The Mona Lisa’s smile has confounded art historians for decades. From the reason behind her sly expression to the true identity of the woman depicted, there’s much about the artwork that remains a mystery. But, perhaps Mona smirked because she and her creator — Leonardo da Vinci — had a secret. At least, that’s what some experts believe, following a discovery that changes the story of the world’s most famous painting.
While the Mona Lisa is hands down the most recognized painting of all time, no one knows for sure who the subject of the painting actually is. However, several experts believe that the woman in question was Lisa Gherardini, the spouse of a merchant from Florence, Italy, named Francesco del Giocondo. Without any documents related to the commission, though, Mona Lisa’s true identity remains a mystery.
Numerous people through the years have dedicated themselves to speculating over who the figure in the painting really was. They have looked deeply into the painting’s eyes, they’ve studied her lips and strange smile. Yet still, there has always remained an air of mystery to the painting. What was she trying to say?
Eventually, the Mona Lisa ended up in one of the most famous museums in the world. Thousands of people walk through the doors of the Louvre in Paris each day, many of whom come just to see da Vinci’s famous portrait. And with so many eyes on it, the Mona Lisa has remained a part of popular culture for years.
Of course, there’s also the allure of the artist who created the Mona Lisa to consider. Many experts regard da Vinci as one of the best painters of all time, yet merely 15 of his paintings have lasted to the present day. And that’s precisely why a secret about the most famous of all his creations could change everything we think about the artist and his work.
Those who trek to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa might be left surprised by the painting itself. When visitors crowd in front of the portrait, they’ll note a sheet of bulletproof glass protecting the precious artwork. But if that seems impressive, the size of the painting is arguably less so.
The Mona Lisa measures in at a mere 30 inches by nearly 21 inches – a small portrait compared to some of da Vinci’s other famous works. For instance, The Last Supper stretches to 15 feet in length and almost 30 feet in width. Still, the humbly sized Mona Lisa has made an indelible mark on the art community and beyond.
Many details about the Mona Lisa remain up for debate. For starters, it’s unclear when da Vinci painted the portrait. Some say that he began the portrait in 1503 or 1504. The Louvre itself states that he undertook the project between 1503 and 1506. Other experts, however, say that the artist had to have painted it later.
Italian historian and da Vinci expert Carlo Pedretti, for one, said that the Mona Lisa couldn’t have been painted so early. Instead, he posited, the portrait represented the Renaissance painter’s style in the later years of his life. As such, he couldn’t have started on the portrait until at least 1513.
Indeed, da Vinci could have spent his later years perfecting the Mona Lisa, too, thus explaining why it represented his more mature techniques. Towards the end of the artist’s life, he accepted an invitation from King Francis I to move to and work in France. Some say that da Vinci brought the Mona Lisa with him, finishing it there in 1516 or 1517.
It would make sense, considering that the Mona Lisa has remained in France since da Vinci’s death in 1519. He had joined King Francis I’s court, so the monarch held onto the portrait and placed it into the royal collection. Notably, the Mona Lisa hung in Napoleon’s bedroom during his reign as Emperor of the French.
Eventually, though, the Mona Lisa found its place at the Louvre at the start of the 19th century. And as more and more people started to visit the painting, they wanted to know who they were looking at. Her identity proved absorbing, but some experts believe that they have pinpointed the portrait’s subject.
According to many specialists, a Florentine housewife named Lisa Gherardini served as da Vinci’s inspiration for the Mona Lisa. And while they don’t know much about the woman’s life, a certain amount has been posited. At 15, for instance, she wed Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo. Her family provided a humble dowry, which suggests that she and del Giocondo actually married for love.
Over their life together, Gherardini and del Giocondo had five children – Piero, Camilla, Andrea, Giocondo and Marietta. They moved into a home of their own in 1503, the year in which many believe da Vinci painted her portrait. Indeed, commissioning the painting may have been a celebration of their new property, as well as the birth of Andrea.
In 1537 Francesco del Giocondo passed away, and his will lauded his wife. He gave her dowry back to her, and he also handed over clothes and jewelry. According to the 2006 book Mona Lisa Revealed by Giuseppe Pallanti, del Giocondo’s will referred to her as “Mona Lisa, his beloved wife.”
At the time, the del Giocondo family couldn’t have known that a portrait of their matriarch would make so many waves in the future. Indeed, the man behind the painting would carve out a place for himself in history. Many consider da Vinci to be the prime example of a “Renaissance Man,” someone with extensive interests and unending curiosities. It just so happened that da Vinci excelled in multiple areas. These included math, engineering, anatomy, architecture, botany, sculpture and paleontology.
Still, da Vinci’s most famous role is that of a painter. He produced perhaps 20 paintings on his own, according to experts, but only 15 remain. As such, the surviving masterpieces are worth a stunning amount of money. In November of 2017, for instance, his Salvator Mundi painting went for $450.3 million at auction.
And somehow, that amount of money pales in comparison to the value of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The painting holds a Guinness World Record for having the priciest insurance valuation ever. In 1962 a policy for $100 million protected the painting. Nowadays, that coverage has a value of more than $852 million when adjusted for inflation.
All of this – Mona Lisa’s intriguing subject, da Vinci’s place in history, the painting’s value – explains why any new information regarding the portrait grabs headlines. With that in mind, the Mona Lisa Foundation, a non-profit research group, had a stunning update to share in 2012. It believed that da Vinci had painted more than one image of the Florentine housewife.
A second painting known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa was supposedly created at the hand of da Vinci. For over a century, this artwork had been hanging at a mansion in Somerset, England. It just so happened that an English art collector and connoisseur named Hugh Blaker visited the property just ahead of World War One starting.
The original owner had purchased the painting in Italy, swayed by the claim that it was a da Vinci original. And when Blaker saw it more than 100 years after that, he too could see that the portrait was something special. So, the collector purchased it and ultimately transported it to his premises in west London’s Isleworth.
Blaker’s stepfather, John R. Eyre, gave further credence to the proposal that the painting was really a da Vinci original. Eyre helmed a study into the piece, eventually positing that the Renaissance artist had actually painted two portraits of Gherardini. The Isleworth version, he claimed, was the first of the pair.
The Isleworth Mona Lisa’s next owner, Henry F. Pulitzer, further theorized the painting’s origins. He published a book about the piece, but its contents may have been biased in order to serve its author. Pulitzer claimed that the Isleworth version was the real Mona Lisa. The second, more famous painting, he asserted, was not of Gherardini, but of someone else.
But Blaker, Eyre and Pulitzer’s theories about the Isleworth Mona Lisa never really caught on with many experts. And it didn’t help that Pulitzer’s 1979 death sent the painting into obscurity – it remained locked in a bank in Switzerland for nearly 30 years. In 2008, though, the painting emerged from its storage place, and thus began the research to find out the truth.
When the Isleworth Mona Lisa came back into the spotlight, the Mona Lisa Foundation was formed to determine the veracity of claims that da Vinci had painted it. According to the BBC, vice president David Feldman has claimed that the organization “does not have any stake in the painting.” Thus, they strived “to examine facts in the most objective light possible.”
So, to determine whether or not the Isleworth Mona Lisa was an original, the foundation relied firstly on historical sources. For one thing, da Vinci did occasionally produce several versions of the same subject. Perhaps most famously, the Renaissance man painted two copies of the Virgin of the Rocks. One of these resides in the Louvre, while the other sits in London’s National Gallery.
On top of that, the foundation considered the acclaimed artist Raphael’s drawing of the Mona Lisa. Indeed, he had crafted his own sketch of Mona Lisa from memory, having seen da Vinci in the middle of it around 1505. Raphael’s drawing contains columns, the bases of which are present in the more famous Mona Lisa. In the Isleworth version, though, you can see the columns fully.
Another point worthy of consideration is the fact that Gherardini herself appears younger in the unconfirmed portrait. It may have been that del Giocondo commissioned the first in 1503, while another patron named Giuliano de’ Medici asked for the second version a decade after. This would explain the age gap between the Mona Lisas.
Finally, a research physicist from the University of California named John Asmus has supported the notion of two Mona Lisas. In fact, according to the Mona Lisa Foundation’s Feldman, the findings of Asmus’ peer-reviewed work are almost 100 percent certain. Referring to this research, Feldman has concluded, “The same artist painted at least the face of both the Isleworth and Louvre Mona Lisas.”
With that, Feldman claimed, “If one denies the Isleworth is by da Vinci, then one also denies the Louvre version.” But not all experts are convinced that both paintings come from the hand of the Renaissance man. Indeed, the Mona Lisa Foundation itself has come into question regarding its intentions for claiming that the painting is real.
For one thing, membership of the Mona Lisa Foundation’s board was murky in 2015, to say the least. Feldman would neither confirm nor deny that those who bought the Isleworth Mona Lisa served on the organization’s board. He also wouldn’t answer if the purchasers hoped to sell of their acquisition as a real da Vinci painting.
Another questionable detail of the Isleworth Mona Lisa was that the artist painted it on canvas. When he created art, da Vinci generally brushed his oils onto wood, not a fabric base. This was especially true in the later part of his career, when he perfected his method. Very early on, he did use a linen canvas, but this was subsequently a rare choice for the artist.
University of Oxford art history professor Martin Kemp had one of the loudest voices against the Mona Lisa Foundation’s findings. He said that the organization used infrared technology to reveal under-drawings beneath the surface of the Isleworth Mona Lisa, thus proving the painting was original. However, the professor countered, these marks didn’t match with the artist’s preparation practices.
In fact, Kemp so strongly believed that the Isleworth Mona Lisa wasn’t an original da Vinci that he never traveled to see it. He explained, “[I saw] nothing to convince me that seeing it in the flesh is of high priority. I am sent many non-Leonardos – as many as one a week – and have to make choices. If I traveled to see every hopeful ‘Leonardo,’ I would be impoverished.”
So, two different verdicts have come in on the Isleworth Mona Lisa. In the meantime, though, the potential da Vinci has traveled the globe for exhibitions in Singapore and Shanghai in 2014 and 2016, respectively. Then, in June 2019 it landed back where it may have been painted in the first place – in Florence, Italy.
The Florentine exhibition took place at the city’s Palazzo Bastogi. And as it happened, this occasion marked the Isleworth Mona Lisa’s first European display in the 21st century. Furthermore, the showing ultimately ended with a bang, when an unnamed person put forth an unexpected claim for 25 percent ownership of the painting.
This unnamed person came from a “distinguished European family,” as the lawyer representing them claimed to CNN. But though Giovanni Battista Protti was happy to speak to CNN, he wouldn’t reveal the name of the person or people behind the legal grab. He did claim, though, that the Isleworth Mona Lisa’s former owner had sold his client a quarter stake in it.
The claimant made their move to prevent the Isleworth Mona Lisa from ending up in a vault again. Through Protti, they asked the Italian courts to take possession of the potential da Vinci until they could confirm its ownership. The Mona Lisa Foundation denied the family’s claims, though, and promised that they would appear in court, too.
For the family behind the claim, the reason for their move wasn’t to make an enormous windfall – da Vinci’s paintings have an exorbitant value, as previously discussed. Protti rebutted, “As owners of the painting, their [aim] is to let this painting be shown to the public… When you own this kind of [artwork] you have to be a custodian.”
That same argument could be made for determining the truth about the Isleworth Mona Lisa. Maybe experts will never know if it’s a da Vinci original or not. But as Protti said about putting the painting on display, “It’s not a matter of money. It’s just a matter of patience, of something that has to be done. It has a value not just for private [individuals] but for humanity.”