Giorgio Vasari was one of Leonardo’s first biographers. He claimed that the oil painting depicted Lisa Gherardini. She was the second wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy wool and silk merchant (hence its Italian name: La Gioconda).

Leonardo probably began the work in Florence, Italy, in the early 1500s. Perhaps he was waiting for a commission to paint a large wall painting of the Battle of Anghiari.

Leonardo’s acceptance of a portrait commission by one of the most politically active and influential citizens in the city helped him. A marginal note recently discovered by Agostino Vespucci, a former assistant of the writer and diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, records that Leonardo worked on a painting, “Lisa del Giocondo,” in 1503.

Agostino Vespucci: Handwritten Comment about the Mona Lisa, Cicero’s Epistolae ad familiares in Bologna 1477. 11a, located in Heidelberg University Library D 7620, qt. Heidelberg University

Raphael is a great Leonardo admirer and has left us a rough sketch of this work from 1505 to 6. Leonardo took the unfinished painting with him when he moved to France in 1516.

Art scholars are increasingly doubting that the Louvre image is Vasari’s Lisa. The style and technique of the painting match Leonardo’s work much better from 1510 to the present.

Leonardo was Leonardo’s patron from Rome in 1513-1516. A visitor to Leonardo’s house in 1517 noted that a portrait “of a certain Florentine lady, done from the life” had been made there “at the request of the late majestic Giuliano de Medici.” Is the image of Vasari, our diarist, and our visitor looking at Lisa or a later portrait of another woman?

The Louvre is full of many mysteries.

A portrait stripped bare.

This portrait, in comparison with many images of elites from today’s society, is devoid of any trappings or symbols of status. The sitter’s face and enigmatic look are the focus of attention.

In the early 18th century, expression was expressed more often in paintings through the use of gestures and the body rather than the face. In any case, the depictions of people did not convey the same emotions as we would look for today in a portrait photo — think of courage or humility instead of joy or happiness.

A person’s ability to regulate their passions was also a sign of status. A broad smile, regardless of dental hygiene, is usually a sign of mockery or ill-breeding in art. This can be seen in Leonardo’s study of Five Grotesque Heads.

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

We are left wondering what Mona Lisa was thinking or feeling much more than early modern viewers.

The 20th Century phenomenon

It is doubtful that anyone thought about the Mona Lisa before the 20th Century. Donald Sassoon, a historian, has claimed that the Mona Lisa’s global icon status is largely due to its wide reproduction and use of all kinds of advertising.

The theft of the painting in 1911 by Vincenzo Perugia “helped to increase” its notoriety. The image was wrapped in his smock jacket as he walked out of the museum after closing. The painting was hidden in his apartment for the next two years.

Marcel Duchamp, a Dadaist, used a postcard image of the Mona Lisa to create his ready-made piece LHOOQ in 1919. The initials LHOOQ are pronounced “she’s got a hot a**” in French.

Published in magazine 391, no. 12, March 1920. Marcel Duchamp with Francis Picabia. L H O O Q. 12. March 1920. Wikimedia

Salvador Dali’s Self Portrait as Mona Lisa (1954) is one of the most famous examples of Mona Lisa parodies.

Cultural Furniture

We have seen the Mona Lisa as a trope used by Duchamp, Dali, and many others. Dianne Jones, a Balardung/Noongar artist, has re-created the work with her 2005 inkjet photographs. Her portraits are more radiant and luminous than their earlier slap at white European art.

In the music video Apeshit by Beyonce & Jay Z, they are seen posing like Lady Hamilton in front of famous pieces of art.