Who Was the Real Mona Lisa?

The real subject for Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has been a source of speculation for centuries, and the debate still persists today.

Feb 14, 2024By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art
who was the real mona lisa

 

Speculation amongst scholars and historians about the identity of the sitter for Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious and enigmatic Mona Lisa (1503) has been ongoing for decades, particularly since the artwork shot to fame during the early 20th century. Is she a real woman, a figment of the artist’s imagination, a subconscious memory of his mother, or even a self-portrait by Da Vinci? While recent evidence was uncovered in 2005 that suggests her true identity is now cut and dried, other plausible theories continue to be circulated amongst academics.

 

Lisa del Giocondo (née Gherardini)

leonardo mona lisa painting
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-06. Source: The Louvre, Paris

 

Thanks to recent evidence found in 2005, the most likely theory is that the Mona Lisa depicts Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. German historian Dr Armin Schlechter found a handwritten comment dated to 1503 within a manuscript archived at the University of Heidelberg. The note stated that Da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa Del Giocondo at the time that the Mona Lisa was most likely to have been painted. 

 

This evidence chimed with a 16th century biography of Da Vinci written by Giorgio Vasari, in which he refers to the painting as ‘La Gioconda’ in Italian (which many presumed was derived from her husband’s surname ‘Giocondo’), ‘La Jaconde’ in French, and the Mona Lisa in English. (The ‘Mona’ in the English title is thought to be shortened from the Italian ‘Ma Donna’, meaning ‘My Lady.’) However, Vasari is now known for having invented any gaps in his historical research, making him a somewhat unreliable source.

 

However, the fact that Da Vinci worked on the painting on and off for 4 years, and carried it with him whenever he was travelling until the end of his life rather than delivering it to a client, makes the notion of the painting as a simple commissioned portrait seem less likely.

 

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man?

leonardo da vinci
Leonardo Da Vinci, Engraving by Cosomo Colombini after Da Vinci. The Metropolitan Museum, New York

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Prior to 2005, the theories surrounding Mona Lisa’s true identity or inspiration ranged from the plausible to the far-fetched. One widespread notion was that the Mona Lisa was in fact a veiled self-portrait by none other than Da Vinci himself, with comparisons being made by numerous scholars on the nose alignment and eye shape of the artist as seen in his numerous self-portraits. If this were true, the painting would have had to be based on Da Vinci’s youthful face, rather than his appearance at the time the painting was made, given he was most likely in his 50s by now, therefore bearing little similarity to the radiant young Mona Lisa. 

 

Gian Giacomo Caprotti

Saint John the Baptist, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-1516. Source: Louvre Abu Dhabi
Saint John the Baptist, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-1516. Source: Louvre Abu Dhabi

 

More plausible, perhaps, was the possibility that the Mona Lisa depicted Da Vinci’s young and most favored pupil, Gian Giacomo Caprotti dressed as a woman. Having entered Da Vinci’s studio from the age of 10, the fiery and unpredictable Caprotti had been playfully nicknamed Salai, or ‘little devil’ by Da Vinci, and would most likely have been in his twenties when the Mona Lisa was painted. Rumors suggest he was by now also Da Vinci’s lover, making him a likely candidate for portraying the youthful, yet seductive qualities of the Mona Lisa. Caprotti appeared in many of Da Vinci’s paintings, including his famed depiction of Saint John the Baptist, (1513), and it is clear that there are facial similarities between his striking facial features and those of the somewhat androgynous Mona Lisa. 

 

A Figment of the Artist’s Imagination

Saint John the Baptist, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-1516. Source: Louvre Abu Dhabi
Saint John the Baptist, by Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-1516. Source: Louvre Abu Dhabi

 

Another widely accepted theory is the possibility that Da Vinci had, in fact, entirely invented the Mona Lisa. Perhaps, some theorists posited, he composed her face from fragments of other women, picking out the most visually appealing facial elements of all his past models in order to create the most idealized beauty. In his 20th century analysis of Da Vinci, psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud even argued that the Mona Lisa conveyed a repressed memory of the artist’s mother Catherina, and her knowing, comforting smile, chiming with the mother-child theme that had so dominated Da Vinci’s practice. But perhaps the most compelling theory still in circulation today is that the Mona Lisa is in fact a ‘finzione’, or a complete figment of Da Vinci’s imagination, demonstrating the artist’s remarkable, inimitable spirit of invention.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.