Leonardo undertook to paint for Francesco del Giocondo the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife, and after four years of hardship left it imperfect, which work is currently with King Francis of France in Fontanableò[…] the eyes had those lustres and watery spots, which are always seen in life; and around them were all those livid red blushes and hairs, which cannot be done without great subtlety. The eyelashes for making the way of the hairs being born in the flesh, where thicker and where thinner, and turning according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural. […] In the fountain of the gorge, those who looked at it intently saw their wrists beat…1Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1550

Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1550

Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa (?), oil on panel, 77×53 cm, 1503-1504 (?), Louvre, Paris

Giorgio Vasari, in his description of the portrait that we have associated with the Louvre panel for centuries, underlines the details reproduced by Leonardo with astonishing realism.

But it is clear that something does not add up: there are no eyelashes or eyebrows surrounding the eyes of the enigmatic lady who is admired by over 10 million visitors every year in the Hall of States of the Parisian museum, nor any hollow in her neck that seems to pulsate. It is also surprising that such a thorough examination makes no mention of the landscape.

In addition to the philological doubts that arise from a comparison between the text and the image, there are also doubts about the commission: although on good terms with the de’ Medici family, Francesco del Giocondo was a merchant and usurer, whose rank could not compete with that of the families for whom Leonardo produced his most prestigious works. His will makes no mention of the portrait, for which there is no evidence of payment.

It is therefore necessary not to limit oneself uncritically to the words of Vasari – whose description is perhaps referable to another painting or has made use of literary topoi of Petrarchist derivation 2Cf. R. Zapperi, Monna Lisa goodbye. The True Story of the Mona Lisa, Florence, The Letters, 2012, p.95 – but to consider other direct sources which, however partial, throw new light on the work.

The Florentine chancellor Agostino Vespucci, who was linked to Leonardo by friendship, left an interesting note on a page of Cicero’s Epistulae ad familiares, of which he had an incunabulum of 1447 3Cf. G. Gonzalez Germain, Per lo studio degli ambienti culturali intorno a Machiavelli cancere: nuovi dati su Agostino Vespucci in Aevum : rassegna di scienze storiche, linguistiche e filologiche : LXXXIX, 3, 2015 and A. Schlechter, Die edel kunst der truckerey, Ausgewaehlte Inkunabeln der Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Heidelberg 2005. In a passage from Epistula 9 of Book I, we read:

Agostino Vespucci, Mona Lisa margin scribble, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons

ut Apelles Veneris caput et summa pectoris politissima arte perfecit, reliquam partem corporis inchoatam reliquit, sic quidam homines in capite meo solum elaborarunt, reliquum corpus imperfectum ac rude reliquerunt

Translation: “just as Apelles skilfully finished the head and upper chest of Venus and left the rest of the body unfinished, so certain men worked diligently only on my head and left the rest of the body unfinished and rough“.

Well, right in the margin of these lines, Vespucci noted:

This is what Leonardo da Vinci does in all his paintings, such as with the head of Lisa del Giocondo and Anna the mother of the Virgin. We will see what he will do in the Sala del gran consiglio 4The reference is to the Battle of Anghiari in the Sala del Consiglio in Palazzo Vecchio, for which he has already agreed with the gonfaloniere. October 1503”.

The annotation would confirm Vasari’s description – limited to the head of the effigy – and would deny the association with the portrait exhibited in Paris, which is complete in all its parts and made in a single period of time, without subsequent additions 5La composizione unitaria è dimostrata dagli studi tecnici del Louvre, riportati in AA.VV., In the heart of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci decoded, Paris, Gallimard, 2006, p.68.

Further evidence comes from the reports of the Apulian cleric Antonio de Beatis, who as secretary accompanied Cardinal Louis of Aragon on his travels through Western Europe between 1517 and 1519 6Louis of Aragon was among the electors of Leo X, at whose court he met Giuliano de’ Medici. Later accused of taking part in a conspiracy to eliminate the pope, he decided to temporarily leave Rome, devoting himself to the travels recounted by De Beatis. He then returned to Rome, proving his extraneousness to the facts and making peace with the pontiff.. After a stop in Amboise and the royal castle of Clos-Lucé in Cloux, having learned that Leonardo was at the court of François I, Aragon wanted to visit him. In his studio, the “most excellent painter” showed them three paintings already finished (“tutti perfectissimi”):

one of a certain Florentine woman made in natural form, at the request of the quondam magnifico Iuliano de’ Medici, the other of Saint Iohanne Baptista as a young man, and one of the Madonna and her son, who are placed in the gram of Saint Anne 7Cf. R. Zapperi, Monna Lisa goodbye, Florence, The Letters, 2012, p.16”.

“[…] one of a certain natural woman from Florence, made at the request of the quondam magnifico Iuliano de’ Medici”. Could it be Leonardo’s Mona Lisa?

“the other of the young Saint Iohanne Baptist” – Saint John the Baptist (Leonardo)

“et uno de la Madonna et del figlio che stan posti in gremmo de Sancta Anna” – St Anne, the Virgin and the Child with the Lamb (Leonardo)

The next day they went to the Blois palace, in whose library they could admire precious illuminated books 8“Petrarch’s Triomphi historiated by hand by a Fleming with a most excellent miniature. And the Remedio contra adversam fortunam by the same Sir Francesco. A certain Book of Hours of Our Lady in a large volume with its stories, and the mysteries of the Passion in a very beautiful and antique painting. One of the Metamorphoses written in Latin and French, all historiated, with many other beautiful books that could not be seen for lack of time” Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator (free version)which once, “for the coats of arms on the covers” were owned “by King Ferdinand I and Duke Ludovico Sforza“. They also saw “a painting in which a certain lady from Lombardy is painted in oil (a painting in which a lady from Milan is painted in oil) which is very beautiful, but in my opinion not as beautiful as Signora Gualanda (Signora Isabella Gualanda)“.

Original diary of Antonio Dè Beatis

Gian Giacomo Caprotti, the apprentice thief to whom Leonardo was particularly attached and to whom he gave the nickname ‘Salai’, made copies of his master’s paintings before they were sold; In the inventory of his possessions 9The inventory of assets belonging to Salai was drawn up in Milan after his death in 1525., in which the paintings seen by the Aragonese cardinal are also listed, the one depicting the Florentine woman is called “quadro dicto la Joconda“, but as De Beatis wrote, it was commissioned by Giuliano de’ Medici; “gioconda”, therefore, is an attribute that refers, par excellence, to the subject portrayed. The woman “who gives joy, who vivifies, who comforts” could be Pacifica Brandani, by whom Giuliano had a son, Ippolito 10Brandani was a married woman from Urbino. The attribute ‘Florentine’ is said to derive from the illustrious commissioner.. She died in childbirth and the portrait would have been commissioned to give it to the little orphan 11Little Hippolytus would be portrayed in the Coronation of Charlemagne commissioned to Raphael by Leo X, brother of Julian. Vasari also states that the child kneeling before the emperor is Ippolito de’ Medici, who was then almost four years old., so that he would have at least one image of his mother beside him.

However, the woman in the Louvre is not the Joconda. A closer analysis of the work and, in particular, the identification of some of the anamorphic figures in it, suggest that it is the ‘Lady of Lombardy’, transporting us to the Sforza court.

A first clue is provided by the landscape. Recent studies, based on geomorphological analyses and topographical surveys, have shown that the rock formations behind the woman belong to the Lombardy Pre-Alps: In particular, the art historian Luca Tomio has identified “on the right, the Adda Valley taken from a bird’s eye view from the Paderno Gorge to the confluence with Lake Lecco, and on the left, the limestone formations typical of the Lecco mountains, with Resegone in the foreground and Pizzo d’Erna and Canalone della Rovinata in evidence “12For the landscape analysis, see L. Tomio, The wonderful shape. Leonardo da Vinci and the earth sciences, Perugia, Morlacchi, 2019, pp.81-88.

Certainly, from whichever angle you look at it, the table conveys a sense of incompleteness and indecipherability. In fact, while we grasp certain details, we miss others whose existence we nevertheless perceive. The “cognitive dissonance “13The expression is used by. L. Festinger (1957) e reused by N. Colecchia (2017) derives in the first place from the coexistence of focused areas with blurred ones, which induces the observer to activate both “foveal” and “peripheral” vision 14For a more detailed discussion of vision theory and the differences between foveal and peripheral vision, see M. Livingstone, Vision and Art. The biology of seeing, Abrams, New York, 2002 – secondly, around the main portrait, Leonardo introduced other characters in an anamorphic key (or perhaps, the same character immortalised in different moments of his life cycle).

Dominant, in terms of size and expressive intensity, is the subject in profile, who touches his mouth to the woman’s right cheek, languidly approaching it. He wears an evident circular earring on his lobe, which makes him identifiable as a Moor or, more likely, as “il Moro”: Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan from 1480 to 1499.

At the time of his birth, his mother Bianca Maria Visconti wrote a letter to her husband Francesco, inviting him to “think about giving him a beautiful name that will partly compensate for the figure of the child, who is the most sober of all the others“, stating, however, that she was sure that “when you see him, you will not think he is too ugly and I hope you will like him as much as any of the others15The letter, dated 8 August 1452, is kept in the Milan State Archives.. The name should therefore have compensated for the not particularly graceful appearance of the little one, whose complexion was darker than that of his brothers. Francesco Sforza called his son Ludovico Mauro 16The name ‘Ludovico Mauro’ is attested in 1461, cf. J. E. Morby, The Sobriquets of Medieval European Princes, Canadian Journal of History, 1978, p. 13., hence Moro, a name that recalls the physical peculiarity of the child.

Da Vinci worked in the service of the Sforza for several years and represented him, with a similar earring, in an allegorical sketch preserved in the Musée Bonnat in Bayonne. The sheet bears an explanatory caption written by Leonardo himself, specifying that the man in the drawing is indeed Ludovico 17In the Bayonne’s drawing, the Moor wearing a cloak – an allegory of Justice – recognises the masked Envy through special glasses and puts her to flight.

“Etude de profil d’un jeune homme”
© Bayonne, musée Bonnat-Helleu / cliché A. Vaquero

The duke’s jewellery, in terms of colour and texture, evokes raw amber, a resin that Leonardo used both to make jewellery and to create fragrances. The Moor’s court was also renowned for being at the forefront of jewellery and cosmetics:

Objects made of odoriferous pastes were worn on people, amber crowns were held in their hands (…), bone cases with perfumes and inventories note amber head needles and jewellery with amber beads and buttons and earrings with amber pearls. Musk, amber, aloes, myrrh, mint, narcissine, myrobalan, cinnamon, amom and other perfumes were infused in the baths and sold for more than their weight in gold”. 18Cosmetics at the court of Ludovico il Moro; cf. F. Malaguzzi Valeri, The Court of Lodovico the Moor. Private Life and Art in Milan in the Second Half of the 15th Century, Milan, Hoepli, 1913

Examples of Leonardo’s studies for designs of ornamental objects can be seen on pages 681 [vedi verso] and 797 [vedi recto] of the Codex Atlanticus.

The iconography and colour palette used by Leonardo to depict the character in the Louvre painting are reminiscent of other contemporary depictions, in particular the devils of theLast Judgement frescoed by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel 19For an accurate description of the demons painted by Michelangelo, cf. F. Saracino, Michelangelo and the devils in Purgatory, Vol. 37, No. 73, 2016, pp. 139-155.

The Moor in the guise of a tempting demon is the focal point of a sort of animation that begins in the woman’s womb: with his arms, she holds an infant who, proceeding clockwise, first turns into the fiery lover, then takes on the appearance of a snake, sublimating into a thin body, and finally exanimate – a similar anamorphic figure, in a similar position, appears in the Lady with an Ermine, for which see a later section.

On her head, the effigy wears a veil, a symbol of motherhood; in addition, as shown by a recent analysis by Pascal Cotte 20P. Cotte, Journal of Cultural Heritage, Volume 45, September–October 2020, pp. 1-9 , there are remnants of a crown, similar to the girdles worn by brides-to-be in Lombardy.

What, then, is the identity of this genetrix?

Is she perhaps one of Ludovico’s many mistresses, such as Gallerani and Crivelli, also portrayed by Leonardo? Or is she rather an official bride, or rather the consort Beatrice d’Este? And what if it is instead her mother Bianca Maria, immortalised by other artists in numerous depictions of her in the guise of the Virgin, as a saint and as the Duchess of Milan?

Bianca Maria Visconti

Busto di Isabella d’Aragona

Maike Vogt-Luerssen suggests the name Isabella of Aragon, daughter of Alfonso II and Ippolita Maria Sforza, who married Gian Galeazzo Sforza in 1488 and became lady of Milan. After the death of her husband, possibly poisoned by the Moor, Isabella remarried Leonardo and had five children with him. She claims that the artist is buried next to the duchess in the basilica of San Domenico Maggiore in Naples 21M. V. Luerssen, Wer ist Mona Lisa?, Published independently, 2018.

According to the art historian Carla Glori 22C. Glori, The portrait of the Lady Milanese in Blois, the testimony of de Beatis and the Mona Lisa, 2021, this would be Bianca Giovanna, Ludovico’s beloved daughter from his relationship with Bernardina de Corradis from Bari, to whom he gave the town of Voghera as a dowry. In 1496, the girl, then 15 years old, was married to Gian Galeazzo Severino, Lord of Bobbio 23The Ponte Gobbo or Devil’s Bridge is linked to an ancient legend, cf.Bobbio – Wikipedia and this event would justify the crown on the head of the effigy. The Moor was so fond of her that, after her premature death a few days after the wedding, he buried her in the Sforza mausoleum in Santa Maria delle Grazie.

Possible portrait of Bianca Giovanna. – Wikipedia

To further support her thesis, Glori recognises in the background on the right the Devil’s Bridge in Bobbio, on the river Trebbia.
She also noted the remarkable similarity between the physiognomy of the “lady” and that of St. John in The Last Supper, whose characters, according to De Beatis, “are natural retractions of several persons of the Milanese court of that time”. 24Manuscript Ms XF28, National Library of Naples

In truth, the woman’s face does not appear to be a real portrait, but a collage of elements that, when put together, outline a female appearance, giving realism to an effigy that is in fact pure abstraction. The smile and features are reminiscent of the androgynous features of Salai 25In Luigi Pulci’s Morgante, the name Salaino is an equivalent of Satan.; the xanthelasma in the left eye is present in other Leonardian faces, for example in Vitruvian Man

Bianca Maria Visconti holds the symbols of her family, with which the emblems of the Sforza family also coincided at first. Note the serpent-dragon in the act of swallowing a Moor.

There are clear references to the heraldry of the Visconti family, from whose union with the Sforza family (Bianca Maria and Francesco‘s marriage) Ludovico il Moro was born, and also to the religious sphere, to the Garden of Eden where, because of the serpent, creation and destruction are inextricably intertwined.

Through a game of iconographic overlapping and compositional mixing, Leonardo probably constructed an allegory of the Sforza dynasty, the “devil’s bloodline”, whose progenitor appears as a Lilith, guilty of having given birth to ambiguous and unscrupulous characters such as Ludovico and his elder brother Galeazzo Maria 26Cf. E. M. Seveso, Poison, women and intrigue at the court of Ludovico il Moro, Milano, 1967.

At the birth of the latter, Pope Eugene IV did not hesitate to declare that “another Lucifer” had been born, reiterating his dislike for their parent Francesco Maria and all the offspring that would follow 27Cf. C. Violini, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Turin, Società subalpina editrice, 1943, p.43.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

  • F. Malaguzzi Valeri, The court of Lodovico the Moor. Private life and art in Milan in the second half of the 15th century, Milan, Hoepli, 1913
  • L. Festinger, A theory of cognitive dissonance, Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, 1957
  • C. Pedretti, History of the Mona Lisa in Vincian Studies. Leonardo’s documents, analyses and unpublished works, Geneva, E. Droz, 1957
  • E. M. Seveso, Poison, women and intrigue at the court of Ludovico the Moor, Milano, De Vecchi, 1967
  • R. Bettarini – P. Barocchi (edited by), Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, in the Editions of the 1550 e 1568, Florence, Sansoni,1976
  • A. Chastel, Le cardinal Louis d’Aragon. Un voyageur de la Reinassance, Paris, Fayard, 1986
  • F. Catalano, Ludovico the Moor, Milan, Dall’Oglio, 1986
  • M. Frigeni, Ludovico the Moor, Novara, Editoriale Nuova, 1990
  • C. Vecce, Leonardo, Rome, Salerno, 1998
  • E. Villata, Leonardo da Vinci. Contemporary documents and testimonies, Milan, Ente raccolta vinciana, 1999
  • AA.VV., In the heart of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci decoded, Paris, Gallimard, 2006
  • M. Kemp, Leonardo. In the mind of a genius, Turin, Einaudi, 2006
  • C. Glori – U. Cappello, Enigma Leonardo. Decipherment and discoveries. The Research. The Mona Lisa. In memory of Bianca. Ginevra Benci: the deciphered cartouche
  • Research in images, Bologna, Cappello Edizioni, 2011
  • R. Zapperi, Monna Lisa goodbye. The True Story of the Mona Lisa, Florence, The Letters, 2012
  • G. Lopez, Leonardo and Ludovico the Moor. The stuffs and freedom, Milan, Mursia, 2015
  • A. Angela, The eyes of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s genius as told by Mona Lisa, Milan, Rizzoli, 2016
  • N. Colecchia, The neurons of Mona Lisa, Independently published, 2017
  • M. V. Luerssen, Wer ist Mona Lisa?, Independently published, 2018
  • C. M. Lomartire, The Moor. The Sforza family in Leonardo’s Milan, Milan, Mondadori, 2019
  • L. Tomio, The wonderful shape. Leonardo da Vinci and the earth sciences, Perugia, Morlacchi, 2019

NOTES

  1. Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, 1550
  2. Cf. R. Zapperi, Monna Lisa goodbye. The True Story of the Mona Lisa, Florence, The Letters, 2012, p.95
  3. Cf. G. Gonzalez Germain, For the study of cultural circles around Machiavelli chancellor: new data on Agostino Vespucci in Aevum : review of historical, linguistic and philological sciences : LXXXIX, 3, 2015 e A. Schlechter, Die edel kunst der truckerey, Ausgewaehlte Inkunabeln der Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Heidelberg 2005
  4. The reference is to the Battle of Anghiari in the Sala del Consiglio in Palazzo Vecchio.
  5. The unitary composition is demonstrated by the Louvre’s technical studies, reported in AA.VV, In the heart of the Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci decoded, Paris, Gallimard, 2006, p.68
  6. Louis of Aragon was among the electors of Leo X, at whose court he met Giuliano de’ Medici. Later accused of taking part in a conspiracy to eliminate the pope, he decided to temporarily leave Rome, devoting himself to the travels recounted by De Beatis. He then returned to Rome, proving his extraneousness to the facts and making peace with the pontiff.
  7. Cf. R. Zapperi, Monna Lisa goodbye, Florence, The Letters, 2012, p.16
  8. Petrarch’s Triomphi historiated by hand by a Flemish with an excellent miniature. And the Remedio contra adversam fortunam by the same Sir Francesco. A certain Book of Hours of Our Lady in large volume with its stories, and the mysteries of the Passion in very beautiful and antique painting. One of the Metamorphoses written in Latin and French, all historiated, with many other beautiful books that could not be seen for lack of time.
  9. The inventory of assets belonging to Salai was drawn up in Milan after his death in 1525.
  10. Brandani was a married woman from Urbino. The attribute ‘Florentine’ is said to derive from the illustrious commissioner.
  11. Little Hippolytus would be portrayed in theCoronation of Charlemagnecommissioned to Raphael by Leo X, Giuliano’s brother. Vasari also states that the child kneeling before the emperor is Ippolito de’Medici, who was then almost four years old.
  12. For the landscape analysis, see L. Tomio, The wonderful shape. Leonardo da Vinci and the earth sciences, Perugia, Morlacchi, 2019, pp.81-88
  13. The expression is used by. L. Festinger (1957) and resumed by N. Colecchia (2017).
  14. For a more detailed discussion of vision theory and the differences between foveal and peripheral vision, see M. Livingstone, Vision and Art. The biology of seeing, Abrams, New York, 2002
  15. The letter, dated 8 August 1452, is kept in the Milan State Archives.
  16. The name ‘Ludovico Mauro’ is attested in 1461, cf. J. E. Morby, The Sobriquets of Medieval European Princes, Canadian Journal of History, 1978, p. 13.
  17. In the Bayonne drawing, the Moor wearing a cloak – an allegory of Justice – recognises the masked Envy through special glasses and puts her to flight.
  18. http://www.accademiadelprofumo.it/leonardo-genio-e-bellezza/leonardo-a-milano-la-cosmesi-alla-corte-di-ludovico-il-moro/; cf. F. Malaguzzi Valeri, The court of Lodovico the Moor. Private life and art in Milan in the second half of the 15th century, Milan, Hoepli, 1913
  19. For an accurate description of the demons painted by Michelangelo, cf. F. Saracino, Michelangelo and the devils in Purgatory, Vol. 37, No. 73, 2016, pp. 139-155
  20. P. Cotte, Journal of Cultural Heritage, Volume 45, September–October 2020, pp. 1-9
  21. M. V. Luerssen, Wer ist Mona Lisa?, Indepently Published, 2018
  22. C. Glori, The portrait of the Milanese lady in Blois, testimony of de Beatis and the Mona Lisa, 2021
  23. The Ponte Gobbo or Devil’s Bridge is linked to an ancient legend, cf. Bobbio – Wikipedia
  24. Manuscript Ms XF28, National Library of Naples
  25. In Luigi Pulci’s Morgante, the name Salaino is an equivalent of Satan.
  26. Cf. E. M. Seveso, Poison, women and intrigue at the court of Ludovico the Moor, Milan, 1967 22 Cf. C. Violini, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Turin, Società subalpina editrice, 1943, p.43
  27. Cf. C. Violini, Galeazzo Maria Sforza, Turin, Società subalpina editrice, 1943, p.43