Mona Lisa's Secret

by Ton Pascal



There are many reasons why the “Mona Lisa” is undoubtedly the most famous, researched, debated and talked about painting of all time. Its story, from commission, concept, travels, and thrills are worthy of a Hollywood film script.  Then there is also the fact that its creator, Leonardo da Vinci, artist, scientist and inventor, is perhaps one of the most recognized names in the world.

What secrets may still lie beneath the layers of the most famous and celebrated painting the world has ever known?


The Mona Lisa’s simplest story starts in 1503 with Leonardo’s birthfather commissioning him to do a portrait of Lisa, the wife of his friend Francesco Del Giocondo.  Leonardo, having just escaped the crazy Cesare Borgia, had reopened his atelier in Florence with great success and commissions purred in. Between night long discussions with his newly found friend, Niccolò Machiavelli, the painting of the huge mural “The Battle of Anghiari” and the daily, incessant fights, and mutual harassments with Michelangelo Buonarotti,  Leonardo started the relatively small (77 cm x 53 cm), oil painting of the Italian lady on poplar boards. Leonardo’s father died the following year and he kept the painting. Up to closer to his death in 1519, Leonardo never stopped adding strokes here and there on this painting. By then the Italian Lady, la Giaconda was already a very famous painting.


With fame came questions and debates. What is the message here? Who is this woman? Whether it is Lisa Gherardini or Lisa Del Giocondo, the identification of the woman has kept scholars busy for centuries. The gossip, reports, and books written on this subject alone could fill a library.


Controversy followed a few centuries later when scholars and researchers questioned the originality, provenance and ownership of the painting, and again the story became the source of countless books, essays and reports. Salai, Leonardo’s alleged old lover and pupil con-artist was the source of this chapter. On January 12, 1524 Salai, who was also an informant-spy, was killed in a brawl. Listed in the inventory of his possessions, among the eleven other paintings, all named after Leonardo’s well-know masterpieces, was one called “La Giaconda”. This information didn’t come to light until early 1800’s. No-one thought to check that in 1524 the original “Mona Lisa” was safely hanging in the palace of Fontainebleau along with King Francis I’s other masterpieces, rather than a dead man’s house in Milan, one thousand kilometers away.


All of these facts have contributed to making this painting very precious and famous, but the main reason that makes the Mona Lisa so special is the brilliant, genial conception and new approach to painting. Leonardo’s new experiment, his ‘esfumato’ technique, blending shadows and light on Mona Lisa’s portrait, was executed with utmost precision. Mona Lisa’s expression eludes the viewer who questions whether she is happy or sad. His ‘esfumato’ technique is disturbingly effective. Leonardo softened all sharp outlines by very subtle and gradual blending of one tone into another through the use of thin, intricate layers, half the width of a human hair, to give the illusion of depth or three-dimensionality. Amazingly certain areas have as many as thirty layers of almost transparent, hand made paint. Is it a dream image, a vision, or a portrait of a real woman? The setting and background overflow with symbols and messages screaming to be understood. Is art imitating nature? The dreamy background landscapes are at different levels, so if you look at Mona Lisa from the left she looks taller than from the right. Only a great master of perspective like Leonardo could so effortlessly create this illusion of depth to its fullest advantage.


The great Florentine painter Georgio Vasari describes the painting in full detail but I wonder where he saw it as he never visited Fontainebleau where Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait was on display. We know that he visited Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’s last assistant and artistic heir, several times after his return to Italy. Did Vasari see a copy made by Melzi?  I believe that there are several copies of a “Mona Lisa” still hidden in dusty attics or secret vaults around the world.  Leonardo was not a prolific painter and when he did a major work it was talked about and most certainly copied by many artists, as was the case of “Leda and The Swan”, which is lost, but copied extensively, as well as “The Annunciation”, The Baptism of Christ”, “The Battle of Anghiari” among others. It is unconceivable that this, even then, very celebrated painting would not be copied by the best artists of the period.  It was their form of paying homage to a great artist.


Imagine if we could see the Mona Lisa in its original colors as Vasari describes it in his 1550’s edition of “LIVES OF THE MOST EXCELLENT PAINTERS, SCULPTORS, AND ARCHITECTS,”“…Seeing that her eyes had that luster and watery sheen which are always seen in life, and around them were all these rosy and pearly tints, as well as the lashes, which cannot be represented without greater subtlety. The nose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender appeared to be alive. The eyebrows through his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the skin, could not be more natural. The mouth, with its opening, and with its ends united by the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colors but flesh. In the pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of the pulse.”  Aggressive retouching throughout past centuries has erased Mona Lisa’s eyebrows and eyelashes but recent x-rays of the painting show that they originally existed.


Mona Lisa’s fame exploded to a new high when it was stolen on August 21 19ll. The Louvre was closed for a full week. Guillaume Apollinaire, a French poet who had once said that the Louvre should be burnt down, was the first to come under suspicion. He was arrested and put in jail. The plot thickened when Apollinaire implicated the painter Pablo Picasso, who was also questioned and put in jail. Both men were later cleared and released. Everyone thought that the painting was lost forever.


The actual theft was a very simple and easy caper. Vincenzo Peruggia, one of the Louvre’s employees, was an Italian patriot who believed that the painting should be returned to Italy. On that fatidic day he snatched the painting when there was no one around, hid it in a broom closet until closing time and walked out with the painting under his coat. For two years he kept the “Mona Lisa” in his Paris apartment. Finally he was caught in Italy when he attempted to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The “Mona Lisa” was returned to the Louvre in 1913 after it had been exhibited all over Italy. Vincenzo served six months of house arrest and became Italy’s new national hero.


The painting was again removed from the Louvre during World War II and taken safely to several secret places. I am not even going into the shooting, rock and other vandalistic attacks this art work has gone though.


Lately we have been bombarded with a multi million dollar campaign by a Swiss corporation wanting to add more value to a painting they own claiming it to be a first version of “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. It is called the “The Isleworth Mona Lisa”. This oil on canvas, which was not Leonardo’s medium, is a poor representation of the original. Late 1400’s canvas made out of hemp was introduced as a new material for painting in a few regions of Europe but it was not the most popular and favorite medium then. The ‘Isleworth’ woman, her posture, veil, her hair, eyes, mouth, does not capture the simple beauty and elusiveness of the original. It could very well be a copy by an amateur artist of the 17th century. We have the technology to exam the composition of pigments and lacquers in this painting against what Leonardo used, as well as the canvas but none of it has been done.  Instead they rely on reviews of ‘scholars’ who claim to be Da Vinci’s experts. I do not believe that “The Isleworth” painting is by Leonardo or anyone from his school or time.


The “Mona Lisa” has created mystery and questioned the unknown from the day it was first seen, right up to the present day, which is exactly what art is supposed to do. This everlasting masterpiece is still breathtaking despite the ravages of time and subsequent dreadful retouching. However, the painting’s fame now works against it. Dear “Mona Lisa” has her own private space at the Louvre now, but she is enclosed by bullet proof Plexiglas and you can’t get close to it without attracting the attention of the museum’s security guards. And the worst part is that most visitors to the Louvre are more concerned about catching a camera-phone picture of the painting instead of admiring the genial conception and execution of this master piece.


What a blockbuster of a film this artwork could make!


Ton Pascal


Follow Ton Pascal on Twitter @tonpascal