EXQUISITE LUXURY of insignificance

Danica Radman

Joined April 2009

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Louvre, crowd in front of Mona Lisa

*Though it now sounds indispensable, Mona Lisa was not used as a title for the painting until the 19th century. The source for the name is once again Vasari, who stated confidently that the woman in the picture was a certain Monna Lisa del Giocondo. (‘Mona’ or ‘monna’ is a form of address rather than a name: an abbreviation of madonna, literally translated as ‘my lady’ but as used in 16th-century Italy something more like ‘Mistress’ or ‘Mrs’.) To Italians the painting is and always has been La Gioconda (and to the French, La Joconde or Gioconde). This may be a reference to the same Lisa del Giocondo, but the title has a perfectly plausible existence without her. Giocondo is an adjective, meaning ‘jocund’, so this traditional name for the painting could have originated as a purely descriptive title – the witty or playful one, the joker-lady, perhaps even the tease.

Vasari’s ‘Monna Lisa’ certainly existed. She was Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, born in Florence on 15 June 1479. She married Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo in 1495, at the age of 16; he was a well-to-do businessman in his mid-thirties, already twice widowed. By 1503, the presumed earliest date for the portrait, she had borne two sons, and a daughter who had died in infancy. But is Vasari right that this otherwise obscure 24-year-old Florentine housewife is the woman whose portrait now hangs in the Louvre? No mention is made of her in other early sources; in fact some of them implicitly argue against her. The painter Gianpaolo Lomazzo, for instance, who knew Leonardo’s executor Francesco Melzi, described the woman in the picture as a Neapolitan. (Lomazzo elsewhere throws a spanner in the works by describing La Gioconda and Monna Lisa as two distinct works: this is by no means impossible.) Another old tradition, that the Gioconda was a ‘courtesan’, does not tally at all with the historical Lisa. This idea was current in the mid-17th century, when Father Pierre Dan felt compelled to clear her name: she was, he insisted, “a virtuous Florentine lady, and not as some have said a courtesan”.

Two scraps of documentation exist for the painting prior to Vasari’s account. The first mention of it is by Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d’Aragona, whose diary records their visit to Leonardo’s studio in France in August 1517. There the ageing maestro showed them three paintings: two of these, the enigmatic St John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with St Anne, are now in the Louvre; the third, which is almost certainly the Mona Lisa, was described by de Beatis (and, it is implied, by Leonardo himself) as the portrait of “a certain Florentine lady, done from life at the instigation of the late Magnifico Giuliano de’ Medici”. This has led to the dating controversy mentioned above, and to other candidates for the famous face. There is Giuliano’s mistress, a young widow named Pacifica Brandino, who bore him a child in 1511 – the funereal black veil which covers the Mona Lisa’s hair might allude to her widowhood. And there is the beautiful Isabella Gualanda, who was in Rome at the right sort of time; who is mentioned suggestively in de Beatis’s diary on the day after his visit to Leonardo; and who turns out to be a cousin of Cecilia Gallerani, whose portrait Leonardo had painted (the Lady with an Ermine) in Milan in the late 1480s. Either of these women might plausibly have been painted at Giuliano’s ‘instigation’, and the resulting portrait might have remained in Leonardo’s hands when Giuliano became a married man, as he did in early 1515. However, neither of them was from Florence, which is required by de Beatis’s diary entry (though Isabella Gualanda does fulfil Lomazzo’s criterion by being Neapolitan). These trails tend to double back on themselves, and the rival claimants start to look pretty thin. As Sassoon drily observes, it is mainly the “paucity of evidence” which “keeps the experts divided”…*

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