— Why does a portrait of a Florentine housewife, painted over 500 years ago, continue to enchant the world?
— Why do six million visitors line up each year to gaze at the work in rapture, despite its thick reflective glass, the press of the crowds, and the relentless barrage of cell phone and camera flashes?
— And yet, why do we know so little about the work, and why Leonardo painted her to begin with?
Indeed, almost all of Leonardo da Vinci’s paintings are shrouded in mystery. He never signed or dated them. What’s more, Leonardo was not satisfied with merely painting an individual; he wanted to endow each work with a certain mystique, an allegorical meaning that only a few would be able to unravel. That is why so many of his paintings continue to fascinate us to this day.
But the myth of the Mona Lisa dwarfs all other Leonardo mythology. One reason is that even 16th century witnesses cannot agree on her identity, or why the portrait was commissioned.
For example: our leading witness, the 16th century artist and author Giorgio Vasari, claims the work was never finished—but the portrait in the Louvre most certainly is. The same Vasari extols the beauty of the portrait’s eyelashes and eyebrows—but the lady in the Louvre doesn’t have any. What’s more, all evidence suggests that Leonardo started the portrait in 1503—but the style of the Louvre Mona Lisa belongs to his late period, post-1510. One source says the portrait was bought by King Francis I of France upon Leonardo’s death in 1519; another claims it was still in the possession of Leonardo’s companion, Salai, many years later.
The book “The Mona Lisa Myth” explores these myths in detail.