The Interview: Questions for Leonardo

By Peggy Roalf   Thursday October 31, 2019

Q: Who was Mona Lisa?  

Editor’s note: Leonardo da Vinci [1452-1519] himself never wrote on the subject, but scholars have pieced together the following narrative from accounts by one of his supporters, Niccolò Machiavelli [The Prince], and Giorgio Vasari [The Lives of the Artists] as follows. Above left: the Isleworth Mona Lisa [now called “the Earlier Mona Lisa” Info; right: the Medici Mona Lisa, in the Louvre museum.

A: Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of the influential merchant of Florence, Francesco del Giocondo. The portrait in the Louvre is commonly known as “La Giocondo”.

Q: How did Leonardo get the commission to do her portrait, considering the furor that emerged when it looked as if he might be passed over for the biggest commission of his career [The Battle of Anghiari] since his Last Supper fresco in Milan of 1498, in favor of the younger Michaelangelo Buonarroti?

A: Francesco del Giocondo, a silk merchant who by 1503 held prominent positions in Florence’s republican government, was a man who could very well bring his influence to bear to grant Leonardo the Anghiari commission. But Giocondo was a shrewd businessman with a reputation for hardknuckle negotiating skills. He wanted something in return for his advocacy of Leonardo’s talents: a portrait of his young wife, Lisa del Giocondo, who had just presented him with their third child.

It is likely that at any other time in his life, Leonardo would have dismissed such a commission out of hand. He was a painter to the greatest courts of Italy, not the would-be servant of this merchant of Florence. But Leonardo was subsisting on his savings at the time, and he needed to come up with a new source of income. Giocondo was a man who could help him to accomplish both; he was Leonardo’s key to restoring his reputation and to receiving the commission for hottest art project in Florence.

Q: How many versions of the Mona Lisa did Leonardo make?

A: At the turn of the 16th Century, it was common practice for great artists of the Renaissance, Leonardo included, to make multiple versions of their paintings. Léon Roger-Milès, in his Leonard de Vinci et les Jocondes (1923), contends that Leonardo painted two Mona Lisas: the first for Francesco del Giocondo, and the second for Giuliano de Medici. Other prominent scholars agree.


Battle of Anghiari, copy by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1603; Louvre Museum

Q: Why did the second portrait remain unfinished for so long?

A: Leonardo became embroiled in the task of creating the vast Anghiari cartoon, then transferring the design to a wall in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence. The project was made virtually impossible by Leonardo’s insistence on using the same type of oil-based glazes with which he had previously revolutionized the art of portraiture, rather than the quick-drying tempera-based pigments commonly used for fresco. The wall refused to absorb the oil-based pigments, and the paint began to drip and run. The mural began to deteriorate almost immediately. By early 1506, Leonardo recognized that the painting that was meant to be the crowning achievement of his career was ruined. 

At this point, when Leonardo needed every ally in the Florentine government to support his petition to leave for a lucrative commission in Milan, the urgency of the Giocondo portrait commission became clear. Therefore he had to appease his client by completing the painting of Giocondo's wife, and so Leonardo presented the earlier version of the Mona Lisa to him in 1506. The Louvre version of the Mona Lisa, according to Giorgio Vasari, remained in Leonardo’s studio, where he worked on it on and off until his death in 1519 [in Amboise, France], and by 1550 it was in the possession of King Francis I, at Fontainebleau. The portrait was finally placed in the Louvre in 1797.

Sources: The Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari; the Mona Lisa Foundation Info

Leonardo da Vinci, exhibition on the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, Louvre Museum, Paris. Info Read Holland Cotter’s review in The New York Times roalf.dart.interview



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