The Mystery of the Mona Lisa

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Who is the Mona Lisa? Who is the lady who so placidly gazes at us through the protective glass in the Italian section of the Louvre?

This may come as a surprise, but the question has been the subject of a raging debate for much of the past fifty years. This is rather astonishing when you think that based on recent surveys, the Mona Lisa portrait is the most famous painting in the world. Ask anyone anywhere–in Taipei, in Mumbai, in Sao Paolo, in Atlanta or any other spot on the globe–and the answer is always the same: Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.

So why don’t we know who she is? Didn’t Giorgio Vasari, Leonardo’s first “biographer” who wrote his book, “The Lives of the Artists”, some thirty years after Leonardo’s death, give us a clear description of who she was?

True. Vasari did write that the lady is Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine merchant. But he also wrote that the portrait is unfinished. While that may be true of many other works by Leonardo, it is definitely not true of the Louvre portrait, which is the most finished and polished of all of Leonardo’s paintings. What’s more, same Vasari extols the beauty of the portrait’s eyelashes and eyebrows—but the lady in the Louvre doesn’t have any.

So this is where the mystery begins–only followed by a host of conflicting information from other 16th century sources. For example, one document says the portrait was bought by King François I of France upon Leonardo’s death in 1519. Another claims it was still in the possession of Leonardo’s companion Salaì many years later. Why is this important? Because provenance–the paper trail a painting leaves as it moves from one collection to another–is a crucial piece of evidence in establishing a portrait’s authenticity.

This is why, over the past four decades or so, a chorus of historians has claimed that the woman in the painting isn’t who we think she is. Some believe this is a portrait of the Marquess of Mantua, Isabella d’Este. Others insist she is Pacifica Brandano, the mistress of Giuliano de Medici. Still others have advanced the candidacy of Isabella Gualanda, or even Costanza d’Avalos, Duchess of Francavilla, based on the rather flimsy evidence of a poem. Mass confusion, in other words.

Appalled by this tangle of conflicting data, many Leonardo biographers simply skip over this rather unseemly mess to dwell on a more satisfying part of the story: what happened to the painting after the 16th century. Indeed, there are far more gratifying details to be found here, such as the rumor that Napoleon had the painting hung over his bed to impress his mistresses, or that an Italian decorator named Vincenzo Perugia stole the portrait in 1911, in order to sell it to the Uffizi Museum for 500,000 lire. Unfortunately, the essential question of how and why the Mona Lisa came into being is seldom explored.

That is why we wrote the book “The Mona Lisa Myth”, to eradicate the vast mythology that has attached itself to the Mona Lisa portrait, especially in the wake of Dan Brown’s novel “The Da Vinci Code.” Stay tuned as over the next few weeks, up to the official press event on December 7, 2013, we further explore the many mysteries surrounding this enigmatic portrait, and try to establish, once and for all, who the Lady “Monna Lisa” truly is.

Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Brown

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