described it as “… without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.”

If you took art history, it might have been grouped with the painting techniques used by the old Renaissance masters, such as cangiante, chiaroscuro and unions. If you look closely at the Mona Lisa, you see the soft transitions between light and dark tones and the lack of hard edges around her eyes and in that famous ambiguous smile that still has us wondering what she is thinking.

But in the Gelb book, we move via metaphor from art or science to everyday life thinking. Do you embrace ambiguity? I know I am guilty of jumping too quickly when I have a question to a Google search or when I can’t recall a film title or actor or the name of that series about da Vinci I check IMDB.

Michael J. Gelb has further gone down the path with another book Innovate Like Edison that carries the subtitle “The Five-Step System for Breakthrough Business Success.” But business success doesn’t appeal me to in the way that I find creativity intriguing. Still, in a light reading of this book in the library this past week I did find crossover.

One of Edison’s secrets is no secret at all. The idea of keeping a notebook to capture creative thinking and including drawings and doodles (you don’t need to be da Vinci to draw) in order to capture ideas for later has been used by artists, writers, scientists etc. for centuries.

Still, I am guessing that the majority of people do not keep notebooks after they leave classrooms, though they may scribble notes and drawings on paper. Somehow, collecting them together and saving them is much more powerful. I have shelves of journals of life events, dreams, garden notes, quotations, poetry and poem ideas, and many other topics. I love starting a new blank, bound book whether it be some grand one bound in leather (a retirement gift) or one of the many Moleskine notebooks from pocket-sized to tablets that are on my shelf, on my desk and even in my car.

There is something about ideas, words, and sketches being bond into what feels a “book” that gives them greater importance. My personal journals started like diaries when I was 13 with almost daily entries but over the years have become monthly essays made from notes I make day to day about events and impressions.

I can look back at what I was doing or concerned with back in April 1971 (high school graduation and heading off to college dominated) and one day I will hopefully be around to reread my timeline of the coronavirus pandemic that I’ve been recording the past three months.

Looking back at old journal entries makes thin synapses fire up again (most of the time) and is nostalgic. My major observation in the teen year journals is how much I lied in my writing. Was it wish fulfillment, magical thinking or the thought that someone else years later would read it and believe it? Was I thinking about my children, grandchildren – a biographer?

My garden notebook records the first and last frost dates, which seeds and plants did best in the vegetable garden each year and notes on houseplants, pests, fertilizers and green things.

My dream journals record dreams that even when written down often seem like someone else’s dreams and writing to me after just a few weeks or months.

Finally, all my online writing may have a longer shelf life than those journals. It certainly has more readers!

A page from the notebooks of Leonardo’s studies of a fetus in the womb – (c. 1510), Royal Library, Windsor Castle via Wikimedia

A note on the painting at the top of this article, Salvator Mundi.
This is generally considered to be by Leonardo da Vinci from about 1500. Art historians think it may be a copy of a lost original. There are many other versions, some certainly done by students and followers, but we also have chalk and ink drawings of the drapery that were done by Leonardo and indicate his preparation for the painting. It has much overpainting and has been restored, so the original may have been quite different. The painting shows Jesus Christ in an anachronistic Renaissance outfit. He is making the sign of the cross with his right hand and holds a transparent, non-refracting crystal orb in his left. That is supposed to indicate that he is Salvator Mundi, Latin for ‘Savior of the World.” The crystal symbolizes the “celestial sphere” of the heavens.

4 Reasons Why I Love and Hate Lists

I hate lists. I particularly hate “to-do” lists. I make lists all the time. And I always have a to-do list near my desk.

Lists have been around for a long time. Leonardo da Vinci made lists of things and things to do. George Washington made lists. Fictional characters like Jay Gatsby made lists.

Lists must have some appeal. The horribly-named and just plain horrible online “content” known as the “listicle” seems to get lots of views. “10 Ways to _____” or “The 7 Best _____” or “The 5 Things You Need To Do This Weekend” seem to promise a fast way to better your life. Maybe it is part of the same movement that makes slide presentations full of short bulleted lists so popular. Here are all the answers in an easy-to-digest package.

I consider the writer and scholar Umberto Eco to be a wise man. He said that “The list is the origin of culture,” when he gave a Der Spiegel interview. He had just curated an exhibition on the history of the list at the Louvre.

That certainly elevates my “Things To Do This Week” notepad writing to a new level.

da Vinci list
Leonardo’s to-do list

Eco can explain why we make lists, and I believe him. Leonardo’s lists certainly have taken on importance over the centuries. The lists of inventors and thinkers, such as Thomas Edison’s ambitious to-do list, give us another way of considering their creativity and the way their minds planned.

Edison list
One of Edison’s notebook lists

In the book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. , Umberto Eco says that lists are the way we put order to chaos. I know that as I grow older I rely more on lists – shopping, projects around the house, tasks for work lists – than I did before. (Though I have been making lists since my teen years, some of which are in journals from that time.) They do help with the memory. Sometimes. I have been known to scribble on a list something like “Call Harry” and then the next day looked at it and wonder why I needed to call Harry. Was there some specific thing I wanted to tell him, or was it just that I thought it was time to chat?

Lists can be hopeful. Just this week, I made a list of garden ideas for next spring. I guess I plan to be alive in six months.

Lists can be depressing. I occasionally find lists of things I wanted to do from a year or more ago and realize I haven’t done many or any of the things on it. What have I been doing with my life?

I have a love/hate relationship with my lists. But when I finish typing this sentence and hit “publish,” I can cross something off this week’s list, and that I find quite satisfying.

Do I Have to Draw You a Diagram?

Vitruvian Man - da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci’s very famous “Vitruvian Man” sketch, and the notes that go with it, show how he understood the proportions of the human body. The head measured from the forehead to the chin was exactly one tenth of the total height, and the outstretched arms were always as wide as the body was tall.

I think everyone is a visual thinker and learner to some degree. How could you not be in this highly visual world we live in. I remember when the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was published in 1979 that it got me (and plenty of other people) thinking about the whole right/left brain thinking ideas.

Although the book was meant as a way to give people confidence in their ability to draw and deepen your artistic perception of the world, it ignited a lot of discussion about the fairly new theory of left-brain or right-brain dominance. I know that some of that theory has been shown to be untrue since then, but there is no doubt that each side of the brain controls different functions and types of thinking.

The theory proposed that people will prefer one type of thinking over the other. So, a “left-brained” person was said to be more logical, analytical and objective. In her book, Betty Edwards was attempting to get people to draw – both in the sense of “to pull” and ” to make lines and marks” –  on the “right-brain” which is supposed to be the more intuitive, thoughtful and subjective side.

In psychology, this theory (lateralization of brain function) seems to be considered more of a “myth with a basis in fact” that became distorted and exaggerated in popular culture. Roger W. Sperry is given credit for the initial research (he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1981) while studying the effects cutting the corpus collosum (the structure that connects the two hemispheres of the brain) to reduce or eliminate seizures in people with epilepsy.

Which is all preface to a book I have been reading called 100 Diagrams That Changed the World: From the Earliest Cave Paintings to the Innovation of the iPod. It is an interesting collection of  what might be considered the most significant plans, sketches, drawings, and illustrations that have influenced the way we think about the world.

There are primitive cave paintings and Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the DNA helix drawn by Crick and Watson and sketches and plans for the iPod. The book works its way chronologically through the diagrams (the generic term for all of them) and has text about what scientific significance each one has had on our thinking.


I used to do some basic right/left brain discussion with my students and talk to them about the related topic of learning styles. I would start by asking them to consider a simple everyday situation. If you needed directions to my house, would you prefer that I: draw you a map, tell you the directions, or write out those directions? Simple visual, verbal/auditory and verbal/written options. There were always students in each option, but the majority tended to be in favor of a map. Of course, these days they just say “I’ll just use my GPS.” And then I point out that the GPS does offer all three options, as does your Google Map.

The Left-Brain, Right-Brain Quiz is more for fun, but would  help you determine your “brain type” and is meant for students to improve study habits. It suggests some study tips for left-brained students and right-brained students.

How often do you use a diagram to think through or illustrate something to someone else or for your own use?

Scott Christianson, author of the 100 Diagrams book, says diagram comes from Latin diagramma (figure) and Greek for a figure worked out in lines, from diagraphein, from graphein to write.  First known use of the word in English is 1619 as meaning “a plan, a sketch, drawing, outline, not necessarily representational, designed to demonstrate or explain something or clarify the relationship existing between the parts of the whole.”

Treasure Island Map (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1883)

Although Robert Louis Stevenson seems to have totally invented the idea of a pirates’ treasure map where “X marks the spot” of the hidden booty, the fictional device of a map certainly got my attention when I read the book as a kid. And maps of other imaginary places– like maps of Tolkien’s Middle Earth and the Star Wars universe – continue to fuel readers’ imaginations.

One other book that I have used in class to talk about visual thinking and visual learning (not the same thing) is The Back of the Napkin: Solving Problems and Selling Ideas with Pictures.

The author, Dan Roam, promotes picking  up a pencil and drawing out the pieces of a problem. He’s talking about using diagrams to help our own thinking, but also sees them as sometimes more powerful than that slick PowerPoint presentation. The book also has some of what has been discovered in “vision science” lately.

Like Betty Edwards, he believes that we all have a talent for visual thinking, even if you maintain that you can’t draw. And he shows how thinking with pictures can help you discover and develop new ideas, solve problems in unexpected ways, and dramatically improve your ability to share your insights.

That simple diagram of how Copernicus envisioned our solar system was truly revolutionary. It got Galileo thinking and writing and really pissed off the Pope and the church because it questioned the idea that Earth and so “we” were not the center of the “universe” as it was known. And the diagram is just concentric circles.

Heliocentric Universe (Nicolaus Copernicus, 1543) shows Copernicus’s revolutionary view of the universe which placed the Sun and not the Earth at the center of the universe and contradicted 14th-century beliefs.

Think about how teachers and students, project managers, doctors, engineers, pilots, coaches, financial analysts, lawyers and others use diagrams for problem solving.  Those 100 historic diagrams are important, but in the back-of-the-napkin approach it’s more about brainstorming and communicating with pictures than it is about producing a final product.

Roam’s book was popular enough to get a follow-up companion workbook, Unfolding the Napkin which is more hands-on and has step-by-step guidelines and exercises and space for drawing. The book seems to be based on a four-day visual-thinking seminar the author must do.

There is that expression, “Do I have to draw you a picture?” but maybe it should more correctly be, “Do I have to draw you a diagram?”

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci

Today is the birthday of Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci (April 15, 1452 – May 2, 1519). I have always had a fascination for that Italian Renaissance polymath who was a painter, sculptor, architect, musician, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer. I love his notebooks that are full of drawings and his imagination.

I also love the many quotes credited to him. Here is one curious quote:

Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.

Curious because, as far as I know, he never did get to experience flight, except in his vivid imagination.

He’s best known for his Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, two of the most famous paintings in the world, but he left fewer than 30 paintings when he died, and most of those were unfinished.

Though I make no claims to be a Leonardo in genius, I do identify with his perfectionism which often led to procrastination.

He worked on the Mona Lisa on and off for the last 15 years of his life. The Last Supper was likely only finished because his patron threatened to cut off his money.

He spent much, maybe too much, of his time drawing up plans for inventions. We marvel that he seems to have invented the submarine, the helicopter, the armored tank, and an alarm clock – but none of them were ever built in his lifetime.

We have 6,000 pages of his drawings and notes remaining today. We don’t know how many pages have been lost.  He moved from astronomy to anatomy to portraits to architecture the way I move from topic to topic on this and my other blogs.

Leonardo wrote these notebooks mostly in a backward script decipherable only in a mirror. Why? To hide them from a casual reader, but not so well hidden that someone with a mirror couldn’t read them.

As the night comes down on this day, I find it sad and telling that when he died, it is said that he apologized “to God and Man for leaving so much undone.”  I hope I don’t feel the same way at the end.