Who is "Mona Lisa"? – Historical Facts and Speculations
"All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them." – Galileo Galilei
The most famous portrait painting in the world can be found in the Louvre museum under the name "Mona Lisa". Have you ever wondered which of the many claims concerning its origin are speculations without proof, and which are facts supported by historical sources? During the research for my book "Who is Mona Lisa? In search for her identity" and further investigations within the three university libraries of Adelaide, South Australia, I realized that many assumptions regarding the "Mona Lisa" have simply been sold as historical truths for over a hundred years. Critical research on this painting has become a rarity. Even the academic world is stuck with repeating all the claims of the past, following the slogan, "if so many academics have said it before, it cannot be wrong". Careful library research, however, shows that the answer to the question, "Who is Mona Lisa?", could have been answered a long time ago. A bit of public education is therefore urgently needed.
The lady depicted in the famous portrait painting of Leonardo da Vinci is Mona Lisa, the wife of the Florentine silk merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo.
This claim by the art historian Frank Zoellner is mere speculation for which no supporting evidence can be found. Nevertheless, it is stated by many art historians as a historical fact.
Fig. 1: Sofonisba Anguisciola
As with so many paintings and drawings (over 95%) that originate from the Renaissance, this particular work of art is neither signed nor dated nor is it mentioning the person who is depicted. But we can be very certain that the original of this masterpiece was created by the Florentine painter and universal genius Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519). However, the date of its creation and the person that it depicts remain a mystery. Leonardo's numerous notebooks are filled with hundreds of his ideas, his mathematical formulas and computations, his sketches of technical innovations, his drawings of heads, limbs, animals and plants, and even his household costs, but only very few truly personal entries.
The primary tool of art historians, the history of stylistic art (in German: Stilgeschichte or Bildgenese), is also not suited for determining: 1. who is depicted on a portrait from the 15th and 16th century; and 2. when exactly this portrait was painted. Consequently, the works of so-called pioneers of a particular style and of good imitators are often dated incorrectly. When it comes to the attribution of paintings to painters, therefore major mistakes have been made by art historians. As a case in point, the works of the greatest female painter of the Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguisciola (1532-1630) (Fig. 1) were – until 1995 – attributed to her male colleagues such as Leonardo da Vinci, Tizian, Coello, Moroni, Tintoretto, Bassano, Salviati, Bronzino, Carracci, Zurbarán, Murillo, Sustermans and van Dyck. In 1995 this was corrected, when the Art Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum) in Vienna exhibited her paintings for the first time under her name to the public.
Fig. 2: Leonardo da Vinci (self-portrait)
Likewise happened to Leonardo da Vinci, whose works were erroneously attributed to students of his such as Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio (1467-1516) or later Italian artists such as Cariani (1480/90-1547). Unlike Sofonisba Anguisciola, however, these mistakes have yet to be corrected. For instance, Leonardo's self-portrait (Fig. 2), which can be seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, is still attributed to Cariani, even though the fashion of the depicted person is typical for the 70's and 80's of the 15th century, as any expert can confirm. Cariani was probably not even born at that time!
Around 1483 the great Milanese court painter Leonardo da Vinci was instructed to depict the 14-year-old Duke of Milan, Gian Galeazzo II. Maria Sforza, as his favourite saint, Saint Sebastian (Fig. 3, Fig. 4). The portrait of Fig. 3 that was produced by Leonardo da Vinci is nowadays attributed to his student Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, who was only 16 at that time. Furthermore, Giovanni became a student at Leonardo's workshop in 1491, 8 years subsequent to the conception of the painting. The portrait of Fig. 4 is attributed to Leonardo's colleague Ambrogio de Predis, but is probably a collaboration of Ambrogio de Predis and Leonardo da Vinci. When will such evident mistakes by the art historians finally be corrected?
Fig. 3: Gian Galeazzo II. Maria Sforza as Saint Sebastian, painted by Leonardo da Vinci in 1483
Fig. 4: Gian Galeazzo II. Maria Sforza painted by Leonardo da Vinci and Ambrogio de Predis, c. 1483
Abb. 5: Gian Galeazzo II. Maria Sforza's son Francesco il Duchetto, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1499-1512
- Maike Vogt-Luerssen: Sofonisba Anguisciola (in German only!) and Images (in German only!)
- Maike Vogt-Luerssen: New self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci
Historical Fact No. 1:
Leonardo da Vinci made a portrait-drawing of a woman with the name Mona Lisa.
Frank Zoellner and also Giuseppe Pallanti made a big mistake in their search for this woman, because they merged the biographies of two cousins with the same name, "Francesco del Giocondo", into one. One of these Francesco del Giocondos was born as the youngest son of a certain Bartolomeo del Giocondo on 19 March 1465. He died in 1538. On 5 March 1495 he married a certain Lisa Gherardini who was the daughter of the Florentine Antonio Maria di Noldo Gherardini and was born in the Via Maggio in Florence in 1479. According to Pallanti she was his second and according to Zoellner his third wife. By his first wife, a certain Camilla Rucellai, who died in 1494, Francesco del Giocondo had already a son who was called Bartolomeo after his paternal grandfather as it was tradition in the Renaissance. According to the last will of Francesco del Giocondo which was drawn up in Florence on the 29 June 1537 and the information of Giuseppe Pallanti, Lisa Gherardini gave birth to at least five children, the sons Pietro, Andrea and Giocondo, and two daughters: Camilla, who died in the year 1518 as "Sister Beatrice" in the convent San Domenico di Cafaggio, and a daughter who lived as a nun under the name "Sister Ludovica" in the convent of Sant'Orsola in 1537 and died in the year 1579. According to Pallanti the last existing reference to Lisa Gherardini was made in 1539, and according to Zoellner she died after 1551.
Over many years we were told again and again by Frank Zoellner and his friends, that Lisa Gherardini was the "Mona Lisa" of whom the great master Leonardo da Vinci had made a portrait-drawing. But a contemporary historical source from the year 1503, which was found by Armin Schlechter and published world-wide by Veit Probst, shows that Lisa Gherardini is NOT the "Mona Lisa". Please, read very carefully the content of this important historical source: "Apelles pictor. Ita Leonardus Vincius facit in omnibus suis picturis, ut enim caput Lise del Giocondo et Anne matris virginis. Videbimus, quid faciet de aula magni consilii, de qua re convenit iam cum vexillifero. 1503 Octobris." (= The painter Apelles. In this way Leonardo da Vinci makes it in all his paintings for example the head of Lisa del Giocondo and of Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see what he is going to do with regard to the great hall of the Council about which he has just agreed with the Gonfaloniere.)
According to this contemporary historical source, Leonardo's Mona Lisa was not Lisa Gherardini, but a certain Lisa del Giocondo! This big mistake done by Frank Zoellner, Giuseppe Pallanti and Veit Probst shows how important it is to have enough knowledge about the Middle Ages and the Renaissance when making historical claims. It was not until Protestantism gained widespread acceptance in the second half of the 16th century, that women in the Protestant states in Europe finally lost the last piece of their own identity, their own surname, when they became married. From now on they had to assume the surnames of their husbands. In the Catholic states like Belgium and Spain the women never had to change their surname. In Italy the change of the surname was introduced as recently as the 70s of the 20th century (Art. 143 bis Cognome della moglie: La moglie aggiunge al proprio cognome quello del marito e lo conserva durante lo stato vedovile, fino a che passi a nuove nozze). But in all important documents like the passport or the driver license the Italian women still have to use their own surnames and not the surnames of their husbands.
There was not one single woman in the first half of the 16th century, living in Europe who lost her own surname, which she had since her birth, because of becoming married. Lisa Gherardini, too, did not give up her own surname when she became married to Francesco del Giocondo. Her own surname was part of her identity. Even as wife of Francesco del Giocondo her full name was always Lisa Gherardini and never Lisa del Giocondo. Therefore, who is "Lisa del Giocondo"? We can find the answer in a family tree which is depicted in Giuseppe Pallanti's book "Mona Lisa Revealed – The True Identity of Leonardo's Model, Milan 2006". According to this historical source "Lisa del Giocondo" was a sister of the above mentioned Francesco del Giocondo and therefore also a sister-in-law of Lisa Gherardini. She was born in 1468 and was already 35 years old, when Leonardo da Vinci made the drawing of her. Because of her age she can be ruled out as the candidate for the woman at the Louvre. She was presumably married to her cousin of the second degree, "Francesco del Giocondo", also a silk merchant, who can be found also as "Piero Francesco del Giocondo" or "Pierfrancesco del Giocondo" in the contemporary historical sources of the first half of the 16th century. This "Francesco del Giocondo" was born in 1460 and died in 1512 (according to Jean Richter) or in 1528 (according to Zoellner). Through the research work of Pallanti and Zöllner we know that Lisa del Giocondo gave birth at least to two daughters, one daughter, of whom we do not know the name and who died in June 1499, and another daughter called Marietta, and one son Piero: "... and the following year, 1496, she gave birth to a son who was called Piero after his paternal grandfather" (in: Giuseppe Pallanti: "Mona Lisa Revealed – The True Identity of Leonardo's Model, Milan 2006, page 60). Therefore we also know the name of the father of this second "Francesco del Giocondo": it was Piero del Giocondo who could have been a legitimate or an illegitimate son of Paolo del Giocondo.
Conclusion: Giorgio Vasari made no mistake. He described in his famous book not the portrait of the renowned lady at the Louvre, Isabella von Aragon, but the portrait of the Florentine merchant's wife Lisa del Giocondo, which is only a drawing of a head, probably without hair. There is a great chance, that this drawing is still in the Louvre, in one of its many storage rooms. It is not attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, but to a wrong painter by the art historians. Even today there are many works of Leonardo da Vinci, which are attributed to his favourite student Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio, his friend Raphael and his colleagues Domenico Ghirlandaio and Cariani.
- Donald Sassoon: Mona Lisa – The History of the World’s most famous Painting. London 2001 – However his new book "Leonardo and the Mona Lisa Story: The History of a Painting Told in Pictures" (published in 2006) is very disappointing! Mr. Sassoon has no knowledge about the history of the Renaissance and the emblems and symbols of the high nobility of this interesting epoch. Therefore we could have expected that he would try to fill his big gap in historial knowledge, before he would publish a new book about his favourite subject "Mona Lisa". But he didn't!
Historical Fact No. 2:
In 1503 a portrait drawing of Mona Lisa was created by Leonardo da Vinci, who – as Macchiavelli stated – was regarded the best painter in Italy.
Fig. 6: Giorgio Vasari, ca. 1566-68
We know this from the eminent manuscript of the painter and biographer Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574): "Lives of Seventy of the most eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (of the Renaissance)", which was first published in Florence in 1550. A second, improved edition followed in 1568. Giorgio Vasari (Fig. 6), who never knew Leonardo da Vinci in person, visited Francesco Melzi in Milan to get first-hand information about the great painter and his works.
About the drawing of the Mona Lisa, which he presumably saw at Francesco Melzi or from whom he received first-hand information, he writes the following: "For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook to paint the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife, but, after loitering over it for four years, he finally left it unfinished. This work is now in the possession of King Francis of France, and is at Fontainebleau. Whoever shall desire to see how far art can imitate nature, may do so to perfection in this head, wherein every peculiarity that could be depicted by the utmost subtlety of the pencil has been faithfully reproduced. The eyes have the lustrous brightness and moisture which is seen in life, and around them are those pale, red, and slightly livid circles, also proper to nature, with the lashes, which can only be copied, as these are, with the greatest difficulty; the eyebrows also are represented with the closest exactitude, where fuller and where more thinly set, with the separate hairs delineated as they issue from the skin, every turn being followed, and all the pores exhibited in a manner that could not be more natural than it is: the nose, with its beautiful and delicately roseate nostrils, might be easily believed to be alive; the mouth, admirable in its outline, has the lips uniting the rose-tints of their colour with that of the face, in the utmost perfection, and the carnation of the cheek does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood: he who looks earnestly at the pit of the throat cannot but believe that he sees the beating of the pulses, and it may be truly said that this work is painted in a manner well calculated to make the boldest master tremble, and astonishes all who behold it, however well accustomed to the marvels of art. Mona Lisa was exceedingly beautiful, and while Leonardo was painting her portrait, he took the precaution of keeping someone constantly near her, to sing or play on instruments, or to jest and otherwise amuse her, to the end that she might continue cheerful, and so that her face might not exhibit the melancholy expression often imparted by painters to the likenesses they take. In this portrait of Leonardo’s, on the contrary, there is so pleasing an expression, and a smile so sweet, that while looking at it one thinks it rather divine than human, and it has ever been esteemed a wonderful work, since life itself could exhibit no other appearance." (in: Giorgio Vasari: Lives of Seventy of the most eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Edited and annotated in the light of recent discoveries by E.H. and E. W. Blashfield and A.A. Hopkins. London 1897, pages 395-397).
If you compare the statements by Vasari on Mona Lisa's face with the actual face of the "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre, you will find no similarities other than that lovely smile which is actually exhibited by most of the female faces drawn by Leonardo. The "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre is missing the eyebrows, the lashes and the rosy nose openings, and Leonardo also does not seem to have afforded much care for the throat-pit.
Fig. 7: The Adoration of the Magi
Moreover, Vasari describes the portrait of Mona Lisa as "unfinished" in 1568, that is, the drawing was never turned into a complete oil painting. In this instance the art historians of today accuse Vasari of not being well informed. They have no sources to support this, however. Vasari also describes another very famous work of the great master, "The Adoration of the Magi", as "unfinished", and everyone can see that in this case he is correct (Fig. 7). Vasari writes: "A picture representing the Adoration of the Magi was likewise commenced by Leonardo, and is among the best of his works, more especially as regards the heads; it was in the house of Amerigo Benci, opposite the Loggia of the Peruzzi, but like so many of the other works of Leonardo, this also remained unfinished." (in: Giorgio Vasari, ditto, page 382).
How the Mona Lisa drawing might have looked like is indicated by another portrait drawing which Leonardo da Vinci made of Lucrezia Borgia in 1498 (Fig. 8).
Fig. 8: Lucrezia Borgia drawn by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498
Fig. 9: The "Mona Lisa" at the Louvre is shown in the second phase of a mourning period
The motivation of Francesco del Giocondo (1460-1528) behind his request for portraits of himself and his wife Lisa del Giocondo from the great master is unknown. But nonetheless we can expect that Lisa del Giocondo was depicted wearing the most valuable and colourful silk materials of her husband. In contrast, the lady that carries her name in the Louvre is in the second phase of mourning. She has already removed the deep black that had to be worn for six months after the death of a close relative, but she still shows herself in the modest colours brown, beige, and dark green, and without any jewelry (Fig. 9).
- Giorgio Vasari: Lives of Seventy of the most eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects. Edited and annotated in the light of recent discoveris by E.H. and E. W. Blashfield and A.A. Hopkins. London 1897 (personally I think this is the best edition of Giorgio Vasari's work)
- Giorgio Vasari: Lebensgeschichten der berühmtesten Maler, Bildhauer und Architekten der Renaissance, Zürich 1980 (shortened edition)
Speculation No. 2:
Leonardo's father, Ser Piero da Vinci, took the role as intercessor for the silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, so that the latter could have a portrait of his wife and of himself made by the greatest painter of his time.
Without Ser Piero da Vinci the drawing of Mona Lisa and presumably also a drawing of the silk merchant – it was common in the Renaissance that couples were drawn in two individual portraits – would have never been produced by Leonardo da Vinci. Indeed, according to the statements of a certain Anonimo Gaddiano only a portrait of Francesco del Giocondo was made. This contemporary of the great painter did not know anything about a portrait of the silk merchant's wife.
Leonardo da Vinci painted only few portraits outside his own family after 1500. Thus, a lot speaks in favour of speculation no. 2 being in fact the truth. Ser Piero da Vinci knew the silk merchant and his brother for many years, because he was a notary for both. However, when Leonardo's father deceased in the year 1504 at the age of 75 years, there was nobody who could force the great master to complete the portrait of Mona Lisa. Hence it remained unfinished, as contemporaries have reported it.
Historical Fact No. 3:
The portrait drawing of Mona Lisa became a property of the French kings between 1524 to 1547.
Subsequent to the completion of the drawing of Mona Lisa in the year 1503, no source mentions it for another 21 years. We do not know whether Leonardo da Vinci took this drawing to France around 1517. In the travel diary of Antonio de' Beatis, the secretary of the cardinal Louis d'Aragona, who visited Leonardo da Vinci together with his master on the 10th of October 1517 in Cloux, only three pictures are mentioned: "one of a certain Florentine lady, painted from life, at the instance of the late Lord Giuliano de’Medici; the other the youthful St John the Baptist; the third of the Madonna and the Child in the lap of St. Anne, the most perfect of them all." (in: Ludwig Goldscheider: Leonardo da Vinci. London and New York 19442, S. 20 und in: L. Beltrami, op.cit., S. 149 in: Luca: Documenti e Memorie riguardanti la vita e le Opere di Leonardo da Vinci, Mailand 1919).
Fig. 10: Saint Mary with the Child Jesus Christ is sitting on the lap of Saint Anne
Whereas Leonardo da Vinci's masterpieces "The Madonna and the Child in the lap of St. Anne" (Fig. 10) und "St. John the Baptist" (Fig. 11) can be easily identified among these works, the comment by Beatis that the third painting is a portrait of a Florentine lady, painted on the explicit order of Giuliano de'Medici, is not particularly helpful. It could be either Pacifica Brandano, with whom Giulianao de'Medici had one illegitimate Sohn Ippolito, or a certain Isabella Gualanda.
Abb. 11:Saint John the Baptist
This latter painting was purchased by the French king Francis I. on the 2nd of May 1519 for 4000 gold crowns. Before Francesco Melzi, his eldest son and the principal inheritor of him, left France, the French king purchased another work by Leonardo da Vinci from him for another 4000 gold crowns. In this case, we do not know which painting it was. But it certainly was not "The Madonna and the Child in the lap of St. Anne", "St. John the Baptist" or the portrait drawing of Mona Lisa.
"The Madonna and the Child in the lap of St. Anne" and "St. John the Baptist" would only make it into the possession of the French kings Louis XIII. and Louis XIV. in the years 1636 and 1661, respectively. In addition, the portrait drawing of Mona Lisa remained in the possession of Salaì after the death of Leonardo da Vinci. Contemporary sources lead to the only conclusion that this latter individual was also a close relative of the great master, possibly an illegitimate half-brother.
When Salaì died in January 1524, the portrait drawing of Mona Lisa was mentioned as in his possession in a judicial inventory list. It was inherited by one of his two full- or half-sisters, Angelina and Lorenziola Caprotti, who sold it to Francesco Melzi. Through him the drawing ultimately ended up in France, like many works of the great master. It is very likely, that the portrait drawing of Mona Lisa can be found in one of the many French archives that store pictures and drawings not on display, and is waiting for its rediscovery!
Please read the excellent work by the art historians Janice Shell und Grazioso Sironi: Salaì and Leonardo’s legacy, in: The Burlington Magazine, February 1991, pages 95-108
Further reading suggestions:
- R. J. Knecht: Renaissance Warrior and Patron – The Reign of Francis I. Cambridge 1994
- Robert Payne: Leonardo. London 1978
Historical Fact No. 4:
The lady that is now seen in the Louvre under the name "Mona Lisa" was first mentioned under this title in the inventory list of the French king Louis XIII. in the year 1625.
We do not know when this painting of Leonardo da Vinci, which is now seen by countless visitors at the Louvre under the title "Mona Lisa", came into the possession of the French kings. In the year 1625 it was already in Fontainebleau, where a certain Cassiano dal Pozzo had to make an inventory list about the paintings of his royal master and gave this female portrait the title "Gioconda" for the first time. A colleague of the latter, however, who was assigned to the same job, chose the title "courtesan" for this portrait. Thus, by 1625 all the knowledge about this lady must have already been lost, because these two men were able to make up a title for this portrait. It appears at that time that the title "Gioconda" was yet not universally accepted for this portrait.
Ultimately the French collector of art and dealer in old master prints, Pierre-Jean Mariette (1694-1774), who was regarded as the art authority of his time, was responsible for the unfortunate mistake of seeing the merchant's wife "Mona Lisa" in the portrait-painting of the Milanese Duchess Isabella of Aragon. He knew that the portrait of the Florentine merchant's wife was left incomplete – it was a drawing, not a painting. Nevertheless he declared the oil-painting of the Milanese Duchess as the drawing of Mona Lisa by claiming that the contemporaries of Leonardo da Vinci described the painting as "unfinished", but he could see (by looking at the oil-painting of the Milanese Duchess) that it was "carried to so high a degree of finish, that it was impossible to surpass it." None of his contemporaries had the courage to criticize him or to point out his mistake, because he was the authority! Through the continued reiteration of Pierre-Jean Mariette's statement, the Milanese Duchess Isabella of Aragon became the Florentine merchant's wife Mona Lisa. It is a great pity that mistakes, errors, gossips and lies, once they have been accepted by us, are so persistent and hard to eliminate, because people look up to these so-called authorities and repeat their nonsense again and again.
Under the French king Louis XIV. we can find Leondardo da Vinci's masterpiece in the king's favourite palace Versailles. Subsequent to the French Revolution at the end of the 18th century the Louvre became the new home of the now so-called "Mona Lisa". Then she was removed on the order of the French emperor Napoleon, as he wanted to decorate the wall of his bedroom with the enchanting smile of this beautiful stranger. After Napoleon's banishment to Helena "Mona Lisa" returned to the Louvre, where she could be seen without intermission until 1911.
Fig. 12: The "Mona Lisa" of the Vernon Collection is still showing the columns
Under Napoleon Leonardo's masterpiece had been reduced by about 10 cm on both the left and right side to fit it into a special and expensive frame. Thereby the columns on the left and right side got lost (in: Richard Friedenthal: Leonardo da Vinci, London 1959, p. 109) (Fig. 12). After that the measurements were 77 x 53 cm. In 2005 a team of 39 international experts proved that the painting, which we now find at the Louvre, has not been trimmed. Where is the version of "Mona Lisa", which had been trimmed and which decorated Napoleon's bedroom?
On the 21st of August 1911 the "Mona Lisa" finally made big news, when she was stolen from the Louvre during daylight among hundreds of visitors. The thief was a certain Vincenzo Peruggia, an insignificant varnisher or house painter. For two years he kept the masterpiece in his attic in Paris, until – in 1913 – he could smuggle it in a container, hidden among pieces of clothing and equipment, into Italy. When he tried to sell the painting to the antiquities and art dealer Alfredo Geri in Florence, he was finally apprehended. In court he declared that he only wanted to bring this Italian masterpiece back to its true home, Italy. For the theft he received a 12-month prison term. "Mona Lisa" returned to the Louvre in a big state ceremony in January 1914, staged by the Italian government during the handover to the French delegates.
Additionally, in 1956 Leonardo's most significant painting was assaulted twice. In the first instance the lower half of the painting was heavily damaged by acid, and in the second instance, on the 30th of December, a Bolivian visitor named Ugo Ungaza Villegas threw a stone at the portrait. These hostile attacks seemed to only benefit the popularity of the "Mona Lisa", as the masterpiece was exhibited in New York, Tokyo, and Moskow in the 1960s and 1970s. For reasons of security you can view the "Mona Lisa" only behind thick glass nowadays, but this does not deter her fans from wanting to see her.
Speculation No. 3:
The Lady at the Louvre is Pacifica Brandano or Brandani.
Since October 2009 we now have another candidate for the Lady at the Louvre. According to the Italian historian Roberto Zapperi the Mona Lisa painting depicts Pacifica Brandano or Brandani. For a number of years this woman was the mistress of Giuliano de' Medici (1479-1516) and bore him his illegitimate son, the future Cardinal Ippolito de' Medici (1511-1535). Roberto Zapperi seems to have been afraid of nobody being interested in his research with regard to Pacifica Brandano. Again, Leonardo da Vinci and "Mona Lisa" had to serve as the attraction in this case. That would be the only explanation why he makes the completely unscientific claim that the Lady at the Louvre is Pacifica Brandano. In Antonio de Beatis' travel diary we find the following entry dated 10th October 1517: "Our master went with the rest of us to one of the suburbs [of Amboise] to see Messer Leonardo Vinci of Florence, an old man of more than seventy [Leonardo was 65 years old], the most outstanding painter of our day. He showed the Cardinal [Luigi of Aragon] three pictures, one of a certain Florentine woman portrayed from life at the request of the late Magnificent Giuliano de' Medici, another of the young St. John the Baptist as a young man, and one of the Madonna and Child set in the lap of St. Anne. All three works are quite perfect, though nothing good can now be expected from his brush as he suffers from paralysis in the right hand [after a stroke in early 1516]" (in: The Travel Journal of Antonio de Beatis – Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France and Italy, 1517-1518. Translated from the Italian by J.R. Hale and J.M.A. Lindon. Edited by J.R.Hale. London 1979, p. 132)If this was the only information we had then there would have been quite a number of women whom Leonardo could have painted at the request of Giuliano de' Medici, e.g. one of his three sisters, Lucrezia, Maddalena or Contessina, or his wife Filiberta of Savoy, or one of his known mistresses, Pacifica Brandano or Isabella Gualanda. And naturally she might have been a lady who has never been mentioned in contemporary sources or of whom all information has been lost over the last 500 years. The added term "a certain Florentine" means that the lady either was born in Florence and/or lived there at Giuliano de' Medici's side. And because of that Pacifica Brandano can definitely be excluded as a candidate. For she called Urbino home and only there she was the lover of Giuliano de' Medici. Hence, neither was she a native Florentine nor did she live there by her lover's side. Finally, the answer to who that unknown lady in this specific portrait painting of Leonardo's was, which Antonio de Beatis saw on the 10th October 1517, is given by himself. On 11th October 1517 at the Castle of Blois he looks at another portrait painting of a lady from the Lombardy and compares it to the portrait painting he saw the day before, and he mentions a name: Isabella Gualanda: "There was also an oil painting from life of a certain lady of Lombardy: a beautiful woman indeed, but less so, in my opinion, than Signoria Isabella Gualanda." (in: The Travel Journal of Antonio de Beatis – Germany, Switzerland, the Low Countries, France and Italy, 1517-1518)
Historical Fact No. 5:
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – at least until the first half of the 16th century – the aristocrats of the high and low nobility had themselves defined by their coat of arms, their emblems, their symbols, and their colours. They also decorated their portraits with these. Consequently, knowledge of the coat of arms, emblems, symbols, and colours – the tools of any historian – is the means by which persons shown on portraits of the 15th and 16th century can be identified. Members of the high nobility are very easy to identify if you are familiar with the dynasties of the Renaissance, the history of fashion, and the history of the coat of arms, emblems, symbols, and colours.
During the Middle Ages, heralds were highly regarded, as they were capable of identifying any nobleman hidden under his heavy armour by his coat of arms, which decorated their shields, the saddle-cloth of their horses, their lances, their robes and maybe also their helmets (Fig. 13 and Fig. 14).
Fig. 13: Lord Hartmann of the Aue with his coat of arms, which can be seen on his shield, his robe, the saddle-cloth of his horse, his lance and his helmet
Fig. 14: Lord Ulrich of Lichtenstein with his coat of arms, which can be seen on his shield, his robe and the saddle-cloth of his horse, and his self-chosen symbol, the "The Lady Venus", which is to be seen on his helmet
The heraldic figures, seen on the coat of arms, which became hereditary in France towards the end of the 11th century, turned into the permanent insignia of the family during the 13th century. Hence, after enduring about 7 - 8 years of schooling, heralds could attribute any coat of arms to a specific family.
Fig. 15: Isabella of Bourbon († 1465), the second wife of Duke Charles of Burgundy, with the Coat of Arms of her family, the House of Bourbon
Fig. 16: Isabella's niece, Suzanne of Bourbon († 1521), is no longer using the coat of arms of her dynasty to decorate her portrait, instead she displays one of the important emblems of the House of Bourbon and also a symbol to tell us something about her and the time when this portrait was made
Fig. 17: The headscarf of Suzanne of Bourbon shows an important emblem of her family, a chain of shells
Fig. 18: The braid of Suzanne's dress displays a mirrored C, which alternates with 2 vertical lines. These symbols have to be associated with her cousin and husband Charles II. of Bourbon. Therefore this portrait painting is the first portrait of her as the new Duchess of Bourbon after she married her cousin on 10 May 1505.
But by the end of the 15th century and the first half of the 16th century, only a few aristocrats of the high nobility still showed themselves on their portraits with their coat of arms. They instead preferred the application of their emblems, symbols and colours (Fig. 15, Fig. 16, Fig. 17 and Fig. 18).
Some coat of arms are still used today. For instance, the Milanese car company Alfa Romeo displays the coat of arms of the powerful Visconti(-Sforza), who ruled the duchy of Milan from the 13th to the 16th century (Fig. 19 and Fig. 20).
Fig. 19: The Milanese car manufacturer Alfa-Romeo is still using the two most important coat of arms of the Visconti, the red cross on a white background and the dragon-like green snake, which is devouring a man.
Fig. 20: The Milanese Duchess Bianca Maria Visconti († 1468) with her coat of arms, the dragon-like snake, which is devouring a man
- Dorothy Muir: A History of Milan under the Visconti. London 1924
- Vogt-Luerssen, Maike: Sforza I: Bianca Maria Visconti – Die Stammmutter der Sforza. Norderstedt 2005: ISBN 3-8334-3558-5
Historical Fact No. 6:
Leonardo da Vinci used emblems or symbols of the high dynasties in his portraits to identify the depicted individual.
Historical Fact No. 7:
The "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre shows the emblems of the Milanese house of the Visconti-Sforza in the neckline of her garment.
Fig. 22: One of the emblems of the Sforza is to be seen on the upper portion of the braid of her dress. The emblem, showing the close connection of the Visconti and the Sforza, can be seen on the lower portion.
For his most famous painting, Leonardo da Vinci provides us with an important hint about who the depicted person is. We find at the braid of her green satin dress emblems that identify her as a member of the famous Milanese dynasty (Fig. 22). The chain of interlinked circles constitutes an emblem of the Sforza, while the intricate ribbons and bows were used as a insignia of the close relationship of the Visconti and their successors, the Sforza. Leonardo da Vinci also decorated the ceiling of the Milanese main palace, the Castello Sforzesco, with this emblem (Fig 23).
Fig. 23: The emblem of the Visconti-Sforza House, which was used to show the close connection of both dynasties, the Visconti and the Sforza.
There are 13 possible female candidates that belong to the ruling dynasty of the Visconti-Sforza that theoretically could have been portrayed by Leonardo da Vinci in the years 1483 to 1499. They are Bona of Savoy and her two daughters Bianca Maria and Anna Maria, Angela Sforza and her sister Ippolita, Caterina Sforza and her sister Chiara, Maddalena Sforza, Bianca Sforza, Camilla Sforza, Bona Sforza, Isabella of Aragon, and Beatrice d'Este.
- D.S. Chambers: Patrons and Artists in the Italian Renaissance. Columbia, South Carolina 1971
- Michael Dummett: The Visconti-Sforza Tarot Cards. New York 1986
- Richard A. Goldthwaite: Wealth and Demand for Art in Italy 1300-1600. Baltimore and London 1993
- Millard Meiss and Edith W. Kirsch: The Visconti Hours. London 1972
- Gertrude Moakley: The Tarot Cards painted by Bonifacio Bembo. New York 1966
Historical Fact No. 8:
Of the Milanese princesses of the 14th to 16th century only those who occupied the highest female rank in the family were permitted to have themselves depicted as the Saint Mary and the principal saint of their duchy, the Saint Catherine of Alexandria.
Since the second half of the 14th century the faces of the powerful rulers of Milan, the Visconti and the Sforza, and their family members can be seen in the images of saints in churches and cloisters within and beyond their domain of power. A strict hierarchy determined as which Saints they were allowed to be depicted. For instance, only the Milanese duchesses (or those women of the Visconti-Sforza who took up the highest ranks in the Milanese duchy) had the right to be depicted as Saint Mary with Child and as Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Of the abovementioned eleven candidates only Isabella of Aragon satisfies this requirement, and she is indeed the woman that Leonardo da Vinci would make immortal with his painting.
Historical Fact No. 9:
The original of the masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci that depicts the Milanese Duchess Isabella of Aragon was produced between mid-February to late-May 1489. Isabella, who lost her mother Ippolita Maria Sforza in August 1488, displays herself in the second phase of mourning. The picture was painted in the castle of Pavia.
Historical Fact No. 10:
Leonardo da Vinci was the court painter of the Sforza for 16 or 17 years. He knew his patroness Isabella of Aragon since her marriage to Gian Galeazzo II. Maria Sforza († 1494) in 1488. As additional sources reveal, Leonardo was more than just her court painter, but a very close friend and even her husband (clandestine marriage in 1497) (Fig. 24). I would like to quote Joanne K. Rowling at this point: "It was one of those rare occasions, when the truth is more outrageous and more exiting than the wildest rumours." (in: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone) Their eldest daughter Johanna (or Giovanna) (1502-1575) (Fig. 25) was a great celebrity in her time because of her beauty and her courage.
Fig. 24: Leonardo da Vinci and his great love and wife, the Duchess of Milan, Isabella of Aragon, as two apostles in his great fresco: The Last Supper
Fig. 25: Johanna (or Giovanna) (1502-1575), the eldest daughter of the Milanese Duchess Isabella of Aragon and her second husband Leonardo da Vinci, as the young wife of Ascanio Colonna, Duke of Paliano and Count of Tagliocozzo
- Maike Vogt-Luerssen: Wer ist Mona Lisa? – Auf der Suche nach ihrer Identität. Norderstedt 2003
- Maike Vogt-Luerssen: Isabella of Aragon - and her Court Painter Leonardo da Vinci (in German). Norderstedt 2010
- Video by Derri Sanchez on youtube
- Penelope Debelle: Da Vinci Code
- Maike Vogt-Luerssen: Identifying "Mona Lisa" with the Help of Contemporary Historical Sources of the 15th and 16th Centuries and the Tools of Anthropology
- Maike Vogt-Luerssen: Identificare "Monna Lisa" con l’aiuto di Fonti Storiche Contemporanee del 15° e 16° secolo e gli strumenti dell’Antropologia
- Article: Exclusive Interview with Mona Lisa
P.S: They (the art historians) did it again. Yesterday, 28th September 2006, I read an article from Michel Menu, research director of the French Museums' Centre for research and restoration. He claims that "Mona Lisa" wears a fine gauze veil which was typical for "either soon-to-be or new mothers at that time". All over the world this nonsense was sent with the help of the gullible journalists. I can assure you that there existed definitely never such a veil. There is not one single contemporary historical source supporting such a claim and consequently this must be again regarded as pure fantasy.
P.S.2: You may have read recently the latest article about "Mona Lisa", which was circulated by "dpa" in Germany: Grave of Mona Lisa discovered.. Do not forget that Mr. Pallantini is searching for the merchant's wife Lisa Gherardini and not for the woman depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's most famous portrait painting "Mona Lisa"!
P.S.3: The "Mona Lisa"-saga goes on. Now the director of the Heidelberg University Library, Mr. Veit Probst, wants to contribute to the issue of "Mona Lisa". And again, the Lady in the Louvre is the merchant's wife Lisa Gherardini (who else could it be, all other candidates would require some degree of historical knowledge, which Mr. Probst proves not to possess). And for him, as is the case for most art historians and Mr. Pallanti, just some written source containing a remark, not even mentioning Lisa Gherardini, but her sister-in-law Lisa del Giocondo, is sufficient to create a (scientific) context between her and the painting in the Louvre. Once again: no one denies the existence of Lisa Gherardini and Lisa del Giocondo and that Leonardo da Vinci produced a drawing (and not a painting!) of the latter in 1503. However, she is not the lady in the painting in the Louvre. Who that really is, is written in the painting in a way that was common in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: by the emblems and symbols of the dynasty whom the depicted was a member of.