.

  • Written by Susan Broomhall, Professor of History, University of Western Australia
Mona Lisa, Musée du Louvre, Paris, April 2019. Susan Broomhall

Every day, thousands of people from around the world crowd into a stark, beige room at Paris’s Louvre Museum to view its single mounted artwork, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

To do so, they walk straight past countless masterpieces of the European Renaissance. So why does the Mona Lisa seem so special?

The mystery of her identity

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, oil on poplar wood, c. 1503–06?, 77 x 33 cm, inv. 779. Musée du Louvre, Paris. Wikimedia.

The story told by one of Leonardo’s first biographers, Giorgio Vasari, is that this oil portrait depicts Lisa Gherardini, second wife of a wealthy silk and wool merchant Francesco del Giocondo (hence the name by which it is known in Italian: La Gioconda).

Leonardo likely commenced the work while in Florence in the early 1500s, perhaps when he was hoping to receive the commission to take on a massive wall painting of The Battle of Anghiari.

Accepting a portrait commission from one of the city’s most influential, politically-engaged citizens might well have helped his chances. A recently discovered marginal note by Agostino Vespucci, one-time assistant to the diplomat and writer Niccolò Machiavelli, records that Leonardo was working on a painting of “Lisa del Giocondo” in 1503.

Agostino Vespucci, Handwritten comment about the Mona Lisa in Cicero’s Epistolae ad familiares (Bologna 1477), Bl. 11a, held in Heidelberg, University Library, D 7620 qt. Heidelberg University

The Italian painter Raphael, a great admirer of Leonardo, leaves us a sketch from around 1505-6 of what seems to be this work. When Leonardo later moved to France in 1516, he took this still unfinished work with him.

However, art scholars have increasingly voiced doubts about whether the image in the Louvre can indeed be Vasari’s Lisa, for the style and techniques of the painting match far better Leonardo’s later work from 1510 onwards.

Additionally, a visitor to Leonardo’s house in 1517 recorded seeing there a portrait of “a certain Florentine woman, done from life,” made “at the instance of the late magnificent Giuliano de Medici.” Medici was Leonardo’s patron in Rome from 1513 to 1516. Was our visitor looking at the same image Vasari and our marginal diarist describe as Lisa, or another portrait of a different woman, commissioned later?

All in all, just who we are seeing in the Louvre remains one of the work’s many mysteries.

A portrait stripped bare

In comparison to many contemporary images of the elite, this portrait is stripped of the usual trappings of high status or symbolic hints to the sitter’s dynastic heritage. All attention is thus drawn to her face, and that enigmatic expression.

Before the 18th century, emotion was more commonly articulated in painting through gestures of the hand and body than the face. But in any case, depictions of individuals did not aim to convey the same kinds of emotions we might look for in a portrait photograph today — think courage or humility rather than joy or happiness.

Additionally, a hallmark of elite status was one’s ability to keep the passions under good regulation. Irrespective of dental hygiene standards, a broad smile in artworks thus generally indicated ill-breeding or mockery, as we see in Leonardo’s own study of Five Grotesque Heads.

Leonardo da Vinci, Grotesque Heads, c. 1490s, pen, Royal Library, Windsor. Wikimedia

Our modern ideas about emotions leave us wondering just what Mona Lisa might have been feeling or thinking much more than the work’s early modern viewers likely did.

A 20th century phenomenon

In fact, there is a real question as to whether anyone before the 20th century thought much about the Mona Lisa at all. The historian Donald Sassoon has argued that much of the painting’s modern global iconic status rests on its widespread reproduction and use in all manner of advertising.

This notoriety was “helped” by its theft in 1911 by former Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia. He remarkably walked out of the museum one evening after closing time with the painting wrapped in his smock coat. He spent the next two years with it hidden in his lodgings.

Shortly after its return, the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp used a postcard of the Mona Lisa as the basis for his 1919 ready-made work, LHOOQ, initials that sound in French as “she has a hot ass”.

Marcel Duchamp, with Francis Picabia, L H O O Q, 1919, published in the magazine 391, No. 12, March 1920. Wikimedia

Although not the first, it is perhaps among the best known examples of Mona Lisa parodies, along with Salvador Dali’s Self Portrait as Mona Lisa, 1954.

Cultural furniture

From Duchamp and Dali, we have increasingly seen the Mona Lisa used as a trope. Balardung/Noongar artist Dianne Jones has reprised the work in her inkjet photographic portraits of 2005, which are less pointed in their swipe at white European art and more luminous in their appropriation of Mona Lisa’s sense of dream-like plenitude.

The painting appears as cultural furniture in the recent music video Apeshit, 2019, by Beyoncé and Jay Z, in which they romp across the Louvre backed by a troupe of scantily clad dancers, striking Lady Hamilton-like poses in front of famous works of art.

The video for Apeshit.

Apeshit itself closely imitates earlier works of contemporary high culture, not least French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part (Band of Outsiders), 1964, in which three friends, including Mona Lisa-like Anna Karina (Godard’s famous muse), meet up and run through the Louvre in record time.

Jean-Luc Godard, Bande à part (extract), 1964.

Meanwhile, the notorious theft of a work of art by German performance artist Ulay in 1976, in which he removed the most famous (and kitsch) painting in the National Gallery in Berlin, Carl Spitzweg’s 1839 portrait of The Poor Poet, was a reprise of the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911.

Wim Delvoye, Suppo, 2012, Musée du Louvre, Paris. Martin Gautron/flickr

Many contemporary artists have rubbished all the reverence surrounding bucket-list art visits such as that to the Mona Lisa.

Recently, Belgian art provocateur Wim Delvoye (whose shit-producing machine, Cloaca, 2000, is one of the centrepieces of Hobart’s Museum of Old and New Art) installed Suppo (2012), a giant steel corkscrew suppository, under the Louvre’s central glass entry pyramid. This made it the first sighting of art in the museum to which the Mona Lisa’s visitors flock.

Still, the mysteries of the Mona Lisa look set to intrigue us for years to come. It is precisely the breadth and depth of possible interpretations that makes her special. Mona Lisa is whoever we want her to be - and doesn’t that make her the ultimate female fantasy figure?

Susan Broomhall receives funding from the Australian Research Council.

Charles Green ne travaille pas, ne conseille pas, ne possède pas de parts, ne reçoit pas de fonds d'une organisation qui pourrait tirer profit de cet article, et n'a déclaré aucune autre affiliation que son poste universitaire.

Authors: Susan Broomhall, Professor of History, University of Western Australia

Read more http://theconversation.com/whats-so-special-about-the-mona-lisa-117180

VIDEO: Michelle Grattan on the family law inquiry - and the UN climate change summit

University of Canberra Deputy Vice-Chancellor Leigh Sullivan discusses Scott Morrison’s new family law inquiry with Michelle Grattan. They also speak of the developments in the Tamil family from...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

Climate explained: why don't we have electric aircraft?

CC BY-ND Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change. If yo...

Dries Verstraete, Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Design and Propulsion, University of Sydney - avatar Dries Verstraete, Senior Lecturer in Aerospace Design and Propulsion, University of Sydney

Be excellent: how ancient virtues can guide our responses to the climate crisis

What would Socrates say about coal mining? Or recycling? www.shutterstock.comAs world chiefs and youth leaders gather in New York at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, many of us as individua...

Roger Crisp, Professorial Fellow, Dianoia Institute of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University - avatar Roger Crisp, Professorial Fellow, Dianoia Institute of Philosophy, Australian Catholic University

A shot of hope in the face of climate despair

We have a path forward through climate change. Ellie Barr/Unsplash, CC BY-SAHope, like a slinky, springs eternal. While rage, fear and disgust are all appropriate responses to the realities of climate...

Madeleine De Gabriele, Deputy Editor: Energy + Environment - avatar Madeleine De Gabriele, Deputy Editor: Energy + Environment

It's safest to avoid e-cigarettes altogether – unless vaping is helping you quit smoking

The recent vaping-related deaths in the US have brought the issue into the spotlight around the world. From shutterstock.comHealth authorities in the United States are investigating 530 cases of lung ...

Coral Gartner, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland - avatar Coral Gartner, Associate Professor, School of Public Health, The University of Queensland

What is the charge of concealment of birth and why is it still happening in Australia?

There has been a long history of women being charged with, and prosecuted for, concealment of birth both within WA and the rest of Australia. ShutterstockIn August, a 24-year-old woman appeared before...

Amanda Gardiner, Lecturer, Edith Cowan University - avatar Amanda Gardiner, Lecturer, Edith Cowan University

We want to learn about climate change from weather presenters, not politicians

Melbourne's ABC weather presenter Paul Higgins discussing a trend towards warmer April days. ABC/MCCCRHOne of the great paradoxes of climate change communication in Australia is that politicians comma...

David Holmes, Director, Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University - avatar David Holmes, Director, Climate Change Communication Research Hub, Monash University

Another stolen generation looms unless Indigenous women fleeing violence can find safe housing

In Western Australia more than half the children placed in state care are Aboriginal. The state government committed this month to reducing this over-representation, in a move that parallels the Closi...

Kyllie Cripps, Scientia Felllow and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law UNSW Sydney, UNSW - avatar Kyllie Cripps, Scientia Felllow and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law UNSW Sydney, UNSW

Ignoring young people's climate change fears is a recipe for anxiety

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story. Thousands of school students across Australia are expecte...

Rachael Sharman, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of the Sunshine Coast - avatar Rachael Sharman, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, University of the Sunshine Coast

Friday essay: on the ending of a friendship

Shutterstock Friendship is an incomparable, immeasurable boon to me, and a source of life — not metaphorically but literally. -Simone Weil About eight years ago, I went to dinner with a de...

Kevin John Brophy, Emeritus Professor of Creative writing, University of Melbourne - avatar Kevin John Brophy, Emeritus Professor of Creative writing, University of Melbourne

We don't need another inquiry into family law – we need action

Over the next 12 months, a joint parliamentary committee will examine Australia’s family law system. It will be led by conservative Liberal MP Kevin Andrews and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson...

Miranda Kaye, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney - avatar Miranda Kaye, Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney

Procurement’s role in climate change: putting government money where policy needs to go

Governments can choose to spend money in ways that support climate change policy, including a shift to electric vehicle fleets. from www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-NDThis story is part of Covering Climat...

Barbara Allen, Senior Lecturer in Public Management, Victoria University of Wellington - avatar Barbara Allen, Senior Lecturer in Public Management, Victoria University of Wellington

Why do men have nipples?

Men have nipples because of a quirk in how embryos develop. But that's only part of the story of this seemingly redundant body part. from www.shutterstock.comWomen’s nipples have long been a sou...

Michelle Moscova, Senior Lecturer in Anatomy, UNSW - avatar Michelle Moscova, Senior Lecturer in Anatomy, UNSW

Your brain has 'landmarks' that drive neural traffic and help you make hard decisions

The human brain has an estimated 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion neural connections. shutterstockBrain regions exchange information by sending and receiving signals through a network of nerve co...

Caio Seguin, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne - avatar Caio Seguin, PhD candidate, University of Melbourne

It's Newstart pay rise day. You're in line for 24 cents, which is peanuts

The extra 24 cents per day can buy an extra 36 peanuts per day, more if you buy in bulk. ShutterstockNewstart recipients and other Australians on benefits get their half-yearly pay rise today (and als...

Peter Martin., Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University - avatar Peter Martin., Visiting Fellow, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The big budget question is why the surplus wasn't big

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann unveil a budget outcome as good as balanced on Thursday. Lukas Coch/AAPThe budget was for practical purposes in neither deficit nor in su...

Warren Hogan, Industry Professor, University of Technology Sydney - avatar Warren Hogan, Industry Professor, University of Technology Sydney

Vital Signs: NBN's new price plans are too little, too late

Lack of speed kills: finally NBN Co is thinking about a genuinely 21st century offering for customers. www.shutterstock.comThis week NBN Co announced pricing changes for the National Broadband Network...

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW - avatar Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

Grattan on Friday: Morrison government solid on industrial relations reform but bootlicks One Nation on family law

John Howard is remembered by his Liberal tribe as a reformer, but his legacy is mixed. The GST has endured but he essentially doomed his government when he let his ideological obsession with industria...

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra - avatar Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

How rising temperatures affect our health

The first half of 2019 is the equal hottest on record and summer is set to be a scorcher. Chayathorn Lertpanyaroj/ShutterstockThis story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more...

Liz Hanna, Honorary Senior Fellow, Australian National University - avatar Liz Hanna, Honorary Senior Fellow, Australian National University

Sick and Tired of Your Dead End Job? Try Teaching!

Tired of the same old grind at the office? Want an opportunity to impact lives both in your community and around the world? Do you love to travel and have new experiences? Teaching English is the perfect job for you! All you need is a willingness to ...

News Company - avatar News Company

The Impact of an Aging Population in Australia

There’s an issue on the horizon that Australia needs to prepare for. The portion of elderly citizens that make up the country’s overall population is increasing, and we might not have the infrastructure in place to support this. Australians h...

News Company - avatar News Company

LifeStyle

Yvonne Allen: Eight ways to super impress someone on a first date

According to Yvonne Allen well known relationship mentor, psychologist and matchmaker, a first dat...

Picking The Right Crystal Yoni Egg: Tips And Instructions

When you are ready to pick your own crystal yoni egg, you need to decide what you will use it for...

Top 5 Tips for Paddleboarding In Whitewater

Paddleboarding can be relaxing as well as intense. If you occasionally want to do something differen...

3 Most Promising Career Occupations for Graduates in 2019

Studying in college is a great adventure which opens up lots of career opportunities. Yet, at times...