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.