In previous blog posts, we discussed Leonardo’s revolutionary approach to portraiture, which emphasized the soul of the sitter. We now arrive at the story of the Mona Lisa proper.
Leonardo returned to Florence in March of 1503—without a job, without commissions and, apparently, without money. That month, he took the unusual step of withdrawing fifty gold florins from his savings account at the Ospedale di S. Maria Nuova, and would continue to do so every three months until the summer.
This is when a character named Niccolò Machiavelli enters the story. A secretary of the Second Chancery in Florence, which at the time was governed by Gonfaloniere Piero Soderini, Machiavelli would later garner fame for his controversial book The Prince, largely based on his close observations of the ruthless doings of Cesare Borgia. In fact, it was during Machiavelli’s brief sojourn in Cesare’s entourage that he had first been introduced to Leonardo da Vinci.
Florence was mired in a war of attrition against its erstwhile vassal, the city of Pisa. Machiavelli believed he had come up with a brilliant plan to bring the war to a close: by diverting Pisa’s lifeline, the Arno River, thus depriving the city from its trade and supplies. Leonardo obliged his friend with a series of designs, some of which have survived. Despite Machiavelli’s efforts on Leonardo’s behalf, the Signoria would ultimately accepted Leonardo’s designs but not the man: the execution of the scheme, which by far exceeded the manpower and resources of Florence, was entrusted to a Maestro Colombino, a waterworks official. Perhaps Leonardo’s reputation as a man who had abandoned not one, but two major commissions from prominent monasteries in the city played a role in the decision.
Machiavelli may have felt a sense of obligation towards his friend. Indeed, it’s attractive to think that it was Machiavelli who introduced Leonardo to another civic commission, namely a large fresco of the Battle of Anghiari—one of Florence’s few victories in its rather checkered military history—which Soderini wished to have painted in the newly built Grand Council hall of the Palazzo della Signoria (now known as the Palazzo Vecchio). Machiavelli’s role is evident from the fact that it was his secretary, Agostino Vespucci, who provided Leonardo with a detailed description of the battle, translated from a Latin elegy entitled Trophaeum Anglaricum (‘Victory at Anghiari’), originally written by the humanist Leonardo di Piero Dati.
Whether Machiavelli was also in a position to swing the support of the Signoria, the Florentine government, behind the selection of its wayward son Leonardo da Vinci, is debatable. Gonfaloniere Soderini favored a prodigy of Lorenzo de Medici, a brash young artist named Michelangelo Buonarroti. No doubt there were others among the Signoria who bridled at the idea of conferring this important commission on an artist who had yet to complete a major painting in his native town—in glaring contrast to the works he’d seen fit to finish in the capital of Florence’s sworn enemy, the Duchy of Milan.
Enter Francesco del Giocondo, a silk merchant who by 1503 had held four prominent positions in Florence’s republican government, most recently in 1499 as a member of the advisory council of the Dodici Bonuomini. Here was a man who could very well bring his influence to bear to grant Leonardo the Anghiari commission. But Giocondo was a shrewd businessman with a reputation for hardknuckle negotiating skills; a police document of 1510 describes him as confrontational, unscrupulous, and quite ruthless. True to form, the merchant wanted something in return for his advocacy of Leonardo’s talents. He wanted a small portrait of his young wife, Lisa del Giocondo, who had just presented him with their third child.
Seen in this context, the claim by our leading witness, the 16th-century artist and author Giorgio Vasari, that “Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Monna Lisa, his wife,” is eminently plausible. Giocondo was Leonardo’s key to restoring his reputation in Florence and to receiving the biggest and most challenging art project in Italy since his Last Supper fresco in Milan of 1498.
Nevertheless, Vasari’s paragraph on the Mona Lisa commission has been under vigorous attack for some time, and for two reasons. One, it offers a detailed description of the painting, even though it is universally accepted that Vasari could have never seen the Louvre Mona Lisa, for the excellent reason that in the 1530’s the Louvre portrait was already in France, a country Vasari never visited. And two, Vasari claims that the Mona Lisa portrait was left unfinished, though the Louvre panel is perhaps the most polished and complete of all of Leonardo’s paintings. Vasari’s text was chalked up by many modern scholars as another example of the author’s penchant for hyperbole and vivid imagination. But any serious student of Vasari’s Lives of the Artists will recognize that, while the author might sometimes embellish his narrative, he would never go as far as to fabricate a two hundred-word description of a painting out of whole cloth. In fact, in all of Vasari’s Vite, this detailed descriptive passage of the Mona Lisa is unprecedented.
Indeed, the re-emergence of the Isleworth Mona Lisa from its long exile in a Swiss bank vault, and the subsequent authentication of the work as a genuine Leonardo by John Asmus and others, enables us to see Vasari’s text in a dramatically new light. Every observer will be hard-pressed to recognize Vasari’s description of the lady’s “rosy and pearly tints” in the gloomy hues of the Louvre Mona Lisa, even allowing for centuries of varnish, soot and dirt. But looking at the Isleworth Mona Lisa in Switzerland, now known as the Earlier Version, Vasari’s rapturous description of “that luster and watery sheen” in the lady’s eyes is spot on, just as her mouth does indeed “unite the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face” and her nose, “with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender,” truly appears to be alive. In sum, Vasari’s description fits the Earlier Mona Lisa to a remarkable degree.
That the Mona Lisa portrait was still unfinished in October of 1503 is borne out by the now-famous note written in a collection of Cicero’s letters, entitled Epistulae ad Familiares (‘Letters to His Friends’) published in Bologna in 1477. While reading the book, Machiavelli’s secretary, Agostino Vespucci, came across a passage in which Cicero described how the Greek artist Apelles had begun to paint the portrait of the goddess Venus, but left it unfinished. Vespucci grabbed a pen and wrote in the margin, “That’s the way Leonardo da Vinci works in all of his paintings, like, for example, the head of Lisa del Giocondo and Anne, the mother of the Virgin,” referring to both the Mona Lisa and the ill-fated commission from the Servite monks of the Santissima Annunziata. The note clearly shows that at the time of Vespucci’s writing, both of these works had been left unfinished as well.
Vespucci was well aware of Leonardo’s reputation for leaving things undone, for he added, “We will see what he’s going to do with the chamber of the great council, the thing for which he’s just come to terms with the gonfaloniere.”
This crucial piece of evidence has now solved two important issues in Mona Lisa scholarship: one, that the sitter of the Mona Lisa portrait is beyond question Lisa del Giocondo, as Vasari maintained all along, and two, that Leonardo left the Mona Lisa incomplete as he began his work on the Battle of Anghiari.
So the inevitable conclusion is that Leonardo painted two portraits of Mona Lisa: one, the Isleworth (or Earlier) version of 1503-1507, as a commissioned likeness of Lisa del Giocondo; and two, the Louvre version of 1508-1515, as Leonardo’s depiction of the unfathomable mysteries of motherhood and human life.