The Mona Lisa – ARTKEMON

The Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci, the Homo Universalis, the Renaissance sage, and the artist versed in all fields of human knowledge. He was not only an artist but also an eminence in aerodynamics, cooking, hydraulics, anatomy, poetry, and botany.

And of course, for what we know him today: for his paintings, sculptures, and magnificent architecture. He is, together with Michelangelo and Raphael, part of the holy trinity of Renaissance art. His life was a legend, fueled by cryptic writings, futuristic inventions, and masterpieces of paintings.


When he was a kid, he already showed an insatiable curiosity, as he was already drawing mythological creatures.


Today, we are going to analyze his most famous work, La Gioconda, better known as Mona Lisa.



The Mona Lisa is a work that belongs to the pictorial portrait genre. This genre was promoted during the Renaissance and can be considered a true revolution since it openly expresses the anthropocentric (regarding humankind as the central or most important element of existence, especially as opposed to God or animals)  interest of that period.


Although the actual subject depicted has been debated, most researchers agree that it is a portrait of a Florentine lady named Lisa Gherardini and that it was done at the request of her husband, Francesco del Giocondo. Hence the names by which the painting is known: Mona is the abbreviated version in the Italian of the time, of Madonna meaning "lady" and Gioconda, the feminine version of her married name.


During the 19th century, the painting was the subject of literary descriptions that fueled the idea that it concealed some secret message.


The painting's enormous fame is due to a combination of factors. On the one hand, the subtle ambiguity of the sitter's expression coupled with da Vinci's well-known eccentricity surrounded her with an aura of mystery.


On the other hand, the pictorial mastery of Leonardo, who used novel techniques in this work in a masterly manner, resulted in numerous painters making copies, even during the artist's lifetime, and it was also mentioned in various texts. The first of these was by Giorgio Vasari who, in 1550, wrote that the Mona Lisa was depicted so miraculously alive that the work seemed to be made of flesh, not paint.


As was common for the Renaissance painter, Leonardo never considered the painting finished, so he refused to hand it over and it remained in his possession until the end of his days.


Uncharacteristic qualities of the time


Some of the reasons that make this work so famous are:


  • Leonardo's extreme realism in using mathematical methods to measure human proportions,
  • The unique technique of sfumato which also conveys a very advanced realism for the time and
  • The revolution he generated in the dimensions and forms of portraiture, considered the basis of all Western portraits



The genre of the pictorial portrait of personalities, as we know it, took place in the early Renaissance, around the 14th century. This means that by the time Leonardo painted La Gioconda, there was already a more or less consolidated tradition of portrait painting that was in line with certain conventions. The most common model before the Mona Lisa focused its attention on the representation of the character up to the middle of the torso so that the face, head, and shoulders covered the entire composition.


The painting of the Mona Lisa belongs to the Renaissance portrait genre, but the way he painted it differs in some respects from the tradition in which portraits of women were painted at that time. The woman looks directly at the viewer and smiles confidently at him, two attitudes attributed to aristocratic men rather than women.


This artwork is a three-quarter length, with a landscape that has a cold atmosphere (the upper) and a colder one (the lower) which has earthly colors.



 The posture of the model is a triangular geometrization, as it derives from the above-seen pyramid.


In the portrait, not only the face, head and shoulders are shown, but also the torso down to below the waist, which leaves arms and hands uncovered and, with that, greater expressive possibilities. In this way, Leonardo reveals much of her character, something he would not have achieved if he had followed the Renaissance portraitist custom.


On the other hand, the development of the so-called aerial perspective, or bluish perspective, is also described in this work. The artist explained that as the objects move away from the viewer, the viewer begins to perceive the objects and/or the landscape veering towards grayish and bluish tones. Due to the lack of definition, the eye loses detail and the colors cannot be distinguished from one another.




The painting La Gioconda is an oil painting on wood. Leonardo da Vinci applied the technique of sfumato. It is “a painting technique for softening the transition between colors, mimicking an area beyond what the human eye is focusing on, or the out-of-focus plane. It is one of the canonical painting modes of the Renaissance.”


It produces, by means of transparent glazes, a vaporous effect that gives subjects or objects blurred outlines. Thanks to this technique, Leonardo created a perfect perception of three-dimensionality.


The explanation for the mystery of the Mona Lisa's gaze derives comes from the sfumato technique and the mechanisms of human vision.




Detail of sfumato technique.


Indeed, the direct vision of the human being focuses on details but not on shadows; instead, peripheral vision distinguishes shadows more than details. When looking at the Mona Lisa from different perspectives, the thin, blurred layers of the sfumato technique make a smile appear almost unnoticed from the front, compared to the mysterious smile that appears when viewed from the side.


This is because there is more volume projected from the side, as a consequence of the shadows coming from thin layers.

The mysterious smile of the Mona Lisa

 One of the greatest mysteries of this work has been the enigmatic and elusive smile of the Mona Lisa. By a strange optical effect, it seems to disappear when the viewer tries to focus on it. That is to say, the smile of the painting disappears when looking at it directly and only reappears when the viewer's eyes focus on other parts of the painting.


Detail of smile. 


It is an illusion that appears and disappears due to the peculiar way in which the human eye processes images.  The human eye has a central vision, very good for recognizing details, and a peripheral one, much less precise but more suitable for recognizing shadows.


Da Vinci painted the smile of the Mona Lisa using shadows that we see much better with our peripheral vision. That is why to see the Mona Lisa smile you have to look at her eyes or any other part of the painting so that her lips are in the peripheral field of vision.


How did this painting end in The Louvre?


At the age of 64, the artist left Italy to enter the service of King Francis I of France.


Leonardo did not hesitate to travel a route of more than 2,000 kilometers through the Alps to meet the monarch. He took with him three of his most flamboyant works, Saint Anne with the Virgin and Child, Saint John the Baptist and La Gioconda, as well as numerous notebooks, manuscripts and notes.


He arrived in France in the fall of 1516, and was welcomed with open arms at the Château d'Amboise, the king's favorite residence. Leonardo received a royal pension and was invited to take up residence at Château Cloux, now Clos-Lucé, 400 meters from Amboise. Leonardo was a sought-after artist but his Italian protector, Julian II de Medici, had died prematurely. This allowed Da Vinci to accept the invitation of the king of France.


Shortly before Leonardo's death, Francis I bought the three paintings. That is why today these paintings are in the Louvre, along with two other canvases, 'The Virgin of the Rocks' and 'La Belle Ferronière'. In other words, a third of da Vinci's pictorial work is in France.

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