Mona Lisa (1503-1506) by the famous Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most replicated images in the world culture. It became the canon for one generation and the subject of ridicule for another. Da Vinci has created a few portraits and paintings during his life but all of them have powerful symbolical and cultural meanings representing the aesthetical level of the Italian Renaissance (Stevens 55). In addition, the artist used a complex technique of sfumato for the creation of his images and also worked on other works simultaneously. His intensive employment has limited creativity of the portraits but allowed him to reach perfection. Mona Lisa is a very unusual work of the artist because it is a secular portrait, not a religious painting, and the identification of modern is one of the most difficult tasks for scholars. However, the most interesting in this painting is the Mona Lisa’s smile, one of the most enigmatic symbols of all time. This essay deals with the idea that due to the sfumato, Da Vinci tried to create a moving enigmatic smile since the represented image was not recorded as an unflappable portrait but the symbolic image of the Mother Nature.
It is necessary to describe the historical context to which this work of art belongs. Leonardo da Vinci was one of the most outstanding figures in the Italian Renaissance. He was not only the artist but also a geologist, a botanist, an anatomist, an inventor, a mathematician, an architect, a musician, and a sculptor. He can be called the ideal Renaissance man because he had free imagination, the desire to understand the world from a scientific point of view and great curiosity. The Renaissance age was the time of great geographic discoveries, of the cult of the human mind and science. The European culture stepped out from the dark Middle Ages and understood that the science, not the religion, will lead to progress. People discovered new places, traveled across the ocean and saw the plants, the animals and the other wonders of nature they have never seen before. During that time, mankind understood how little they know about the planet they are living on. Dogra describes the main characteristics of Renaissance art in the following way:
“The artists advocated the philosophy of Humanism through their artworks. Humanists believed that humanity is unparalleled, as it connects the mortal world with the spiritual world. Human welfare and human values like secularism were heavily promoted. People began to focus on self-improvement and started doing things according to their likings. The Renaissance paintings depicted people studying Philosophy and Mathematics, rather than worshiping, as was the trend in medieval art. There was a focus on painting human anatomy” (Dogra).
Leonardo da Vinci created Mona Lisa in the 16th century. It is often called La Joconde or La Gioconda. Nowadays this work of art is exhibited in Paris, in the Musee du Louvre and is the property of the French government. Mona Lisa can be definitely called one of the most well-known paintings in the modern world and is the center of numerous religious, artistic and theoretical debated for many centuries. Most researchers believe that this work depicts the wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo but there is still no clear answer on the question of who is portrayed on the canvas. Giorgio Vasari who suggested the name of the actual work proposed the current information about this woman. According to him, the trader was a very wealthy man and loved his wife so, finally, he offered to fix her image in the portrait. Some argued that Mona Lisa was the subject of other people, and there was even a hypothesis that that was a self-portrait of Da Vinci. The final confirmation that the 24-year young wife Mona Lisa was depicted on the portrait had been found in the records of Jacopo Kaprotti, one of Leonardo’s students. However, it is still unclear why the portrait was in Leonardo’s studio to the end of his life because he should give it to Francesco. Perhaps, the artist was trying to bring the picture to perfection continually adding necessary details for 22 years (Hall 48). In the final case, he never finished it as many other works because he believed that it should have some enigma. In fact, this painting does not look like the unfinished one because every detail and nuance is depicted with fanatical zeal. It became a canon for many future generations.
Da Vinci did not try to create a specific portrait of the woman but wanted to design an experimental image of the ideal human. In this sense, the image has become the project of his central ideas that he proposed in the treatise of painting. Leonardo’s approach to his art has always had a scientific nature implementing the boldest and most radical solutions in the works. Da Vinci was able to create a portrait with a high level of synthesis, which can be considered a depiction of the image of Renaissance man in general (Hall 53). This high degree of generalization affects all elements of visual language pattern in its individual motives and the whole modulation. In the soft haze, which envelops the face and figure of Mona Lisa, Leonardo was able to feel the infinite variability of human nature. It seems like the woman from the canvas is attentively watching those who look at her. Her gaze is omnipresent and it follows the person who moves in the room without breaking the eye-contact with her. The eyes of Mona Lisa are looking at the viewer carefully and quietly; but since this view is a little dark and gloomy, it appears that she frowns slightly. On contrast, her lips are compressed but there are subtle shadows in its corners, so it creates an impression that Mona Lisa will laugh or speak for a moment.
Mona Lisa became a canon for many Italian painters at that period, and, at the same time, it was the elusive and emotionless image of the ideal man. At some point, it seems that this person did not exist in real life because of her features devoid of old age traits and fluctuation of time. Mona Lisa seems both desired and cool in her view so she virtually ignores the viewer looking through him/her in the distance. Although she looks directly at the audience, Da Vinci created a distinct visual line between the image and the viewer. She rests on the handle of a chair that separates two worlds: the real and ideal ones. Moreover, her view and position indicate that this world would never be real but people should try to overcome its limits, particularly with the help of art and science. In this case, it is a metaphysical self-portrait because Da Vinci depicted his desire for knowledge and truth, which breaks the boundaries of the visible reality.
The detailed look at Mona Lisa shows how much attention da Vince paid to the depiction of nature in the background. The blue mountains in the distance are crossed by small rivers. However, nature is not the same on the left and in the right parts of the canvas. There is the bridge across the river in the left part, which is certainly a man-made construction. Therefore, the artist depicted a fantastic landscape with very conditional recognition. It is not Florence or Rome but something beyond human perception (Farago 182), and, thus, there are no signs of human life there. Perhaps, this is a place where a person will appear. Therefore, the secular portrait of Mona Lisa is a religious work because it refers to the beginning of human civilization.
However, the viewer’s eye always returns to her illuminated face and enigmatic smile, which expresses the vital energy. The symbolic frame of dark hair under a transparent veil, shadows around her neck, and dark landscape on the background surround the face. The portrait of Mona Lisa is a perfect example of sfumato, which is the most recognizable technique in Renaissance painting. The artist likened the method to smoke, which also has no bounds and limits. Vasari notes that in her eyes there are no flaws but just the energy and pulse of life (Earls 263). The artistic technique used by da Vinci was revolutionary for his time. He did not outline the images in his paintings as the artists of the Florentine school did. He used the transitions that were impossible to see, creating this needed effect with light and shadow details. His brushstrokes can not be perceived by the naked eye. It seems like all the colors are mixed in the smoke and this creates the atmosphere of the mild natural harmony.
The artist depicted her face using gentle strokes, and it seems that he was afraid to touch the canvas and painted only with the tip of the brush. It is important that Da Vinci carefully painted not only her eyes but also the whole face where no one can see how the paints change one another (Jones). One has to remember that the artist strived to fulfill the order of Florentine merchant who wanted to have a realistic aristocratic portrait of his wife. On the other hand, Da Vinci tried to convey the essence of life on her face. For example, he needed to depict the secret thoughts of women, in particular, what she really thought of her husband, the world, and, perhaps, the artist. In addition, she also appeals to the audience and asks: “What do you think about me?” Mona Lisa’s inner reflection was the real theme of Leonardo’s never-ending searches that prevented him from completing the portrait.
The smile, which Da Vinci depicted in the movement creating a cinematic effect on the stationary canvas, also hints at the unfinished state of the painting. For the artist, it was important to create the image with no sustainable fixed smile but with the subject smiling at the current moment (Jones). Accordingly, it is impossible to give a constant and uniform interpretation of this work because the viewer cannot clearly say what Mona Lisa thinks about. Her smile is not referring to any particular emotion because it can express every possible one. On the one hand, she sympathizes with the viewer, which creates a fairly open and pleasant situation. On the other hand, the smile rejects this interpretation since it can mean the opposite emotion. For instance, Mona Lisa may laugh over the viewer who will never understand her wishes. The experimental smile creation is not only an attempt to avoid a single interpretation but also a try to express a moving matter of life, which has neither beginning nor end (Turudich and Welch 72). Da Vinci wanted to portray subtle and hidden processes of reality, and, thus, he realized that his time did not have the required method for the realization of this ambitious aim. Therefore, the image of Mona Lisa and her smile is rather similar to a movie and its active nature than to a classic passive portrait. However, the source of the movement there is no technical tool but only human imagination, which should envision what Mona Lisa thinks about.
There are some other ideas about nature and the reason for this mysterious smile. Some people think that the artist painted himself in the feminine role. Others search for secret messages the smile of the woman conveys and implied layers of meaning. Perhaps, Mona Lisa is a metaphor for Mother Nature, who is simple, calm and divine, and the way she looks at her sons and daughters. There are numerous issues that support this idea, in addition, no one knows for sure what the real message of the painting is. A similar background can be found in another da Vinci painting, Sainte Anne. An interesting thing is that on that painting Sainte Anne, her daughter Mary and the Christ are depicted, but Mona Lisa is not a holy person at all. She is considered to be the mother of two children and be just an ordinary woman. Despite this distinction, da Vinci painted these two absolutely different women on a similar background. That makes me think that Mona Lisa was not considered by the artist as an average woman and she has another metaphorical meaning, for example, the personification of Nature.
The archetype of the Great Mother Nature is well-known in the world’s culture. From ancient times people considered nature to be a woman, who gives birth to living beings. The primitive cultures depicted it in simple stone sculptures that reminded the pregnant woman. However, da Vinci was the artist of the Renaissance age, when the level of culture seriously increased in comparison to the old times. His image of Mother Nature is a representation of the ideal mother in that period of time. She is calm, loving and has caring eyes. Mona Lisa is painted in brownish and grayish colors so that she can not be distinguished from the background. It seems like the woman herself is the nature, and the mountains in the background are just her shadows, a meaningless projection of the divine idea. In addition, her outfit refers to birth-giving. According to Austen, the dress Mona Lisa wore was usual for pregnant women in the 16th century in Italy:
“While the “Mona Lisa” has become famous for the sitter’s calm, some say enigmatic, smile, it appears that the composition was not always so restful. For example, the new images show that at one point one of her hands was painted in a clenched rather than a relaxed position. It was as if she was going to get up from a chair” (Austen).
Mona Lisa si is similar to Mother Nature, who is waiting for her children to grow up. She is watching mankind and its progress with calm happiness, her eyes and lips smiling slightly. Though, in the initial project of da Vinci, where the woman was painted with hands in motion, Mother Nature was always ready to stand up and react to the actions of her children. The nature in the background of the picture shows the dualism, that was still present in the time's da Vinci. From one side, there were many places in the world that were remained untouched by humans. From the other side, mankind develops technologies rapidly and multiple artificial constructions appear every day, like the bridge in the painting.
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Mona Lisa has become one of the most popular images of modern mass culture. The painting is altered in graphical programs, changing the meaning da Vinci wanted to convey to the audience. Even though no one knows for sure what that message was, it is possible to suppose how contemporary Mona Lisa might look like if she was a personification of Mother Nature. Perhaps, she would not be smiling anymore and her eyes will be wet and red from crying. Human beings have not just changed the planet with the help of technological progress. They managed to harm it many times, causing natural catastrophes like tsunamis and earthquakes. Chances are that Mother Nature will not be surrounded by mountains and rivers, but it will be covered by the sphere, suffering from a greenhouse effect inside.
In conclusion, Mona Lisa is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, but, eventually, Da Vinci withdrew from the demands of the order he got and created an experimental portrait. The idea of mobility and variability of human life is the basis of this work. Therefore, the smile of Mona Lisa is an example of a cinematic effect, which the artist perfectly realized. He wanted to show the changing and elusive element of human life, which is beyond rational perception or visible reality. In addition, the portrait transforms into a metaphysical image of a person (it does not matter whether it is a woman or a man) who is looking for the answers on the painful questions about human existence including the one about the origin of all things. It is not surprising that Da Vinci depicted a vast landscape, which is more fantastic than real. For him, it was important to design a pure idea that would be open for any interpretation. Accordingly, the image can symbolize Mother Nature as the ideal mother of this time. The artist depicted a woman in motion that means that Mother Nature is ready to help people at any time. Thus, there are numerous interpretations of Mona Lisa, but none of them can be final.