Many questions arose over the years as to the true identity of the lady in the portrait. The Italians call her La Gioconda, which means 'the light-hearted woman'. The French version, La Joconde, carries a similar meaning, provoking many thoughts and theories about the Mona Lisa's smile.
One popular theory suggests that the lady is the Duchess of Milan, Isabella of Aragon. Da Vinci was the family painter for the Duke of Milan for 11 years and could very well have painted the Duchess as the Mona Lisa. Other researchers have stated that the painting could depict a mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, who reigned in Florence from 1512 to 1516. A more recent thought by Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs is that the Mona Lisa is the feminine version of Da Vinci himself. Through digital analysis, she discovered that Da Vinci's facial characteristics and those of the Mona Lisa are perfectly aligned with one another.
Despite the above theories, it is currently widely accepted that the portrait depicts Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. In fact, the title Mona Lisa is discussed in Da Vinci's biography, written and published by Giorgio Vasari in 1550. Vasari pointed out that Mona is commonly used in place of the Italian word Madonna, which could be translated into English as 'Madam'. Hence, the title Mona Lisa simply means 'Madam Lisa'.
How does she smile?
Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile has been the source of inspiration for many and a cause for desperation in others. In 1852, Luc Maspero, a French artist, jumped four floors to his death from a hotel room in Paris. His suicide note explained that he preferred death after years of struggling to understand the mystery behind Mona Lisa's smile. Today, visitors to the Musée du Louvre grapple with the same question: how does she smile?
Italians respond to this query by referring to a painting technique called sfumato, which was developed by Da Vinci. In Italian, sfumato means 'vanished' or 'smoky', implying that the portrait is ambiguous and blurry, leaving its interpretation to the viewers' imagination. This technique uses a subtle blend of tones and colors to produce the illusion of form, depth, and volume.
Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a neuroscientist at Harvard, explains that the human eyes consist of two regions – the fovea, or central area, and the surrounding peripheral area. The fovea recognizes details and colors and reads fine print, while the peripheral area identifies shadows, black and white, and motion. When a person looks at the Mona Lisa, the fovea focuses on her eyes, leaving the peripheral area on her mouth. Since peripheral vision is less accurate and does not pick up details, the shadows in Mona Lisa's cheekbones augment the curvature of her smile.
However, when the viewer looks directly at the mouth of the Mona Lisa, the fovea does not pick up the shadows, and the portrait no longer appears to be smiling. Therefore, the appearance and disappearance of Mona Lisa's smile is really an attribute of viewers' vision. In spite of the many revelations from years of research, the Mona Lisa remains an enigma today. The brilliant strokes of Da Vinci's paintbrush have ensured that she continues to evoke wonder, admiration, and inspiration in all who lay eyes upon her.
Leonardo was about 14 when he began his apprenticeship to painter Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence. In 1476, when he was 24 and still under Verrocchio's tutelage, he and three other men were arrested on sodomy charges after being accused, anonymously, of having sex with 17-year-old male art model and prostitute, Jacopo Saltarelli.
It is worth noting that making such a charge anonymously was not an uncommon way to retaliate against one's enemies at that time -- so there may not have been any substance to the charge at all. It is, however, worth wondering who may have had such a grievous vendetta against the young artist. While homosexuality was common throughout the Florence arts community, a formal charge of sodomy was no light matter. The Pope at the time was none other than the thoroughly depraved Sixtus IV (who, just two years later, would bestow his blessing on the Spanish Inquisition); a sodomy conviction could result in a sentence as mild as the humiliation of a public confession, or as serious as imprisonment, exile, or even death.
Nevertheless, enough is known about Leonardo to conclude that, if he was not a full six on the Kinsey scale, he was thoroughly uninterested in women (despite La Gioconda, or the Mona Lisa, which some say may be an ironic self-portrait). Not only are Leonardo's sketches of the female nude almost gruesomely distorted, but even his depictions of heterosexual couplings, if not physically impossible, would be difficult to maintain for more than a moment by all but the most flexible Cirque de Soleil contortionists.
Leonardo's drawings of female nudes were likely the result of his study of cadavers; it is doubtful he ever had any intimate contact with a living woman. (He certainly never married, or fathered any children).
It is also not lost on many observers that the peace-loving (and vegetarian) Leonardo was strangely fascinated by weapons of war; he invented the machine gun, after all.
Leonardo's homosexuality originated from an unusually close relation with his mother, and ... Leonardo was without his father for the first few years of his life. Furthermore for Freud, homosexuality was linked to love of self and therefore narcissism, from which he suspected Leonardo suffered greatly. For example the narcissistic urge to do just enough to impress may have led to his trail of unfinished but admired work. Narcissism, or love of self, would also mean that Leonardo worked to express his self-love, rather than love of art or science. This lead [sic] naturally to a further analysis by Freud of the Mona Lisa smile, suggesting that the same smile can be found in his other works, and was in essence an embodiment of himself.
We will examine The Last Supper and a few other, less-recognized examples of what Leonardo may have been trying to tell us. First, let us return for a moment to Leonardo's sodomy arrest in 1476. We have discussed the potential consequences had Leonardo been convicted. In truth, however, it is unlikely he would have been put to death; more "sodomites" were exiled or sentenced to prison or to some form of public humiliation at that time in Italy. (Burning at the stake was more common in France and Spain, where the Inquisition was already well under way; it just hadn't received the official blessing of the Church yet.)