According to an accurate data of historians examining the primary sources, Leonardo da Vinci was born on April 15 1452 in the small town of Vinci belonging to Florence territory (Ottina, 1967:103). During the period of 1503 and 1507 he created the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda), one of the great art works of the Italian Renaissance. After it was finished, the work was part of the personal collection of King Francois I (Clark, 1961:8). It remained in the French royal collection until 1805, when it entered the Louvre in Paris, France.
The painting Mona Lisa is a portrait of an Italian lady. Since it is more than five hundred years old, the painting is covered with layers of dirt and varnish that disguise an incredible delicacy, transparency, and luminosity. It is very hard to see the original picture very clearly, so that only by means of the new technique of infrared photography can we get some small idea of the original lightness of touch with which Leonardo executed it. The technique of infrared photography also helps us to see the inimitable treatment of the surface that created the illusion of an atmospheric veil around the face. The infrared photographs further reveal the true character of the landscape as the background of the female portrait.
The individual is a sort of miraculous creation of nature which also represents the species for this reason; the portrait of an Italian lady goes beyond its social limitations and takes on a universal meaning. From this artwork of Leonardo da Vinci, we can realize why he considered painting to be mute poetry. From the critical perspective, we do not know the exact date of this great art work: some scholars believe that this painting was created between the years of 1514 and 1516 (Zubov, 1968:11); recently some scholars have concluded that this portrait was painted much earlier, in Florence during 1503 to 1507 (Osborn, 1989:115). Although there are still arguments about every detail, historical documents may offer us some information about this painting:
This portrait is mentioned for the first time in the diary of Antonio de Beatis, secretary of the Cardinal of Aragon, after a visit to Leonardo at Cloux, on 10 October 1517. He noted: “Three pictures, one of a certain Florentine lady, posed at the instance of Giuliano de Medici, the Magnificent, another of Saint John the Baptist as a youth, and one of the Virgin and the Infant Christ sitting on the lap of Saint Anne; all most perfect, though one can no longer expect good work from him because of a certain paralysis in his right arm” (Ottina, 1967:103).
Later (perhaps between 1550 and 1568 – more than thirty years after the death of Leonardo da Vinci) Giorgio Vasari wrote:
“For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook to execute the portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. He worked on this painting for four years and left it still unfinished; and today it is in the possession of King Francois of France, at Fontainbieau” (qtd in Clark, 1961: 109).
Later in 1625, Cassiano del Pozzo saw this work in Fontainebleau, France, and wrote:
“A life-size portrait, on wood, framed in carved walnut wood, representing the bust and head of a certain Gioconda. This is the most complete work from the artist, and she only lacks speech” (qtd in Clark, 1961: 110).
He also wrote a description of this work, but the interesting point is that he never mentioned the landscape of this painting.
The composition of the painting Nona Lisa is not very complex. A lady sits still, with her hands folded and with a smile on her face. The background consists of a landscape of mountains and rivers. We see that the folded hands and her head form a large triangle which occupies the great space of the whole painting. The triangular composition gives us a sense of stillness and balance.
The work Mona Lisa, clearly shows Leonardo’s idea or conception of the role of composition. Leonardo compares the painter composing his painting to the poet composing his verses. From the composition of this painting, we can see that Leonardo did compose his painting as the poet composes his verses. The figure of the pretty lady and the background of the landscape create a “poetic rhythm” (Zubov, 1968:54). The big triangle of the human figure and the use of the dark lighting effects express an emotion of tranquility and peace, and describe the character of the Italian Lady.
The famous and much discussed smile is the key to the “mystery” of the painting Mona Lisa. The smile of Mona Lisa is a half smile; it displays neither joy nor laughter, but a feeling of contentment. Its meaning is of far less importance than the mere fact of its existence: in essence, it is nothing more than the very first stage of transition from expressionless quiescence to first expression. It pervades the countenance, without producing a specific mood.
On one hand, the smile itself displays the inner soul of a wealthy lady – a soul filled with desire, relaxation and serenity. The Mona Lisa was painted to depict the wife of a rich man in the early 16th century (1503-1507). At that time, a woman married to a rich man or noble man could live a very comfortable life, not having to worry about the financial or physical struggles like those in a lower class. Leonardo portrayed true life of the upper class in that time.
On the other hand, Leonardo may have been inspired to create the Mona Lisa because of religious or governmental affairs. At the time that the portrait was created, many religious people worshipped the saints (as many do today). The beauty of this lady admired by all of the people is sometimes referred to as a depiction of a gothic saint. The fact that Leonardo displays the Mona Lisa as fleshy and opaque compared to other gothic saints who are not as fleshy and who are depicted as transparent is important. In these portraits of gothic saints it seems that the smiles are the pure illuminations of the spirits (Clark, 1961:172). In Mona Lisa’s smile there is something worldly, watchful, and self-satisfied. While the smile of Mona Lisa may be considered the illumination of her soul, the eyes are said to be the mirror or window of her soul.
The painting itself vividly shows us Leonardo’s feelings about human eyes. Through Mona Lisa’s eyes, Leonardo expresses a sense of “wisdom”. As true of most women of that time, especially queens and noble ladies of high society, women possessed an innate sense of “wisdom.” Many scholars, when discussing this famous painting, have mentioned the hands of Mona Lisa. Leonardo did a study on hands before he painted this painting. For example, in 1485, he drew some sketches of hands. In his painting Cecilia Gallerani (Lady with the Ermine, painted c.1483-86), he painted a very beautiful lady’s hand (Calder, 1994:29). Hands in these earlier paintings of Leonardo da Vinci are long and slender, bony and linear. They all have a youthful grace and a tense elegance, as if they were frozen in a moment of acute action.
Unlike the hands in other portraits, the hands in Leonardo’s Mona Lisa are plump and stubby. They are conceived as round, regular volumes in space, as in the rest of the body of this lady. Hatched lines that follow the shape of the body and emphasize the three-dimensional volume in space, Leonardo drew beautiful hands that vividly expresses the emotions of that Italian lady.
Leonardo uses dark colors and shadows to portray her characteristics in a serious sense. The dark hair, the dark clothes, and the shadow between her neck and her face have formed a very sharp contrast with her face and hands, so the viewer is made to pay much attention to the expression. Some critics claim that Leonardo used too much black or too much dark colors and shadows, perhaps to demonstrate an atmosphere which emphasizes dusk or evening. I believe, however, that Leonardo uses these dark colors and lighting effects to illustrate tranquility or peace within the character. This concept backs up what has been stated earlier, that the painting Mona Lisa displays a sense of contentment and serenity, certainly a feeling or an emotion that a queen, a saint, or the wife of a rich merchant may possess.
The smile on the face, the lowered eyelids, the beautiful eyes, the pretty folded hands, the soft hair, even the softness of her clothing, all bring together the eternal feminine principle into life. “This beauty, into which the soul with all its maladies has passed” wrote Walter Pater, the English essayist, critic, and prose stylist, in 1873 (qtd in Calder, 1994:39). Pater’s poem may imply his personal emotional involvement with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa; on the other hand when one stands before this painting he may have a similar experience, and be amazed by the mysterious expression of this “Lady”.
Behind the portrait of the Lady stretches a circle of rocky spires and pinnacles which sustain the mood of her smile. This landscape of Leonardo da Vinci is very characteristic of nature, as serene as the figure it surrounds. We may stand back and analyze this background of landscape in a broader sense. As many scholars have pointed out, to Leonardo, landscapes seemed to represent the wildness of nature, the vast, untamed background of human life. To Leonardo, a landscape, like a human being was a part of a complicated structure, that is, it can be understood part by part, or in a broader sense, as a whole (Clark, 1961:175).
Leonardo’s landscapes never take on a superficial appearance regardless of how romantic his subject may be. The stones, the trees, the water were all a part of the natural earth, each playing an integral part in the development of nature. This is also true of the subject of the portrait of Mona Lisa: she illustrates that a woman plays an integral part to the whole of the human race (Giovio, 1970: 56). To realize the deep knowledge of natural appearance behind them, we can compare the background of the painting of Mona Lisa with some of Leonardo’s other landscape paintings, such as the painting of Virgin of the Rocks and Virgin and Child and St. Anne, as well as other works of landscape drawings.
The landscape as the background of this Italian Lady occupies most of the whole painting – more than three-fifths of the whole painting. The landscape itself can be divided into three parts: the upper part, the middle part and the lower part. The upper part is the sky and far away mountains or hills, painted in light green-brown-yellow colors; while the middle part is the hills or mountains, and the rivers or waters, painted in green-blue-brown colors, darker than the upper part; the third part, which is the lower part of the landscape, is the valley and near by hills and fields, painted in dark brown, black, red-yellow colors. We can see the clear outline of the lower hills or mountains, but the distant mountains are not as clear as those in the lower part.
Leonardo explains his ideas of perspective of disappearance and perspective of color in this way:
… in every figure placed at a great distance you lose first the knowledge of its most minute part, and preserve to the last that of the large parts, losing, however, the perception of all their extremities; and they become oval or spherical in shape, and their boundaries are indistinct.
Of things of equal size, that which is farther away from the eyes will appear of less bulk.
Make the perspective of the colors so that it is not at variance with the size of any object, that is that the colors lose part of their nature in proportion as the bodies at different distances suffer loss of their natural quantity (Leonardo da Vinci, 1941:1000).
By using the principle of three distances, the spatial depth has been marked by a foreground, middle distance and far distance, each part paralleled the picture plane, so the eyes of the viewer leapt from one distance to the next to render depth. More than any other picture, the Mona Lisa has come to represent Leonardo’s mind and work for all subsequent generations, for in it his outlook is seen with the greatest clarity and completeness. All this analysis tends to render any questions into the subject’s personality meaningless. Leonardo has in this picture painted the image of a human being which can be seen not only by our eyes, but also by our spiritual faculties. Thus we can understand the great meaning of Leonardo’s words:
Painting is a poetry that is seen and not heard (una poesia mute and poetry is a painting that is heard and not seen (una pittura cicca) (Leonardo da Vinci, 1941:1003.
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