When my sister recently came home from a trip to Paris she seemed impressed with everything that she had seen there – except for the Mona Lisa. One of the most recognized works of art in the world, reproductions of it usually come in poster sized prints while the original, hung behind thick, bullet proof glass (see below) and guarded by a velvet rope is miniature in comparison.
She commented that in a museum filled with huge, wall-sized works of art, why should she care about something so small that she couldn’t even get close to?
This is a very good question, and one that I am sure A LOT of visitors to the Louvre end up asking.
What's so special about Mona?
The era that Leonardo da Vinci lived in, the Renaissance, was a time of arts patronage and artists usually only painted epic works at the request of a wealthy patron (basically someone who requested a certain type of work and then paid for it). Patrons valued these artists and usually gave generous commissions, but this meant that the artist had little freedom in what they were creating. Most works from this period were biblical or classical in nature and the patrons themselves were only painted if they were added into the scene. Unless you were a pope, a Medici (an influential family in Florence) or someone equally wealthy, there was little chance of there being a painting done only of you.
And then there is Mona… she is painted with not a stitch of jewelry (unheard of for women of the era), not even a wedding ring, and her look is contemporary, not drawing from any classical or biblical references. Woman, at the time, were painted to look demure and would never be directly gazing at the viewer. Mona not only stares you down, but does so with a smile on her face. It is almost like she is challenging those who dare to view her.
For someone like da Vinci, a painter of such revered biblical works like The Last Supper, this is a huge digression from the norm. To make it all even more mysterious, the real identity of the woman is not known. There is speculation that she was Lisa Gherandini del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, but there is no direct evidence of this. Many have guessed that the women and the artist were involved in some sort of love affair, but for all we know, the woman in this painting was his housemaid.
Something about her, or the painting must have moved him however, because once it was finished he kept it with him for the rest of his life.
So, why should you care?
It is not so much the painting itself, but the history behind it that makes the Mona Lisa so special. In a time when the majority of art created was for someone else to appreciate, Leonardo da Vinci created something that was only for himself.
Though tame to us, the style that he painted Mona Lisa in was scandalous for his time and if there is anything to love more than a mystery, it’s a scandal.