Meeting Mona Lisa, Part III of III

In the last of our series on the Mona Lisa, offering excerpts from the new book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, we continue a three-part entry on the story of the Mona Lisa as a painting, its art history and early provenance.  To read about other aspects of its history, including a short biography of Leonardo, Leonardo’s artistic legacy, and famous incidents in its criminal history, including its 1911 theft, please see other entries in this blog.  To order a copy of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, profits of which go to charity, click here.  To read Part I, click here, to read Part II, click here.

We resume with the question of whether Leonardo might have made more than one copy of the Mona Lisa.

It was not uncommon for artists to make a second, identical copy of one of their works, particularly if the original was admired by acquaintances of its owner.[i] There are so many excellent 16th century copies of Mona Lisa that it is certainly possible that one of them is by Leonardo (a point to which we will return at the end of this essay).  In this way, the commissioner of the portrait may have indeed been presented with one version of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa while the master himself created another version to keep.

Leonardo took the picture with him from Florence to Milan and then to France.  It was seen at Cloux, near Amboise on 10 October 1517 by Cardinal Aragon and his secretary, Antonio de Beatis, who kept a travelogue detailing art he had seen with his master during their journeys.  Beatis wrote that the portrait was painted at the request of Giuliano de Medici—it is not clear if this is true or whether it was a misunderstanding.  Conspiracy theorists like to suggest that this was, in fact, a hidden truth, and that Lisa del Giocondo may have been Giuliano’s lover.  That would certainly explain why the portrait was not hanging in the del Giocondo family’s living room, but it does not solve the mystery of why Leonardo brought it with him when he left Florence.

The painting was eventually acquired by François I after Leonardo’s death.  It hung at the royal palace of Fontainebleau for at least 150 years, recorded as having been seen there by Vasari in 1550, by Lomazzo in 1590, and by Cassiano del Pozzo in 1625, who wrote that when the Duke of Buckingham came to the French court in an attempt to seal the marriage of Charles I to Henrietta of France, he inquired about purchasing the Mona Lisa for Charles I, who was a great admirer of it.  The courtiers of Louis XIII dissuaded the French king, who had been willing to swap it for two paintings from Charles’ extensive collection: Holy Family by Titian and Portrait of Erasmus by Holbein.[ii] Napoleon would later hang it in his private rooms at the Tuilleries Palace, and it was displayed at the Musée Napoleon (the precursor to the Musée du Louvre) in 1804.  It would not leave the Louvre until 21 August, 1911.

Shortly after its creation, the Mona Lisa was admired as the ideal Renaissance portrait and so it was frequently copied.  There are nearly sixty extant copies of Mona Lisa from the 16th and 17th centuries, truly an astounding number, and a tribute to the high regard that Early Modern artists had for the portrait.[iii] These copies made their way around the courts of Europe, spreading the fame of both Leonardo and this particular portrait.  The copies were not only made by admiring or aspiring artists, but also on request from wealthy collectors who, if they could not have the original, would be content with a good copy.  Even the successor of François I, King Henry IV of France, had many of Leonardo’s paintings copied between 1594-1600, when he was restoring the rooms at Fontainebleau where the paintings were displayed.[iv] Fontainebleau featured other portraits of courtly ladies who asked to be painted in the manner of Mona Lisa, and the palace also housed some racy versions of the portrait, some more clothed than others.[v] As art historian Donald Sassoon notes, the copies of Mona Lisa were so common at the French court that “une Joconde” became a general term for a female portrait somewhat resembling Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.[vi]

While the style of Mona Lisa rose in popularity in the 17th century, the painting itself was less treasured, as evidenced by Louis XVIII’s willingness to sell it to the English.  In 1691 Roger de Piles wrote Treasures and Marvels of the Royal Household of Fontainebleau, a ranked catalogue of works found in the French royal collection.  Leonardo only came in eleventh in his list of greatest artists on display.  Mona Lisa’s stock was falling.  In 1695, the painting was moved, along with the rest of the royal collection, from Fontainebleau to the palace of Versailles.

The 18th century was perhaps the quietest for the Mona Lisa.  It fit with neither Rococo frilliness nor the sobering, didacticism of the Neo-Classical.  At the Luxembourg in Paris, the 110 finest works from the Royal Collection were exhibited, and Mona Lisa was not among them.[vii] Her place had slid down the pecking order quite dramatically.  By 1760 the portrait was no longer on display, placed into storage.

The turning point in the Mona Lisa’s popularity came with the French Revolution in 1792.  The very fact that the Royal Collection had once been exclusively for the now-deposed (and decapitated) elite meant that the revolutionaries wanted access to it.  Thankfully the revolutionaries did not seek to destroy the “baubles” of the aristocracy—they were sufficiently aware of the value of art—instead, they wanted to seize it and make it the property of the wider public.  A revolutionary commission chose works from the Royal Collection for display and, for the first time, the former royal residence in Paris, the Louvre, became a museum.  The chosen works were moved from Versailles to the Louvre in 1797 and, oddly enough, the Rococo painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard, who had been a favorite of the deposed monarchy, was in charge of transporting the art.[viii]

When Napoleon seized power in 1799 he had the Mona Lisa moved from the Louvre to his bedroom at the Tuilleries Palace, where it remained until he had himself crowned emperor in 1803, at which point it was returned to the Louvre.

In the first half of the 19th century, the most famous, expensive and admired Old Master painter in Europe was Jan van Eyck, followed closely by Raphael.  Michelangelo came in third, and Leonardo was rather far down the list.[ix] In 1831 John Scarlett Davis painted a view of the most famous paintings in the Louvre, The Salon Carré and the Grande Galerie of the Louvre, which was the very room that displayed the Mona Lisa, and yet he did not bother to include it among the paintings that may be seen on the walls.[x] But by 1861 the Mona Lisa’s renown had increased enough for another painter, notably Italian, named Giuseppe Castiglione to paint his rendition of the same scene, View of the Salon Carré in the Louvre Museum, which did include the Mona Lisa, although she is partially covered by the turbaned heads of two visitors.[xi]

The fame of Leonardo, and indeed the cult that surrounds him today, began in the second half of the 19th century.  Perhaps surprisingly, it was not for his art but rather for his role as a scientist that interest in him grew once more.  As Donald Sassoon writes:

His drawings were not widely available, his grandiose works were unrealized, his notes were scattered everywhere, and his paintings were unfinished or severely damaged because of his inappropriate preparation of the paints.  But none of that mattered.  What fascinated his admirers was the idea of an inquisitive scientific and artistic mind at work, never satisfied, steadily searching for the new: the nineteenth-century idea of true genius.[xii]

Thus it was in the latter part of the 19th century that Leonardo, and with him the Mona Lisa, rose once more in prominence.  Symbolist artists and critics appreciated the portrait, and saw in it a prism for their new ideas about the feminine mystique, linking it to mysterious and powerful women from Medea to Salome.  Writer and art critic Theophile Gautier wrote of it:

The sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, and who seems to pose a yet unresolved riddle to the admiring centuries.  Who has not contemplated for hours this head bathed in half-tints, enveloped in translucent veils?  Her gaze intimating unknown pleasures, her gaze so divinely ironic.  We feel disarmed by her presence, by her aura of superiority… [The smile is] wise, deep, velvety, full of promises…the sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners in a violent penumbra, mocks the viewer with such sweetness, grace, and superiority that we feel timid, like schoolboys in the presence of a duchess.[xiii]

Gautier was a trend-setter, and enraptured praise of the painting followed.

The French liked to claim Leonardo as their own, a man who had chosen to live out his twilight years in France (and, pointedly, not in rival Italy).  The melodramatic and surprisingly hammy 1818 painting by the great Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, entitled The Death of Leonardo in the Arms of King François I, expressed this.  In order for works to become renowned abroad, they had to be reproduced in print format, and Ingres’ painting was engraved, thereby promoting the connection between Leonardo and the French king.  It was not until 1857 that an official engraving of the Mona Lisa was commissioned, made by the Italian Luigi Calamatta.  The engraving was a great popular success, selling copies throughout Europe.

It was also at this time that the idea of Mona Lisa’s “enigmatic smile” came to the fore.  The key publication to launch the fame of the painting came in an 1869 essay by critic and art historian Walter Pater, who called the Mona Lisa an embodiment of the eternal feminine, someone who is “older than the rocks among which she sits,” and who “has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave.”[xiv]

Mysterious, beautiful, iconic, and the work of a true universal genius, Mona Lisa was once again celebrated, already among the most famous paintings in the world.

And it hadn’t even been stolen yet.

[i] There are numerous examples of this, but one which comes to mind is Bronzino’s pala for the Chapel of Eleonora di Toledo, which depicts a pieta.  The frescoed chapel was admired by Nicolas Perrenot de Granvelle, Charles V’s Keeper of the Seals, when he visited the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  Bronzino’s patron, Cosimo de’ Medici, then commissioned Bronzino to paint an identical copy of the pala on panel to give as a gift to Nicolas.  Cosimo specifically told Bronzino, who had thought to rework the pieta in a different fashion for this second version of it, “I want the altarpiece exactly like the other, and I don’t want it more beautiful.  Don’t introduce any new ideas, because I like that one.”  For more on this, please see Janet Cox-Rearick Bronzino’s Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio (University of California Press, 1993).

[ii] Sassoon (2006), p.114.  Louis eventually gave Leonardo’s Saint John to the Duke of Buckingham as a gift to Charles, instead of Mona LisaSaint John was bought back by the banker Everhard Jabach after Charles’ execution for 140 pounds, and then sold to Louis XIV for the same price.  It now hangs in the Louvre.

[iii] Sassoon (2006), p.113

[iv] Ibid., p.113

[v] By way of example, see Jean Ducayer’s Portrait of a Woman after the Mona Lisa (17th century)

[vi] Sassoon (2006), p.114

[vii] Ibid, p.160

[viii] Ibid, p.160

[ix] For more on collecting in the 19th century, see Charney (2010)

[x] Sassoon (2006), p.161

[xi] Ibid, p.161

[xii] Ibid, p.162

[xiii] Quoted in Sassoon (2006), p.165

[xiv] Walter Pater and Matt Beaumont Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Oxford University Press, 2010), p.xvi.

Views expressed on this blog, which is hosted on but produced independently of it, do not necessarily reflect the views of