Who is the Mona Lisa in the Louvre?

Posted in: The Mona Lisa Myth
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As we argued at the very beginning, the purpose of the Mona Lisa Myth book is to dispel the extensive mythology about the Mona Lisa, drawing from several major discoveries in recent years and, at the same time, to try to ascertain the true identity and purpose of the Mona Lisa within the context of Leonardo’s late work. Thus we have tried to show that the Earlier Mona Lisa, which officially (re)-emerged from a Swiss vault in September of 2012, is most likely a true portrait, drawn from life, of Lisa del Giocondo. But if this Earlier Version in Switzerland is the first iteration of the Mona Lisa, what about the Mona Lisa portrait in the Louvre? How did that come about?

As almost all authors have noted, stylistically the Louvre portrait belongs to Leonardo’s late period, roughly between 1507 and 1515. An important marker, in our opinion, is Leonardo’s forced return to Florence in 1507, in order to fight a lawsuit by his half-brothers who attempted to deny him the inheritance of his uncle Francesco. Leonardo probably believed that the matter would be dealt with within the span of a few weeks; hence, he did not travel with his entourage of assistants. But the mood in Florence, and particularly the Signoria, was against him. The lawsuit dragged on for months, well into 1508, leaving Leonardo marooned in Florence with little to do, other than to appeal to various dignitaries—including Charles d’Amboise in Milan and Cardinal Ippolito d’Este, the brother of Isabella—for help in resolving the matter.

This forced interlude was fortunate, however, in that it led to two initiatives. One, with plenty of time on his hands, Leonardo began to organize his notebooks. And two, he turned to the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova, a functioning hospital, to begin anatomical dissections of cadavers.  By law, only the bodies of paupers or “ignoble” corpses could be used for dissection, but Leonardo ignored this and, among others, dissected the bodies of various women. In the months and years to come, he would produce some two hundred detailed anatomical studies, based on the autopsies of some thirty cadavers, most of which are now in the Royal Collection of Windsor Castle. In probing the mysteries of the female body, and that of unborn fetuses, Leonardo was inexorably drawn to the ultimate enigma: how a woman nurtures and sustains life within her. Or as he had written in Milan, he wanted to understand “the conception of man,” and study “the form of the womb, and how the child lives in it, and to what stage it resides in it, and in what way it is given life and food.”

Both the psychological and physical mysteries of motherhood would motivate two of Leonardo’s late paintings, the Saint Anne, Mary and Jesus now in the Louvre, and the Leda and the Swan, now lost except for copies by his assistants and others. The origins of the Saint Anne are still shrouded in mystery, as Vincent Delieuvin, the author of a major 2012 exhibition at the Louvre, attests. It may have originated as a commission by King Louis XII; as a painting for the Servite monks of the Santissima Annunziata in Florence; or simply as a further development of all of these initiatives. Significantly, Leonardo kept the painting with him until his retirement and death in Amboise, in France. Another painting he kept in his personal possession until the end is the Louvre Mona Lisa.

Perhaps this Mona Lisa, a second version based on the original portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, should be seen in this same context: Leonardo’s interest in maternity and the creative forces of nature. That he would produce two versions of the same painting is by no means unusual. Throughout his career, Leonardo (together with his assistants) would paint multiple versions of The Virgin of the Rocks, The Madonna of the Yarnwinder and the Saint Anne, to name a few, arguably to compensate for the fact that Leonardo’s workshop (in contrast to his competitors) produced only a small number of originals.

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As several scholars have noted, the enigmatic landscape of the Louvre Mona Lisa seems to illustrate Leonardo’s idea that the human body has analogous forms in nature. “Even though a man is composed of earth, water, air and fire,” Leonardo wrote, “his body resembles that of the earth; and as man has in him bones, the framework of his flesh, so the world has its rocks, the supports of the earth.” It therefore seems plausible to think that the Louvre Mona Lisa is the culmination of Leonardo’s growing interest in the symbiosis between motherhood and nature, and the idea that both stem from a common source: the mystery of creation. If this assumption is correct, then the Louvre Mona Lisa is no longer a portrait in the true sense, but rather an allegorical meditation on womanhood as the font of life, in harmony with the awesome, Genesis-like depiction of Creation around her.

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