An Ordinary Picture

by Mark Calderwood


Small and dark, obscured behind dirty varnish and bulletproof glass, the portrait known as the Mona Lisa has become a universal icon, an image known to millions. It has been the subject of such intense and inexhaustible mythographia that its very name no longer refers to a sixteenth-century woman, but to the painting hanging in the Louvre, stripped of its history and encrusted by legends.

Yet the painting remains a portrait, the depiction of a specific individual in a specific cultural setting. If we cast aside centuries of accumulated (usually ill-considered) speculation, we can approach the painting as a piece of contemporary art, seen afresh from within the tastes, expectations and modes of thought of the sixteenth century. We can unravel how a contemporary audience would have understood this storied work, as an astonishing portrait that carried some privileged glimpses into the mind of an extraordinary artist.

Sixteenth-century Florence was not bounded by modern distinctions between public and private, secular and spiritual, individual and corporate: its citizens lived in multifaceted society composed of intricate networks of social obligation and promotion. They were also highly visually literate, both adept at discerning the nuances of iconography and actively engaged in using their art to build a societal identity that emulated the heroic Classical past.

Renaissance society easily reconciled material luxury with the increasing intellectualisation of painting. Civic humanism appreciated the accrual of wealth as the basis for civic benefit; at the time, ideas celebrating the dignity of man reoriented investment in material culture towards artworks which embodied ‘genius’, that concept of semi-divine inspiration which increasingly defined cultural capital during the renaissance.

Portraiture was just such an elitist commodity, announcing the wealth, intellectual taste and prestige of the owner, and as conspicuous consumption to enhance social position. Viewers could easily discern not only the sitter’s status but their character and interests, their personal ties and self-perceptions in the complex visual language of their surrounding symbolic or allegorical attributes. Contemporary audiences had no difficulty recognising multiple aspects to portraiture, and looked to clues patronage and context to support interpretation. The clues which might define Mona Lisa, however, are troublesomely scarce.

Although undeniably by da Vinci’s hand the panel is unsigned and undated, nor does any mention appear in his notebooks. In the absence of these facts, debate has raged around the dating of the work and possible identity of the sitter.

The marked similarities to Florentine drawings, in particular those made by Raphael during his residence in the Tuscan city 1504-1508, suggest that Mona Lisa was begun before 1504. Professor Martin Kemp however dates the work to 1513-1516, asserting that the technique of veiled glazes is characteristic of da Vinci’s later style. This suggests that the portrait was a cumulative image, begun around 1503 and developed in stages over the succeeding years.

Closely tied to the date is the question of the sitter’s identity. Though it is unlikely he saw the painting, the renaissance historian Giorgio Vasari wrote that the figure was Madonna Lisa del Giocondo. Historians have since proposed as the sitter the Duchess of Milan Isabella of Aragon, or the widowed Duchess of Francavilla Constanza d’Avalos. Other contenders include Isabella Gualanda, the artist’s mother Caterina or the artist himself in female guise.


Fortunately, this speculation has been rendered academic. Vasari’s traditionally accepted attestation that the sitter is indeed Lisa di Antonmaria Gherardini, who married Ser Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo in 1495 and bore him five children, has been supported by archival documents uncovered by researcher Guiseppe Pallanti, after twenty-five years’ research in the city of Florence archives.

Even more recently, the discovery of a contemporary souce has confirmed Pallanti’s findings. A note by city chancellery official Agostino Vespucci compares da Vinci to the classical painter Apelles, stating that he was currently working on three paintings at once – one of them a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Vespucci’s handwritten notes in the margin from October 1503 permit an exact dating of the painting and with only a few words, solves two centuries-old enigmas.

Among the renaissance middle class, portraits were commissioned for specific reasons; the birth of Gherardini and Giocondo’s second son Andrea in 1502 would have furnished just such an occasion. Alongside its role as a statussymbol, portraiture in the renaissance often functioned as a remembrance of a loved one in their absence or death: having previously lost two spouses within a year of marriage as a result of childbirth, an apprehensive Ser Francesco may have desired a commemoration of his open-hearted third wife.

The Florentine documents unearthed by Pallanti also reveal the close association of the Giocondo family with da Vinci’s own. Ser Francesco was a client of da Vinci’s father, the distinguished notary Ser Piero da Vinci. Living in the same district of Florence, the two men were civic associates and members of the same social circle for many years. As the Giocondo family chapel was located in the nearby church of Santissima Annunziata, where Ser Piero was the convent’s procurator and Leonardo had lodged whilst assuming Filippo Lippi’s commission for the altarpiece of the Virgin and Child with St Anne, it is highly likely that the artist was well acquainted with both Ser Francesco and Madonna Lisa.

Scholars have wondered why an artist accustomed to the patronage of aristocrats would accept a commission from a local merchant, especially when he was refusing commissions, claiming that he was ‘overtaxed by the brush.’ The social intricacies of sixteenth century Florence make it probable that the portrait was commissioned by Ser Piero as a gift, as he is known to have to have done on other occasions: in addition to being an expression of affection, such a gift would garner social prestige and create the obligation of favourable regard from a well-connected family. Pallanti suggests it may also have been the elder da Vinci’s way of offering financial assistance to his son, whose bank records suggest was without an income in the spring of 1503.15 Considering the commission as a family favour accounts for not only the lack of studio or financial records (it may in fact never have been paid for), but the painting remaining in da Vinci’s possession.

The painting itself fits firmly into the formal genre of Florentine portraiture. Although slightly larger than most portraits, it is still on a domestic scale, doubtless intended for display in Ser Francesco’s recently purchased household. Mona Lisa conforms to the convention of placing female sitters indoors, reflecting their role in sixteenth century society. The family unit was the intersection between public and private which determined the individual’s relation to society; the civic task of women was to instill republican virtue and morality into their families. A common symbol denoting civic responsibility in masculine portraits, the twin pillars of the loggia here enclose the sitter in the domestic setting and indicate the societal aspects of two lives conjoined in matrimony.


The presentation of the sitter, however, differs surprisingly from the conventional. The common attributes of affluence, status or social role are absent, as is the expected allegorical and symbolic iconography. Rather than holding a book indicative of literary interests, Gherardini’s hands rest upon the chair arm in a gesture indicating morally sound conduct. She does not appear with the pet that would bespeak a luxurious lifestyle, or a symbolic animal such as an ermine; not even a simple vase of flowers adds to the semiotic schema. The sitter is not transformed into a biblical or classical allegory, but depicted without commentary other than the fantastical panorama outside her loggia.

Gherardini is also depicted without the expected trappings of wealth. She wears no rings, and the necklace which once graced her throat was painted out by the artist. Gherardini’s gown, often assumed to be dark mourning attire, is actually of a style fashionable in early sixteenth-century Tuscany, in rich green silk with saffron sleeves, the veil of a modest Florentine matron covering her simply dressed hair. The design of linked rings and knots on her camicia suggests the wedding ring absent from her finger, or is perhaps a conceit by an artist enamoured of elaborate knots.

With the Florentine documents revealing that Gherardini’s social background to be the yeomanry (her dowry having been a farm in Chianti rather than a substantial sum invested in the city’s dowry fund, as was customary among the urban patrician class), the lack of display reflects the quiet tastes of a woman unimpressed with ostentation, and removes any distraction from the startling realism with which she is depicted.

Though unconventional in detail, the painting’s breathtaking realism represents the very ideal of renaissance portraiture. Alhough influenced by Netherlandish art’s vivid realism, Italian artists also subscribed to Neoplatonic theories which exalted an idealised naturalism. Accordingly, rather than the conscious manipulation of reality to command emotional impact practiced in Flanders, the Italian emphasis was on such a subtly perfected mimesis and virtuoso representation that the image seemed so like to life that it lacked only breath. With consummate delicacy of technique, da Vinci achieved a likeness so physiognomically mobile and possessing such vitality that it elicits the same instintive, visceral response as toward another living person.

The secret of Mona Lisa’s motile image lay in da Vinci’s sophisticated use of sfumato (‘dark smoke’). A development of tonal painting, sfumato superimposed transparent layers of colour to achieve convincing effects of perspective, depth and volume. Characterised by delicate translucence, da Vinci’s pictorial texture was well suited to almost imperceptible gradations of veiled shadow and colouration. So ethereal are the layered glazes of Mona Lisa that light is refracted, yielding an extraordinary luminosity; X-rays pass through virtually unobstructed by the minimal pigment density.

Breaking from the sharply limned Florentine tradition, the subtlety of the portrait’s modelling displays a superbly confident painterly execution, which would not have been lost on a sixteenth-century audience. Where the mirror-like morbidezza surface itself required an unrivalled dexterity, the shadows of the sfumato effect demanded seemingly inimitable application and patience in the placement of myriad fine layers, with no possibility of reworking and allowing each time to dry.

It is this realism that lies behind the mythologisation of Mona Lisa as a modern enigma. While perhaps due to musicians hired to alleviate the sitter’s boredom as Vasari suggests, the ‘enigmatic’ quality of Gherardini’s smile is due more to the fevered intellectual climate of European Romanticism, wose critics were intent on embedded Mona Lisa in the public consciousness as the turbid embodiment of woman as an eternal, sphinx-like mystery. The early twentieth century saw the famed smile subject to psychoanalytic investigation, most notably by Sigmund Freud, who in 1910 proposed that the smile, so like a nursing mother’s, was patterned after the artist’s absent mother Caterina- a traumatic separation that accounted for da Vinci’s homosexuality.

Perhaps the most extreme psychographic interpretation is the suggestion that Mona Lisa is a self-portrait in female guise. In her exposition of Mona Lisa as ‘woman-revealed-as-mask,’ Lilian Schwartz (1987) uses sociological theories of gender identity to validate the Freudian justification of da Vinci’s sexuality. While undeniably delighting in the play of ambiguity and fantasia, da Vinci was nevertheless unlikely to produce such a transgendered self- portrait; it is far more probable that any resemblance to the artist unintentionally results from his style and practice.


A sixteenth-century audience, on the other hand, would ascribe none of these myths to the painted smile. Cinquecento viewers would recognise the smile as an artifice, an artistic device to impart that the image is a living, genuine simulacrum, invested with the virtues and emotional identity of a specific individual. The spectator’s conscious participation in the fiction of the sitter’s receptivity also reflects this surrogacy. The notion of a portrait’s capacity to react benignly to the spectator, to listen if not to speak, is exemplified in Mona Lisa: the illusion that Gherardini is truly and tangibly there, aware of and responsive to the spectator’s presence is what generates the impression of life. Rather than a more obvious narrative, Mona Lisa exquisitely exploits the communicative mutuality between the sitter and the spectator, using the complex language of nonverbal communication. Turning in her chair at the viewer’s “appearance” in her loggia, Madonna Lisa directly answers their presence with a smile; as the sitter seems to react to the spectator, so the spectator is placed, physcially and sympathetically, in relation to the painting’s imagined space, and not the reverse.

Renaissance spectators would also recognise in Madonna Lisa’s smile the literary conventions of the day, inextricable from the conventions of painting. Influenced by the Classicist vocabulary of humanism, both arts increasingly portrayed women not as people but in terms of abstracted qualities. While individualising his female sitters to varying degrees, da Vinci’s portraiture nonetheless remained true to the pictorial formula of the ‘Florentine beauty’, illustrating the Neoplatonic idea that feminine beauty was the outward manifestation of virtue.

With their outlook shaped by perceptual conditions very different from the modern era, sixteenth-century audiences would understand the sitter’s smile not as an eternal enigma, but simply an expected indication of inward virtue to match outward beauty. Of course, given renaissance society’s enthusiasm for games with portraits, contemporary viewers would also appreciate Gherardini’s smile as a clever play on her husband’s name, giocondo meaning ‘smiling’ or ‘lighthearted’.

No, for the contemporary audience, insight into the artist’s interests and aspirations was found in vista beyond Mdonna Lisa’s loggia. In the sixteenth century, background landscapes were less important than semiotic narrative, considered mere ornamentation; the artist was thus free to indulge his interests as he developed the image. Easily discerning the tensions of realism and fantasia, the renaissance spectator’s “surprised eye” would establish the interdependence between the meaningful layers of the painted image.


The atmospheric landscapes which frequently recur in da Vinci’s works are commonly regarded as indicating his scientific interests. Multiple analogies closely connect the sitter and landscape in Mona Lisa, suggesting the figure may be seen as a philosophical metaphor for the physical systems of the world, and vice versa. The landscape’s placement on the panel responds to the sitter’s height and pose; the rivers meet at the level of her heart, and although the horizon line is unclear it corresponds roughly to her eye level. Similarly, the gradations of originally intense colour ranging from fiery ochre in the mid- ground to the clear blue sky behind the sitter’s head resonates with Classical associations with the body and intellect.

Da Vinci’s untiring investigations into anatomy developed his understanding of how the microcosm participates in the macrocosm, discovering affinities between the mechanisms of the human body and the body of the earth. The worldly body is implicit in the imposing landscape; against pictorial convention, the upland lakes are bent into an arc suggesting the curvature of the earth, the “sphere of water” which echoes the three-dimensionality of Gherardini’s form.

The presence of the feminine element of water is apparent as the sculpting force of the craggy geological formations, and in the rivers’ function as ‘veins of the earth’ : the watery currents of the background are consciously mirrored in the sitter’s rivulets of hair and the cascading drapery of her camicia and veil. Laid bare to the gaze, the geological and hydrological cycles which shape and vitalise nature seem to flow between the microcosmic sitter and the macrocosm of landscape in an intertextual narrative recognisable to a renaissance audience. These visually eloquent meditations are not didactic but function as a paragone, awakening a sense of surprised wonder as does poetic metaphor while revealing the far-ranging intellectual intensity of the artist.

The portrait’s play of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) similarly reveals the artist’s interest in optical theories. Da Vinci’s demonstration that vision becomes more sensitive when the eye is dark-adapted is seen in the dim studio lighting he preferred for portraiture, especially the hues favoured by dark-adapted sight found in Mona Lisa. His optical understanding makes the shared space of the portrait even more realistic: the optical possibilities and limitations of the painting are exactly as if the viewer were standing in a pre-calculated position before Gherardini, in a more deeply shadowed part of her loggia.

Conscious of living in a society that defined itself in opposition to its past, renaissance viewers were nonetheless keenly aware that their new visual language was formed around persistent elements of medieval art. More than most artists, da Vinci was a gothic artist, drawing heavily upon the gothic tradition in his oeuvre, becoming genuinely progressive by looking backward. Mona Lisa’s smile gives fresh currency to the medieval formulae common in fifteenth-century Netherlandish art. Similarly, the otherworldly fantasia of the rocky landscape is common in late gothic illumination and panel painting; the portrait’s exploration of man as a microcosm of the world derives from Ristoro’s thirteenth-century cosmology. While more complex than its precursors, da Vinci’s luminous textures and chiaroscuro recalls the natural play of light found in the burnished gold of medieval religious works. The potency of these underlying gothic traits is renovated in Mona Lisa by their fusion with the humanist intellectualism of the sixteenth century.landscape-drawing-for-santa-maria-della-neve-1473
It is uncertain why Mona Lisa remained in da Vinci’s keeping until his death. More lucrative commissions meant that work on the portrait progressed slowly; da Vinci likely considered it unfinished, indeed, the background landscape is based on drawings made as late as 1515. While the patron or recipient might have lost interest in the finished work, it is far more probable that da Vinci retained the painting as a reputation-enhancing showpiece of his formidable skill. Presumably given to his apprentice Salai before da Vinci’s death in France, the portrait subsequently passed into the collection of Francis I, thus becoming a touchstone of French culture.

Mona Lisa need not be regarded a mysterious image that has irreversibly lost its historical context. Viewed as its intended audience would. Mona Lisa is revealed as a typical – albeit exceedingly sophisticated – product of it time, articulated by da Vinci’s matchless technical skill. For centuries, scholars have seen the painting as something more than just the representation of an ordinary woman living in extraordinary times. Da Vinci himself may have understood it to be nothing less.