Italian Paintings – Mona Lisa

In 1498 the French entered Milan, Ludivico Sforza was taken prisoner, and ended his days at Loches, in Touraine. Leonardo went from Milan to Florence, and between 1501 and 1504 he painted the world famous portrait of Mona Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of Francesco del Giocondo of Florence. Francesco and Leonardo were old and intimate friends. Sterling Heilig, a Paris newspaper correspondent, in an article written July 20, 1909, says:

“Crowds of American tourists stand around it all summer, fascinated by its lifelike qualities, held by its mystery, awestruck by its reputation, puzzled, interested, willing to be interested, troubled, inquiring, disappointed, even asking in a whisper if it is the right one.

“Tourists of all grades of culture know they ought to like this picture, the most famous portrait of all time, the ‘Sphinx of Beauty,’ Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa,’ treasure of the Salon Carre of the Louvre.”

I have known rude and honest-minded men to scoff at the Mona Lisa then go back to her again and again. Were they touched by the historic fact that Francis I. paid 4,000 gold florins for this portrait of an Italian woman he had never seen or heard of, and that he kept it locked jealously in his gilded room in Fontainebleau, or that Louis XIV. hung it in his bedroom at Versailles? I think not. What the honest-minded Philistine worried over was, what is she smiling at?

Other old masters as celebrated in their line did not thus trouble them. There is a mystery and a fascination about the portrait independent of the extraordinary things which the world’s geniuses have discovered in it.

It is not a portrait that becomes interesting because we know something of the woman it represents. On the contrary, the woman grows interesting because we have this portrait of her.

‘What is she smiling at?

Taine discovered in her smile that she had been flirting with Leonardo. Her smile so upset Michelet, the historian, that he used to go to the portrait “in spite of himself, as the bird goes to the snake,” he says. Theophile Gautier discovered that she is flirting with the whole world. Paul Bourget says that the smile of Mona Lisa will never be defined, it being copied mystery. According to Charles Clement, thousands of men have listened to the lying words of those perfidious lips. George Sand found it as frightening as a Medusa or a Sphinx. Arsene Houssaye declared her to be Satanic. Jeoffroy is sure she is a disenchanted pessimist. The English Walter Pater has revealed to the world that she is an encyclopedia. He says : “It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit cell by cell of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions. Set it for a moment beside one of those white Greek goddesses or beautiful women of antiquity, and how would they be troubled by this beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed! All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the reverie of the middle age, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. She is older than the rocks among which she sits ; like the vampire she has been dead many times and learned the secret of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda was the mother of Helen of Troy; and, as St. Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and hands.”

The only remaining thing to say was added by the illustrious Italian Carotti : “She is the emanation of the intellectual, sentimental and poetic power of her time, with all the mystery of the human soul and all its destiny.”

“During 400 years past,” says M. Gruyer, curator of the Louvre paintings, “the Mona Lisa has addled the wits of those who have talked about her, after having looked too long upon her.”

He ought to know; he is a most distinguished art historian and the personal custodian of the lady.

“Four centuries is rather much,” replies another cool expert, Salomon Reinach, the very type of the exact modern archaeologist, refusing geniuses the right to create facts breaking in on lofty theories with a marriage or death certificate. He is the Curator of the St. Germain Museum, a remarkably distinguished man and well known in America.

And Salomon Reinach has pricked the bubble of the Mona Lisa.

He has nothing against the immortal portrait itself ! On the contrary, he delights in its unapproachable naturalness and the charm of its perfect execution. Up to Vasari, he says, this is what the world saw in the Mona Lisa. He quotes Vasari: > “He who would know to what point art can imitate nature has but to study this head ; because Leonardo has rendered the least details with extreme finesse.”

And Feliblien :

“There is such grace and sweetness in those eyes and features that they appear living.”

“That is all right,” approves Salomon Reinach, “and the good people who, standing before a painting, get themselves laughed at for saying ‘It is nature,’ say in a word what the critics of ancient Greece and the Renaissance developed more amply. Leonardo himself asked nothing more of a portrait. ‘I have seen,’ says Leonardo, ‘a portrait so full of resemblance that a dog belonging to the original took it for his master and manifested his delight.’

“But with romanticism,” says Reinach, “a new element forced itself into art criticism. It became subtle, refined, mysterious. Works to be admired had to have something enigmatic, must envelop an unknown something which the critics would disentangle. And no chef d’oeuvre has been so much ‘solicited’ as Mona Lisa by the amateurs of hidden meaning.”

All this so annoyed Salomon Reinach that he finally began looking Mona Lisa up. What did he discover? He discovered a very pathetic, very tender thing.

“What is she smiling at?”

You shall learn what she is smiling at. No one would have dreamed it!

Leonardo da Vinci took four years (1501-1504) to paint the wife of his friend, Francesco del Giocondo; and, so far from his being in love with her or she with him, he dropped both portrait and sitter again and again, on a moment’s notice, to go on pleasure or business trips. Reinach is a terrible man. He hunts for a date through a hundred manuscripts until he finds it. Leonardo quit Florence in 1499, to return only in 1501. In 1502 he traveled in Umbria as architect of Valentine Borgia. He returned to Florence in 1503, went on a pleasure jaunt to Venice in 1505, returned and went to Milan in 1506. That is not four years of loving contemplation, is it?

The truth is that Leonardo painted the portrait gratis for his friend the husband, dropping it when business called. It bears every mark of such a non-paid, purely friendship portrait to the last, in which the painter sells it to a third party.

Obviously the painting itself was not much either to Leonardo, the husband, or to Mona Lisa herself. Yet its execution was everything. A word of Vasari put Salomon Reinach on the track of the mystery. Leonardo was a very good friend of Francesco del Giocondo, and painted his wife, when he had time to distract her mind from a great and abiding sorrow.

Vasari says that when he painted Mona Lisa, Leonardo “surrounded his model with musicians, singers and buffoons to keep her in gentle gayety and so avoid the melancholy aspect we observe in most portraits.”

“The conclusion is pure Vasari,” says Reinach; but the fact is a studio tradition which Vasari could not have invented. What melancholy of Mona Lisa did her husband’s friend, the painter, go to the expense of employing professional entertainers to drive away?

Salomon Reinach has found it. We know the melancholy of Mona Lisa. Married in 1495, she had no children until 1499; then came a little daughter. Salomon Reinach remembers that once a librarian of Florence communicated to Muntz, the great French art historian, an extract from the ancient “Libro dei Morti” records of deaths in Florence. By this it appears that on June 1, 1501, the little daughter of Francesco del Giocondo was buried from the church of Santa Maria Novella.

Why, the very costume of Mona Lisa in the picture is heavy mourning.

How is it that none of the transcendent experts observed it? She has no rings, no jewelry. Her costume is even the heaviest mourning. Reinach proves, by letters of Isabella d’Este and her mother, written from Florence at exactly this date, that a mantle of Irish lace over a “sombre tinted” corsage might have been worn in full mourning for a sister.

Mona Lisa is in heavy mourning.

“What is she smiling at?”

You see now. Her smile is a constrained smile, the best she can do to please the kindly painter who has paid singers, musicians and buffoons to entertain her.

This explanation of Mona Lisa’s smile was both new and deeply interesting, but was it true? I determined to find out. I wrote to Mr. Reinach, and received a most gracious reply. I quote from his letter:

“I am glad to hear that my old, uncanny Leonardo has a friend and votary in remote Indiana. What you quote from the article you have is correct. The French article appeared in the Bulletin of Music, 1909. A very correct summary of it appeared in the New York Nation, to which I occasionally contribute. I don’t think they translated the whole of it, because I quoted some very stupid and improper things, written by some idiot about poor and pure Mona Lisa.

“I am absolutely convinced that Mona Lisa is in mourning, and that her smile is that of the distressed mother under the influence of some effort to make herself smile. I do not see my way to suspecting any love affair, indeed we never hear of Leonardo being in love. He was a rather queer gentleman, and liked to be surrounded by fashionable youths, like Melzi or Salaino, thus imitating Plato, in whom he was interested to such a degree that he imitated his Academy.”

( Originally Published 1912 )

Famous Italian Pictures & Their Stories:JudithAndrea Del SartoThe Madonna Of St. FrancisThe Four SaintsSt. AgnesFra BartolommeoSavonarolaLeonardo Da VinciMona LisaJacopo PalmaRead More Articles About: Famous Italian Pictures & Their Stories