Mona Lisa Watches the Birdie

Her name was Lisa. What is “Mona”?
It means My Lady, milady, shortened from Ma Donna. She was a rich woman, the wife of a Mr. Giocondo.
Giocondo happens to mean jovial (jocund), and the Italians liked to call Lisa “La Gioconda” for the doble meaning. She looks so happy, so comfortable.


How did Leonardo keep Lisa amused while he painted? Wasn’t he an excruciatingly slow painter—excruciating for the sitter?

To “ keep her in merriment and to chase away the melancholy which painters usually give to portraits he employed singers and musicians and jesters [clowns!],” his biographer Vasari says. “As a result there was a smile that was so pleasing it seemed divine rather than human.”
This sounds like a story teller’s elaboration on her name “gioconda”, on her smile, and on the Leonardo legend; but why not put a smile on the truth too?

Is the smile really hers or a fantasy of the artist’s? Leonardo invented a similar one (and nose and eyebrowless forehead, as well as mountain background) for his St. Anne.

That enigmatic curl of the corners of the mouth seems to have floated in Leonardo’s mind like the cat’s grin in Alice’s Wonderland.

Visitors at the Louvre in Paris spend, on the average,  about fifteen seconds contemplating the Mona Lisa portrait, smile and all.  “Riveting!” many exclaim as they walk away.

Some curious things have happened to the painting.
Once it was stolen from the museum, yanked right off the wall, and the cops hauled in the famous poet Apollinaire, who was on record for saying the Louvre ought to be burned down. They threw him in jail and then went after Pablo Picasso, another suspect. The real culprit was a Louvre employee, an Italian who thought the painting should be returned to his country and if that couldn’t be done one way it could be done another.

See Leonardo da Vinci: the Greatest?


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21 Responses to Mona Lisa Watches the Birdie

  1. Lynne Diligent
    Madame Monet says:

    For some reason, I have never cared much for the Mona Lisa. However, I do prefer the second painting showed here!

    Madame Monet

    • 100swallows says:

      Madame Monet: De gustibus non disputandum. Or, as the Spaniards say, sobre gustos no hay nada escrito. The thing is, also as they say, “it has rained a lot” since it was painted—a lot of time has gone by and much has happened in painting and even in perception meanwhile. There are a lot of other portraits to choose from.

  2. kimiam says:

    I never knew that about the clowns and musicians. I do love the “Mona Lisa”, but this probably comes from growing fond of things we’ve experienced so many times over and again throughout our lives. I would like to see it in person.

    One time I was mezmerized by a painting at our local musem that was fairly small portrait but it had so much depth, it struck me. I walked across the gallery floor for a closer look. It was done by a sculptor who had studied with Leonardo. This has always left me wondering if “Mona Lisa” would have the same effect on me if ever I get to see it in person.

    • 100swallows says:

      Kimiam: She is in a special glass case with instruments measuring the temperature and air pressure and dust and God knows what else, and they have a rope a meter in front of her so you can’t get close even to the glass. Plus the crowds of tourists make relaxed looking impossible unless you get to the Louvre first thing in the morning. So you are tempted to tell the whole crushing crowd to go to the devil and to walk right by her. The Louvre is full of great paintings: she’s not the only apple in the tree. At least when I was there last, Lisa was in a hall with a Titian and, if I remember right, with Pablo Veronese’s enormous Feast of Cana, among other good stuff.

  3. Ken Januski says:

    I sort of agree with Madame Monet. For all my love of painting the Mona Lisa has never ever been up in my top 10, 20, maybe even 100 paintings.

    And yet when you compare her to the portrait of St. Anne, Mona Lisa looks far more lifelike. Perhaps not as beautiful but I think more lifelike. Maybe that has been part of the painting’s popularity? I can only guess because as I said it’s a painting I’ve largely passed by most of the time I see it(in reproduction only I have to say).

    • 100swallows says:

      Ken: We’ve all seen her once too often. I wrote this post remembering her look as a grin and then had to change what I said after looking at her again. Then I wasn’t sure what to call her smile or what to say about Lisa. Hiberniensis is right. She does look more life-like than Leonardo’s other women.

  4. Rich says:

    There’s something unifying in both paintings. There’s a winding road at the background of Mona Lisa, for example…it sort of finds a continuation in the winding folds of the garment on her arm.

    And that beautiful trinity of human figures! From TOP (see how Anne’s “crown-scarf” unites, blends and aligns with the mountain peaks) TOE (that wonderful “tripod” feet symmetry)…

    Such a Renaissance gem – the Gioconda. I hear a second Louvre will be erected in Abu Dhabi – they probably would very much like to have her in the collection.
    But I guess all the petrodollars in the world can’t buy that smile ;-)

    • 100swallows says:

      Rich: A second Louvre for Abu Dhabi? I’d be surprised if they could do even a second Toledo Ohio Metropolitan Museum. There they have a very good Greco, a Velazquez, a David, a few Impressionists. Their real Roman helmet impressed me when I was a boy, as well as the remarkable Egyptian Room, with mummies in their boxes.

  5. Hiberniensis says:

    I think the Mona Lisa is one of those paintings that you have to see in person. I saw it a few years ago and I certainly spent quite a bit more than 15 seconds in front of it — although looking back now, I wish I’d spent even longer (the crowds around are such a put-off, though, and you don’t want to feel like you’re hogging the front row). Anyway, what amazes so much about this painting is that the expression on her face seems to change continually in front of one’s very eyes. One moment she looks pleased with herself, then it looks like she’s mocking you, then it looks like she’s sad, then worried, then back to being pleased with herself…. At least that was my experience of it, and though it’s far from being my favourite painting, I can’t think of any other painting I’ve seen that had the same effect of an apparently fluctuating inner emotional life.

    • 100swallows says:

      Hiberniensis: I agree that her expression seems to change as you look at her. “One moment she looks pleased with herself, then it looks like she’s mocking you, then it looks like she’s sad, then worried, then back to being pleased with herself.” Some think she is giving them the come-on too (a wink). And so on. But I have to say that I am talking about what I got from reproductions. I have actually seen her in the Louvre several times but I could never stand long in front of her for the reasons you say. So I only saw a few frames of her slide-show.

  6. Ken Januski says:

    The answer to the Mona Lisa in Person Problem, uniting my two great loves of art and birding: bring your binoculars to the Louvre! That way you get to see the real painting, but back from the crowds, while still with a closeup look. Of course binoculars are probably banned in the Louvre……

    I haven’t been to a museum in years because of this sort of problem. But as Swallows says early mornings in some museums can actually give you a halfway decent look, amid a peaceful rather than circus atmosphere.

  7. Rich says:

    You made me browse the Toledo Museum, Swallows.
    Now I know what you mean. It will be very difficult for the Emirate Louvre to cover such a range.

  8. wrjones
    wrjones says:

    An excellent read. Thanks!

  9. erikatakacs – Canada – I am a figurative sculptor working in paper pulp.
    erikatakacs says:

    No wonder you couldn’t choose between a grin or smile, Swallows. I can’t remember the last time I took a good look at her. Thanks to your post, I spent minutes rather than seconds studying her face. If you look at her lips only, that’s a beautiful smile. If you look at her smiling lips and smiling eyes, suddenly the smiley face turns into a mocking face. The right eye sees right through you, while the left eye is already wandering off. You kept her interested 15 seconds. Next she would be yawning of boredom. Ironically her 15 seconds is up, there’s no one to yawn at. Her viewer is off to admire other masterpieces of the Louvre. :)
    I’m sure those jesters had to work their butt off to keep her amused.

    • 100swallows says:

      Erika: You’re funny. I too decided she was haughty, shallow, vicious. This was her mask, the one that made her inferiors say to each other, “She is really nice. So down to earth.” The men took this fraud of a smile for interest in them, the fools. The ladies of her set regarded it as no more than proper make-up. They were wearing a similar one. Lisa’a maids saw this face only when her friends came to the house. Or that painter–what was his name?–Leonardo Something.

  10. iondanu – I am a visual artist of Romanian origin (a draughtsman, painter, photographer and digital artist) living now in Canada.
    danu says:

    If I remember well, to complete the Appolinaire /Picasso case, the servant of appolinaire was in fact the one suspected and then arrested and, pressed, he spilled the beans (is it?), suggesting an implication/instigation from Appolinaire… And the “pauvre’ poete was scared to death and implored the help and the witness of friends (Picasso,s mostly) as for his innocence…But Picasso, brought in, was even more scared and said ignominously that he do not know appolinaire really…He was a real jerk in this case (and so would he be later, when he didn,t do a thing to save Max Jacob from the Nazis…)

    • 100swallows says:

      Thanks for the details of the Mona Lisa theft story, Danu. Picasso was a jerk, all right. Though I’d be slow to throw a stone at him or anyone who had to make some of the hard choices of those times.

  11. anagasto – madrid, spain
    cantueso says:

    I think what is not nice about her is that evasive glance.

  12. justme22 says:

    Hi Swallows,
    I was wondering if you heard this week in the news about the drawing on vellum newly attributed to Leonardo – La Bella Principessa which he made for the Duke of Milan. Some forensic art experts have matched a fingerprint on it to a fingerprint on the Saint Jerome. I think it’s exciting and isn’t she beautiful? It certainly has that Leonardo quality, it reminds me of the Lady with an Ermine. Here’s the link which will lead you to various articles.

    • 100swallows says:

      justme22. Thanks for the news and the link. Of course maybe it was some collector and not Leonardo who touched both of the paintings with his greasy finger. It’s true she has a a Leonardo look to her and pretty she is.

  13. dougrogers says:

    :-) The wife of Mr. Happy?

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