Introduction - The Mona Lisa Myth

Christopher Heath Brown and Jean-Pierre Isbouts
Copyright © 2013 Brown Discoveries, LLC & Pantheon Studios, Inc.
The Mona Lisa Myth
Table of Contents
Introduction ............................................................................................................................... 3
1. The Merchant of Florence ................................................................................................. 6
2. The Prodigal Son Returns .............................................................................................. 20
3. Portrait of a Lady............................................................................................................... 41
4. La Gioconda ......................................................................................................................... 64
5. The Genesis of the Mona Lisa ........................................................................................ 81
6. The Mystery of Motherhood ........................................................................................ 108
7. The Trinity of Saint Anne. ............................................................................................ 122
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Why does a portrait of a Florentine housewife, painted over 500 years ago, continue to
keep the world enchanted?
Unlike Leonardo’s other sitters, the Mona Lisa (or La Gioconde as she is known
in France) was neither a Duke’s courtesan nor a noblewoman in her own right. Nor can
she claim to be particularly beautiful—not by the standards of her day, in any case, and
certainly not by Leonardo’s own, given his skill in painting the face of an angel. The
portrait is so small—30 by 21 inches— that it is easily overlooked, whilst its once vibrant
colors have long since disappeared under layers of dirt, varnish and cracking. And yet,
six million visitors line up each year to gaze at the work in rapture, despite the thick
reflective glass, the press of the crowds, and the relentless barrage of camera flashes.
How then to explain the Mona Lisa’s enduring fame?
One reason, surely, is that despite its ubiquitous presence, the portrait remains a
mystery—the source of a growing mythology that continues to enchant and confound
scholars around the world. For example: our leading witness, the 16th century artist and
author Giorgio Vasari, claims the work was never finished—but the portrait in the Louvre
most certainly is. The same Vasari extols the beauty of the portrait’s eyelashes and
eyebrows—but the lady in the Louvre doesn’t have any. What’s more, all evidence
suggests that Leonardo started the portrait in 1503—but the style of the Louvre Mona
Lisa belongs decidedly to his late period, post-1510. One source says the portrait was
bought by King Francis I of France upon Leonardo’s death in 1519; another claims it was
still in the possession of Leonardo’s companion, Salai, many years later.
To add to the confusion, a rising chorus of historians has claimed she isn’t what
we think she is—the wife of a Florentine merchant, called Lisa del Giocondo. Some
believe it is a portrait of the Marquess of Mantua, Isabella d’Este; others insist she is
Pacifica Brandano, the mistress of Giuliano de Medici; others again have advanced the
candidacy of Isabella Gualanda, or Costanza d’Avalos, Duchess of Francavilla, based on
the rather flimsy evidence of a poem.i
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Appalled by the web of conflicting data, many Leonardo biographers simply skip
over this rather unseemly mess to dwell on a more satisfying part of the story: what
happened to the Mona Lisa after the 16th century. And indeed, there are far more
gratifying details to be found there, such as the rumor that Napoleon hung the painting
over his bed to impress his mistresses, or that an Italian decorator named Vincenzo
Perugia stole the portrait in 1911, in order to sell it to the Uffizi Museum for 500,000 lire.
Unfortunately, the essential question of how and why the Mona Lisa came in being is
seldom explored.
And yet, when we probe the Mona Lisa myth more closely, one obvious
solution presents itself—that our sources from the 16th century are contradicting
each other simply because they aren’t talking about the same painting. When this
solution is considered, that Leonardo did not paint one but two versions of the Mona
Lisa, all the disputes and inconsistencies suddenly begin to resolve themselves.
This idea—that there are two autograph Mona Lisa’s, just as Leonardo (with
his assistants) painted multiple versions of the Virgin of the Rocks, the Madonna of
the Yarnwinder and the Leda—remained a mere theory until September 26, 2012.
That’s when a Swiss consortium revealed to the world that they had another, more
pristine version of the Mona Lisa, kept in a bank vault in Geneva for over 40 years.
This book is the first to assess the implications of this discovery, and how it has
changed our understanding of the portrait in the Louvre—and indeed, Leonardo’s oeuvre
altogether. That both portraits were painted by Leonardo is (almost) certainly true; we
have seen the evidence of numerous tests, undertaken in both Paris and Geneva, and more
tests are being conducted as this book goes to press. But the real question is, why did
Leonardo choose to paint two Mona Lisas? What struck him about this wife of a
Florentine merchant that would compel him to return to the subject, many years later,
whilst in the contemplative phase of his life?
These questions form the core of this book. Like many other stories about
Leonardo da Vinci, the narrative will often remind the reader of a detective novel, rather
than a work of nonfiction history. For one, this book is the first to present a detailed, stepby-step reconstruction of why a little-known merchant named Francesco del Giocondo
desired to have a portrait of his wife, and why a renowned artist from the court of Milan,
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one of the most celebrated painters of his day, agreed to paint it. Using a trove of 16th
century witnesses and documents, and aided by many new fascinating pieces of evidence,
we will slowly hone in on the truth—and ultimately discover what inspired Leonardo to
create the signature work of his career.
In doing so, we will be guided by one overarching idea: that to understand
Leonardo we must understand his time, his immediate environment, and the rhythm of
his life during those crucial three years in Florence. This might seem obvious, but in
scholarship that has not always been the case. One of the great pitfalls of the historian is
the unconscious projection of his or her own Zeitgeist on the subject at hand, and that’s
certainly true for the portrait of Mona Lisa. It is not difficult to glimpse in Leonardo’s
incredibly frenzied and energetic life a reflection of ourselves, but such would be a grave
mistake. Leonardo needs to be understood on his own terms, as a man of the early 16th
century, the Cinquecento, subject to the desires, motives and claims of those around him.
That is why this book is above all about something that is often ignored in our
field, besotted as it with the scientific tools of our trade: namely, the people in the story.
This book is about the delicate network of relationships that sustained Leonardo after the
traumatic fall of Milan, and that ultimately inspired him to create the quintessential
portrait of his era.
If our assumptions are correct, then our interpretation of who the Mona Lisa truly
is, and what she represents, will force us to re-assess the workings of Leonardo’s mind in
the twilight of his life. It will open up the possibility that this quintessential secularist,
this scholar who singlehandedly heralded the advent of modern empirical science, found
himself absorbed in questions of a more spiritual nature as he faced the ultimate threshold
of life.
Santa Monica, CA
Summer, 2013
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“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back
and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”
One fine day in the spring of 1503, the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo
stepped outside his palazzo on the Via della Stufa, looked up at the aquamarine sky and
decided he was a lucky man. And why shouldn’t he? Fortune had showered many
blessings on Francesco over the last decade, and indeed on the city of Florence itself. The
regime of terror imposed by the Dominican monk Savonerola lay safely in the past; the
armies of the French King Charles VIII had come and gone without inflicting too much
damage; and the last Medici ruler, the utterly inept Piero de Medici, son of Lorenzo the
Magnificent, had been ousted from the city. A rumor was circulating that he had been
drowned in the Garigliano River while trying to flee the forces of Aragon. If so, it was a
sad epitaph on the once so glorious rule of the Medici in Florence.
And now, the 16th century, the Cinquecento, had dawned. Slowly but surely, the
markets were recovering from the turmoil of the past decades; and as his banker friends
had told him, the gold florin, Florence’s own currency first minted in 1252, was once
again in active trading throughout Europe.
All through the city, people were smiling again.
Most astonishing of all, Florence had restored itself as the republic it once was—a
real republic, that is, not a puppet regime ruled by a Medici despot. The body of the
Signoria—the nine wise men elected to rule the city—was firmly in charge, and there
was not a single Medici who tried to stop them. Perhaps, Francesco mused, they were too
busy focusing their intrigues elsewhere—on the papal court in Rome, for example. It was
rumored that another son of Lorenzo de Magnificent, cardinal Giovanni de Medici, was
in league with the Della Rovere family, waiting to pounce once the aging Borgia Pope
Alexander VI lay on his deathbed.
And so a wonderful calm had descended on the good burghers of Florence. They
made good use of the opportunity by appointing a man named Pier Soderini to the
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position of Gonfaloniere (or president of the Signoria), for life. Not that old Soderini was
such a bright light, but that was exactly the point. The city had enough of powerful,
domineering men; Soderini could be trusted to rule in the type of somnambulant state that
allowed people like Francesco to devote themselves to worthier things, such as making
And Francesco was good at making money. That talent was the very reason why
his father Bartolomeo had gone over the heads of his older brothers to designate him,
Francesco, as the heir of the family business. And how their business was flourishing!
Perhaps, he wondered, the naysayers were wrong, those who claimed that Florence was
past its zenith. Perhaps the best was yet to come; perchance the city would recover its
great prosperity of years past. Back then, his grandfather once told him, the streets had
teemed with two hundred and seventy shops that sold Florence’s trademark product, wool
cloth, to clients from Bruges to Constantinople.ii Further north, around the Piazza Santa
Maria Novella, more than thirty banks worked around the clock, changing foreign
currency and letters of credit for buyers throughout Europe and the East. And when the
merchants’ wives were given leave to spend their husbands’ riches, more than forty gold
and jewelry shops were ready to receive them with open arms.
Not all of those shops and banks had survived the deprivations of the last few
decades; some had closed up or moved to Venice or Milan. But many others were doing
brisk business, now that peace was in the air and Florentine wool was in demand once
The Giocondos did not trade in Florence’s trademark wool. Theirs was a far more
luxurious commodity, that of silk. A delicate product, silk; Chinese in origin, it had been
introduced to the Byzantine empire in the 6th century and then brought back to Western
Europe by Crusaders, after they casually sacked Constantinople on their way east. By the
early Quattrocento, the 15th century, silk was being spun in Venice, Genoa, Lucca and in
Florence, producing a quality that was as good as Arab silk and, some said, second only
to Chinese manufacture.
That’s when two young men, Zanobi and Paolo Giocondo, decided to abandon the
trade of their father, the making of wooden barrels, in order to try their hand in the more
lucrative business of silk, taffeta and chenille. And they had done well for themselves.
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When Zanobi died in 1458, he left his sons not only with a profitable shop but also a
spacious home on the Via dell’Amore.
This was a heady time for Florence: the roaring forties, when the cultural
revolution of Cosimo de’ Medici was taking Italy by storm in virtually all aspects of
human endeavor: poetry, painting, sculpture, philosophy, even architecture. The
Giocondo brothers made good use of the wealth pouring into the city, and gradually
expanded their father’s business into three separate stores that catered to clients from
Bruges to the Turkish Porte.
That’s when Bartolomeo, the third brother born in 1424, decided to set up shop
for himself. He purchased several properties between the Borgo la Noce and the Via della
Stufa, in the San Lorenzo quarter, tore down the inner walls and created a spacious home,
a true Giocondo palazzo.
The Ponte Vecchio in Florence, originally built in the 14th century, the Trecento.
But the politics of Italy were fickle. Italy was not a unified state but a minicontinent or sorts, where cities like Milan, Venice, Florence and Naples were always
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maneuvering for advantage, signing treaties or declaring war as if they were nations
themselves. Cosimo did his best to keep the peace, since war was bad for business; but
the other rulers of his day did not have such scruples. In 1452 it came to blows, when
many hills and valleys of the Chianti, the famous wine region south of Florence, were
trodden upon by the surly Aragonese mercenaries of the king of Naples. Trade nosedived;
the markets trembled.
Fortunately, Bartolomeo had done what most other smart merchants did, which
was to hedge one’s bets and invest in land. He’d purchased two nice farms near
Montughi, just outside Florence. Naturally, both properties also had spacious guest
quarters, which allowed Bartolomeo and his family to indulge in that time-honored
Florentine pastime, spending one’s holidays in the country. It made the merchants feel
like the Tuscan landed gentry that they outwardly mocked, but secretly tried hard to
And so Bartolomeo had weathered one storm after another—the death of Cosimo,
universally mourned; the disastrous rule of his son Piero; the rise of Lorenzo de Medici,
“the Magnificent”; and in 1478, the inevitable coup d’état at the hand of his rivals, with
the blessing of Pope Sixtus IV. This was the so-called Pazzi Conspiracy, and inevitably it
had failed. Francesco was only thirteen at the time, but he vividly remembered the horror
of that night: the gangs running through the streets, torches in hand; the screams of their
victims as they were struck down like cattle; the shouts of Palle! Palle!, the battle cry of
the Medici’s, echoing in the narrow streets. Francesco’s father had barricaded his home
on the Via della Stufa and kept his family safe. Just as well, since the year before, in
1477, his wife Piera had presented him with the latest addition, a daughter named
Marietta. By then Bartolomeo was the proud father of a brood that numbered no less than
three sons and five daughters.
Once the upheaval of the Pazzi Conspiracy died down, fate continued to smile
upon the Giocondos. When Lorenzo de Medici died in 1492, the Giocondo corporate
account at the Medici Bank had grown to 4,000 florins, or roughly $800,000 in modern
currencyiii. Much of this wealth stemmed from dealings with Medici businesses, which
naturally brought other, even more significant benefits. Lorenzo the Magnificent may
have ruled like a modern Caesar, but he liked to surround himself with the trappings of a
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republic, just as Julius Caesar himself had once done. Thus he populated the Signoria and
other important offices with traders like himself—people who owed their wealth to
Medici patronage, and could therefore be trusted to be loyal.
As a result, Bartolomeo and his brothers were repeatedly appointed to high-level
positions in the city’s two most important government organs: the Signoria, the executive
body of nine men, and the advisory council of the Dodici Buonuomini, the “Twelve Good
Men.” Serving in either body brought one close to the levers of power, including foreign
diplomacy. That could be very useful to a silk merchant with trade connections
throughout Italy and Europe.
Thus, by the time Bartolomeo entrusted the family enterprise to his youngest son
Francesco, it was a flourishing venture indeed. And, Francesco reflected, he had not
failed his father, God rest his soul. Truth be told, it was only due to his skill that the
business had weathered the terrible havoc of the 1490’s—the invasions, the burnings, the
mad monk’s regime, the chaos in government. Not to mention the great tragedy that had
afflicted him personally, right when he least expected it.
It had been such a promising start: to be married to a lovely lady at the age of 26,
as one would expect of a promising scion of a Florentine family. And what a social
triumph it was, this marriage, particularly since the Giocondos were nouveaux riches
without a drop of noble blood in their veins. Francesco’s bride, Camilla, was none other
than the daughter of one of Florence’s most ancient families, the Rucellai, whose wealth
and art patronage was second only to that of Lorenzo the Magnificent. Everyone knew
that Camilla’s uncle, Giovanni Rucellai, had built the revolutionary Palazzo Rucellai,
designed by the renowned architect Leon Alberti, and then commissioned that same
architect to build the splendid Renaissance façade of the Santa Maria Novella—the envy
of all of Tuscany. Throughout his long life, Rucellai had mentored a veritable Who’s Who
of Florentine art, including Filippo Lippi, the Pollaiuolo brothers, Veneziano, Ghiberti, as
well as a painter and sculptor known as Andrea del Verrocchio.
For the young Francesco to marry into such a distinguished family was a major
coup, and testament to the negotiating skills of his father Bartolomeo, who no doubt had
brokered the deal with Camilla’s father—a trusted Giocondo customer named Mariotto
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Camilla was a blushing sixteen-year old at the time. To be married at such a
young age was far from unusual; on the contrary. The life expectancy of a woman in the
Middle Ages was short, largely because of the dangers inherent in childbirth. Girls were
engaged to their intended as soon as their menses started, to ensure that her body was
strong and supple when the inevitable business of bearing children began.
As she was led to the altar—most likely in the Santa Maria Novella, the favored
parish church of the Rucellai family—the church was overflowing with the extended
families of both sides. Among them, we may safely assume, was a man named
Antonmaria Gherardini, a somewhat impoverished nobleman with minor holdings in
Chianti, who had likewise married a Rucellai girl, named Caterina, in 1472. One hour
later, as hundreds of Florentine onlookers shouted blessings, Francesco emerged with his
lovely young bride onto the sun-splashed Piazza di Santa Maria Novella, and no one
could have doubted that a bright and happy future lay ahead for them.
The Santa Maria Novella with its façade designed by Alberti in 1470.
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And it certainly seemed that way when in the summer of 1492, Camilla gave her
husband the happy news she was carrying his child. Pregnancy had (and still has) a
special significance in Italy, a country where to this day adults treat children with
extraordinary patience and love. In Florence, expecting women were received with great
courtesy and respect. After all, the principal purpose of matrimony in medieval times was
to produce offspring; children were a key economic necessity for peasants and noblemen
alike. That’s why pregnant women positively glowed as they walked through the city,
demurely accepting smiles and nods at every corner, proudly wearing the guarnello, the
thin, gauzy veil that covered her like a bridal veil. And in a way, the young mother-to-be
was indeed a bride once again, now that she had fulfilled the hopes of her husband and
demonstrated the fertility of her family line.
As documents in the archives of Florence attest, Camilla gave birth to a son on
February 24, 1493. Francesco was overjoyed. Later that day, as was customary in
Florence, the newborn was bundled up and rushed to the baptismal font of the Baptistery,
the Romanesque building in front of Florence’s cathedral, the Duomo. Newborn babies
often died in the cradle, but prompt baptism, even when they were just a few hours old,
would guarantee that the infant received a place in heaven. As the priest slowly poured
the water over his son’s head, Francesco declared he would name his son Bartolomeo,
after his deceased father.
Of course, her high social rank prohibited Camilla from breastfeeding her own
child. Such a task was left to the wet nurse, who was usually hired from the country for
this purpose. This had the unintended effect that high-born mothers were able to conceive
much sooner than a woman who nursed her baby, which is why affluent women were
usually pregnant more often than those belonging to the working classes. And indeed, it’s
likely that Camilla conceived again very shortly thereafter, perhaps as early as the
autumn of 1493. But this time, there were complications. There is no hard evidence that a
pregnancy or a miscarriage was the cause, but we do know that on July 24, 1494 Camilla
lay on her bed and took her last breath. She was just eighteen years old.
Francesco was inconsolable. All of Florence grieved, not just for him, but also for
the poor babe in the cradle who desperately needed a mother. The funeral ceremony at
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the Santa Maria Novella was filled to overflowing, and many a tear was shed as
Francesco escorted Camilla to her final resting place. She was buried in the Rucellai
family chapel, close to the bronze tomb created by Ghiberti in 1425.
For six months, Francesco wore black mourning dress as he plunged back in the
management of his business, but by early 1495 he felt the time had come to look for a
new spouse.iv Wives often died in childbirth; it was a fact of life, and those left behind
had to find a way to go on living. Under normal circumstances, Francesco would have
turned to his father to find a suitable wife, but Bartolomeo was no longer among the
living. And so it is quite possible that the man who approached him about a possible
match was none other than the bride’s father, Antonmaria Gherardini. Both men must
have been acquainted, for Antonmaria almost certainly attended the wedding and the
funeral of Camilla as a Rucellai relative. What’s more, Antonmaria may have felt a
special kinship with the 28-year old Francesco. His own Rucellai bride, Caterina, had
also died in childbirth. Antonmaria had mourned her for a long time, but in 1476 he had
resolved to marry again. The bride—his third—was a young girl named Mona Lucrezia,
daughter of the del Caccia family, who lived in Chianti.
And this time, the union was blessed with children. On June 15, 1479, Lucrezia
presented her husband with a daughter. It was not the hoped-for son, heir to the noble
Gherardini name, but none of that mattered as the family procession rushed the newborn
to the Baptisterium. Here, Antonmaria named the baby Lisa Camilla; the double name
signaled that she belonged to the titled class.
The festivities, however, could barely conceal an unfortunate fact: the Gherardini
family was nearly broke. Like other members of Tuscany’s ancient nobility, Antonmaria
had never worked for a living, for such was deemed beneath his class. Like his father
Noldo and grandfather Antonio before him, he derived his income from the farms he
rented across a patchwork of fields in Chianti and surrounding areas. Back in the early
1420’s, his family had owned vast properties across the breadth of Tuscany, but many of
these had been sold in the intervening years to pay off debts or bad harvests. There were
always willing buyers to be found amongst the merchants of Florence, these people with
their flashy clothes and gauche swagger, who never tired of flaunting their wealth from
the trade of cloth.
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Back when he’d married Lucrezia, Antonmaria was still scraping together a
decent living from the proceeds of his farms, but all that changed in August of 1478.
Pope Sixtus IV, a member of the Rovere family, had decided that the Papal States should
try to expand its territory, like any other city-state in Italy. He cunningly brokered an
alliance between Naples and Siena with the goal of capturing Florence and ousting his
archenemy, the Medici’s, from the city. King Ferdinand of Naples, an enthusiastic
supporter of such military adventures, was all for it. He sent his army of Aragon
mercenaries northwards, and in the summer of 1478 succeeded in defeating Florence’s
principal line of defense, the fortress at Castellina in Chianti. Florence’s armies
crumbled. Delighted, the Aragonese poured into the lush Chianti valleys and began to
rape, kill and drink their way to Florence.
A view of the region near Castellina in Chianti.
The city was gripped by panic; Lorenzo de Medici had no choice but to jump in a ship
and rush to Naples. Here, he was able to negotiate a peace treaty in the nick of time, just
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before the King’s troops reached the outskirts of Florence. But for Antonmaria, it was too
late. His orchards and fields were destroyed, his farms left abandoned.
In the years that followed, the Gherardinis tried hard to rebuild their holdings, reinvesting what little income they derived from the harvests, but the effort did not bear
fruit. Compounding the financial situation was the fact that his family was growing
rapidly: Lucrezia had given birth to the long-awaited son, Giovangualberto, followed by
another son and three daughters.
By 1494, the year Camilla de Giocondo’s died, Antonmaria had to face the fact
that he could no longer pay his debts. The family was broke. Shamefaced, they were
forced to leave their rented home on the Via de’ Buonfanti. The city records indicate that
Antonmaria’s father-in-law, Galeotto del Caccia—no doubt prodded by his desperate
daughter—then pleaded with a friend, the wealthy merchant Leonardo Busini, to take the
despondent family in. Busini did so, but reluctantly, for in his tax declaration of 1495 he
fumed that “they are here to my great inconvenience.”v
We may therefore assume that Antonmaria’s marriage proposition to
Francesco, if he was indeed the one who initiated it, was as much motivated by his
financial condition as by his concern for the happiness of his daughter. He knew
that a match between Lisa—then just fifteen years old—and an affluent businessman
like Francesco was bound to improve his fortunes. And he was right, for city records
show that Antonmaria was able to secure loans from his son-in-law almost as soon as the
ink on the wedding contract was dry. Over the next twenty years, the borrowing steadily
increased; in 1515, Antonmaria obtained a loan from Giocondo in the astounding sum of
600 florins—some $120,000. When Francesco tried to recover the loan, Antonmaria
blandly told him he did not have the money to do so. Francesco persisted, whereupon
Antonmaria’s own daughter Ginevra used her dowry to pay back a portion of the debt, so
as to save her family’s honor—or what was left of
But all that unpleasantness, which will become important for our story, lay still in
the future when the two men met in 1495, probably in the Giocondo home on the Via
della Stufa, to negotiate the marriage to Lisa Gherardini. Deep in his heart, Francesco
knew that if his father Bartolomeo had been alive, he would have rejected such a match
out of hand. The Rucellai wedding had propelled the Giocondos to the upper rung of
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Florence’s social ladder. True, they were not ennobled themselves, but they now enjoyed
entrée into the top aristocratic circles of Florence; they could move through the city as
their equals. The Giocondo wealth—modest though it was in comparison to the holdings
of the great wool tycoons—had bred a social position that his great-grandfather, the
barrel-maker, could only have dreamed of. To risk all this by marrying this girl, this
daughter of a threadbare country squire, was sheer and utter madness.
Why did Francesco even consider it? There certainly was nothing to be
gained, either socially or financially, from marrying into the Gherardini family.
Even worse, Antonmaria had confessed that any idea of a dowry was entirely out of
the question. This must have come as a shock. Francesco’s reputation as a shrewd
businessman was growing; he could only imagine the gossip and pitiful looks around
town once word spread that he had married the daughter of a pauper, without a
dowry. A dowry was a sacred institution that went back to ancient times; it
represented the honor of the bride’s family. What’s more, it obligated her husband
to support her in the lifestyle that was her due by virtue of her rank. That is why
Francesco’s sisters, thanks to their father’s astute planning, each received a dowry
of a thousand florins—some $200,000— to present to their future husbands. Why,
then, would Francesco even consider such a match?
The answer is simple: Lisa was lovely. Not just lovely: she was a true
Florentine beauty with her luscious dark hair, her large brown eyes, fine
cheekbones and full lips. We don’t need Vasari’s word for it; we only need to look at
her portrait, her first portrait, to see it with our own eyes. Imagine the devastating
impact this Renaissance beauty would have had on a hot-blooded thirty-year old
like Francesco. And to top it off, Lisa had a sweet temperament; her loveliness was
entirely matched by a beauty within.
And so, Francesco married his Lisa. The ceremony took place on March 5,
1495—a Tuesday. After they exchanged their vows, he proudly took his bride to her new
home on the Via della Stufa, where he introduced her to his servants.
But the day’s business wasn’t done yet. The matter of the dowry had continued to
gnaw on him. The bride’s father had scraped together 170 florins, but in a way that paltry
sum was worse than nothing at all. Something had to be done to compensate him for the
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fact that he, and not Antonmaria, was now solely responsible for Lisa’s livelihood.
Another man might have let the matter rest and get on with enjoying the pleasures of
matrimonial love, but Francesco was not like other men. He was known as a tough
negotiator, and he was not one to walk away from an opportunity when he saw it.
Somewhere along the way, Francesco had discovered that, apart from the farms
that the Gherardini’s rented in Chianti, they also owned one or two properties. These
were all that remained from the catastrophic 1470’s, the last lots of land they could
genuinely call their own. There was a mill on the Pesa river and a house in San Donato,
but the best property of all was a farm known as San Silvestro. Acquired by
Antonmaria’s father Noldo in the early 1450’s, it lay nestled in the soft rolling hills of
Poggio, just 10 miles north of Siena. Poised halfway between Castellina in Chianti and
San Donato, at the intersection of the Arbia and Pesa river valleys, it produced grapes and
olives that were second to none.
And Francesco wanted it.
Antonmaria had little choice. He knew that if he was to derive any financial gain
from the match, he had to provide a quid pro quo. And so, with a heavy heart,
Antonmaria left his house that very same Tuesday, and made his way to a notary. Most
notaries were located opposite the Palazzo del Podestà, the Court of Justice, today known
as the Bargello.vii Francesco was waiting for him. Once the formalities were taken care
of, they both signed the deed of transfer, which has survived. The document refers to Lisa
Gherardini as uxor dicti Francisci. And indeed, as of that afternoon, Lisa was “the wife
of said Francesco.”
Lisa was everything a man could want in a wife. She soon became pregnant and in early
1496 gave birth to her first child—a son. They named him Piero, after Francesco’s
grandfather. Well before that, Francesco was struck by the way Lisa cherished her
stepson, little Bartolomeo, the child of his first wife Camilla. She bore the boy such love
and devotion that no one would have guessed the child was not her own. They grew very
close, Lisa and Bartolomeo, so that when Francesco died many years later, Lisa
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designated him rather than her own son Piero as her representative with power of
Three years later, when the two boys were already running around the house and
getting into all sorts of mischief, Lisa gave birth to girl. In a touching gesture towards
Bartolomeo’s mother, she named her Camilla.viii
In December of 1502, Lisa gave birth to a baby once more—another girl,
whom they named Andrea. Two boys and two girls in a loving home, ruled by a
kind and beautiful wife—who would deny that he was the luckiest man in Florence?
And then, just as Francesco turned towards the Por Santa Maria to visit one
of his workshops, a thought struck him. Perhaps he should honor Lisa with a
portrait. He had given her jewelry, of course, to mark each of the births, but so did
everyone else, even his cousins.ix It was not as far-fetched as it sounded; many wellto-do Florentine couples were having a portrait made of themselves these days, even
if they weren’t nobility; it was no longer something the upper classes frowned upon.
And come to think of it, he always regretted not having a portrait of his first wife
Camilla; not only for his sake, but also for little Bartolomeo, who would never know
what his real mother looked like.
His mind was made up. He would find an artist, a fine artist, and have him make a
portrait of his beloved Lisa while she was still in her prime. It would be his gift to her; a
way to thank her for all the happiness she had brought into his life.
There was, of course, the matter of finding the right artist. In his business,
Francesco was used to working with a whole host of vendors, but in the realm of art he
was out of his depth. Unlike the Rucellai family, he neither had the time nor the
inclination to engage in that sort of thing.x But he was a Florentine. One only had to take
a stroll through the Duomo, the Santa Maria Novella or the Santa Maria del Carmine to
see the astonishing revolution that the artists of the city had made in the span of a single
century. Alas, most of those painters had either died or moved to Rome, which under
Sixtus IV was trying very hard to become the new center of art. Sandro Botticelli was
still alive but ailing, in debt, and devoted to sacred matter. Filippo Lippi, Antonio del
Pollaiolo, Andrea del Verrocchio and Domenico Ghirlandaio, all titans of Quattrocento
art, were dead. He’d heard that one of Verrocchio’s pupils, Pietro Perugino, was very
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good, but he had moved to Perugia just three years ago. Michelangelo di Buonarroti,
another star from the old Medici circle, was supposedly painting a ceiling somewhere in
Francesco paused. He remembered something that one of his notaries, Piero di
Antonio da Vinci, had said. Apparently, his son, also one of Verrocchio’s former pupils,
had recently returned to Florence. Francesco decided to look into the matter. He didn’t
know Ser Piero’s son, but if he was as good as his father said he was, perhaps he should
have a chat with him.
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“Realize that everything connects to everything else.”
Of course, we have no way of knowing if this is how Francesco decided to have a portrait
made of his wife. But the suggestion that the silk merchant was deeply in love with
his wife—not an inevitable outcome, in an age when most marriages were
arranged—is certainly true. In 1537, when his testament was drawn up, this somber
document in Latin, not usually given to effusive declarations of love, was found to
extol the “mutual love between said testator and his beloved wife Lisa” and the
“exceptional quality” of her character.”xi
How Francesco settled on Leonardo, and how he actually came in contact with the
artist is another matter of speculation. Giorgio Vasari, the 16th century Florentine artist
whose book, The Lives of the Artists, is the primary source that identified Mona Lisa as
Lisa Gherardini, gives us no clue. It merely states that Francesco was indeed the patron
who commissioned it.xii In recent decades, it has become fashionable to dismiss Vasari’s
account and to suggest all sorts of other sitters and patrons, but as we shall see, most of
these theories are difficult to sustain. What’s more, Lisa Gherardini was very much alive
in 1540, when Vasari started to “interview” people in preparation for his book. Recent
research suggests that they lived only a few blocks from each other, unless she spent her
last years in the convent of Sant’Orsola, where her daughter Ludovica lived as a nun;
even then, it would not have been too difficult for Vasari to track her down.
What we do know is that Francesco’s desire to have a portrait of his wife
coincided with Leonardo’s decision to return to the city of his youth and early career. The
decision had been forced upon him by circumstance, and one could argue that Leonardo
returned with reluctance and foreboding. Despite its claim as the center of Renaissance
art, Florence had not been kind to Leonardo.
He had been apprenticed to the workshop of Andrea del Verrocchio in 1466, at
the age of fourteen, and by all accounts the apprenticeship had been a good experience.
Even allowing for Vasari’s fondness for hyperbole, Leonardo was probably recognized as
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a prodigy, and it was assumed that a bright future lay ahead of him. In the six years he
worked in Verrocchio’s bottega, he learned to draw, to prep wet plaster or wooden
panels, to stretch canvas, and to grind and mix pigments in order to create paint (readymade paint tubes of the type we use today would not appear until the 19th century).
Eventually he was entrusted with more delicate tasks, such as transferring a cartoon (a
drawing to scale) to a plaster or wooden surface; the blending of colors in water-based
tempera or oils (still a relatively new invention then), and finally, the painting-in of lesser
elements such as a background landscape. Verrocchio and his pupils worked on a vast
array of artistic endeavors, including sculpture—in plaster, wood or bronze—as well as a
panoply of furnishings, including wooden chests, chairs and coats of arms. The workshop
was also called upon to produce any of the sumptuous masques and pageants staged by
Lorenzo the Magnificent, which invariably involved stage sets and machinery, costumes,
tapestries, and temporary structures such as Roman-style triumphal arches. Leonardo was
present when Verrocchio achieved one of his greatest triumphs: a huge gilded ball, that in
1471 was hoisted on top of the lantern of Brunelleschi’s famous dome over the Florence
The following year, in 1472, he painted an angel in Verrocchio’s Baptism of
Christ, commissioned by the monks of the San Salvi monastery, located just outside the
Porta alla Croce. It is the oldest known work by Leonardo’s hand, and already it revealed
the extent of his talent. Vasari writes that when Verrocchio saw the angel and realized the
superiority of this angel to the one painted by himself, “he never touched color.” It’s an
interesting comment, for one because Verrocchio’s style was grounded in the use of
tempera, the quick-drying, water-based paint that allows for little plasticity. As such, it
was perfectly suited for the Quattrocento style of creating figures as colored-in lines—
a style exemplified by the art of Botticelli. Leonardo, however, never thought in terms of
lines (disegno), but in three-dimensional shapes—forms that are suggested, rather than
defined, through the use of delicate shading and hues. Tempera paint could never achieve
such an effect; that is why Leonardo, as far as we know, always used the new technique
of oils. X-ray tests of the Baptism show that, whereas Verrocchio still painted his figures
in contours of white lead, Leonardo used thin, superimposed layers of colored oils to
bring his angel to life.xiii
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Andrea Verrocchio, The Baptism of Christ, 1475. The angel at far left is believed to have been
painted by Leonardo; some recent studies claim the torso of Christ was painted by Leonardo as
well, given that both were executed in oils, and the rest in tempera.
To be honest, it’s doubtful that Verrocchio “never touched colors again.” It’s the type of
dramatic anecdote that Vasari loves, but we know that Verrocchio continued to accept
commissions for paintings, since it was a major source of revenue for his bottega.
Verrocchio was not a man to take risks; in 1457, he wrote on his tax statement that he
was “losing his shirt” trying to keep the shop operating (the Italian expression is non
guadagniamo le chalze, “can’t keep our hoses on”).xiv It is true, however, that
Verrocchio thought primarily in plastic terms, vastly preferred sculpture over painting (as
Michelangelo did), and was happy to leave the tedium of painting to his more
experienced pupils.
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That same year, in 1472, Leonardo was enrolled as a master in the guild of artists,
the local “union” that, curiously, also incorporated the city’s doctors and apothecaries
(medici e speziali). Shortly thereafter, he drew his famous landscape of the Arno valley in
pen and ink. The drawing presages his deep interest in rocky formations, the movement
of water, and the awesome forces of nature. And then, the first indication of trouble
began to assert itself.
School of Verrocchio, Lorenzo de Medici. Polychrome wood, ca. 1480.
To be a successful artist in the 1470’s meant having a connection to the private
circle of Lorenzo de’ Medici, the great Lorenzo il Magnifico who ruled Florence as a
private fiefdom. A skillful diplomat and crafty politician, Lorenzo thought of himself as a
gentleman-scholar and poet, who had reluctantly accepted the yoke of political
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In his free time he liked to surround himself with leading intellectuals like Pico della
Mirandola and Marsilio Ficino to discuss Neo-Platonic ideas that blended Christology
with Plato’s Reason. He expected his artists to be comfortable in such an intellectual
milieu, and in many cases they were. Ghiberti, the sculptor of the famous “Doors of
Paradise” on the Baptisterium, studied astronomy, history, philosophy, medicine and
arithmetic. The great architect Alberti prided himself on his knowledge of rhetoric, poetry
and history. All of the principal artists in Lorenzo’s vast network of patronage, including
Botticelli, Ghirlandaio, Verrocchio and the Pollaiuolo brothers, all claimed some form of
classical education as well. Even a young protégé like the 14-year old Michelangelo, who
would shortly be invited to live in Lorenzo’s house and eat at his table, was beginning to
write his own sonnets.
Strangely, we never hear of Leonardo moving in this circle. Facts are difficult to
come by, but it seemed that Lorenzo was rather cool towards this talented young artist in
his domain. Authors have offered various explanations for this attitude. One theory
suggests that throughout the 70’s, Leonardo was still closely associated with
Verrocchio’s business, and that the old master simply subcontracted a number of Mediciprojects to Leonardo under his own name. It’s a reasonable argument, though none of
these putative works have survived, with the possible exception of the Annunciation of
around 1474.
Indeed, while the quality of the Annunciation is uneven and certain passages—
such as the awkward marble chest in center, inspired by the Medici tomb—betray the
linearity of Verrocchio’s shop, other elements could very well be by Leonardo. Details
such as the wings of the angel, the delicate interplay of hands, and the startlingly
pubescent face of Mary, all point to features that will return in our story later on.
The issue of Leonardo’s patronage by the Medici came to a head in 1481, after
Pope Sixtus IV and Lorenzo had reconciled following the collapse of the Pazzi
conspiracy. In that year, the Pope announced he would like to have Lorenzo’s advice with
regard to a chapel he had just built to replace the Capella Magna. Designed to correspond
to the measurements of Solomon’s Temple, it was a rectangular building with a row of
windows high in the clerestory. This left its walls free of any structural elements, and
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offered a perfect expanse for a series of frescoes. Would Lorenzo, the Pope asked, be
kind enough to send him the best artists Florence had to offer?
The Annunciation, ca. 1474.
Lorenzo was flattered. He always thought of himself as a connoisseur, and no doubt he
was eager to seal the new rapprochement with the Papal States. What’s more, Florence
still clung to her reputation as the leading center of art in Italy. Thus, Lorenzo had no
problem sending Florentine artists to other cities to serve what one author has called the
“Medici cultural propaganda.” One of Lorenzo’s favorite artists—none other than Andrea
del Verrocchio himself—had previously been dispatched to Pistoia to design an elaborate
monument to a cardinal, Niccolò Forteguerri, and was now busy at work in Venice
casting a massive equestrian statue for a condottiere called Colleoni.xv
News of the Vatican project soon spread through Florence’s artistic circles like
wildfire. Sixtus’ building zeal and wealth were well known; indeed, the fresco cycles for
the chapel, soon to be known as the Sistine Chapel (after Sixtus himself), would mark a
major moment in the Renaissance shift from Florence to Rome.
But which artists would Lorenzo choose? We don’t know how Il Magnifico
arrived at his final selection, but we do have a fascinating glimpse of the reputation of
Florentine artists in a letter written nine years later for another leading ruler, Duke
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Ludovico Sforza of Milan. The Duke was thinking about hiring some painters for the vast
monastery complex of Certosa di Pavia, and asked his agent in Florence to size up the
available talent. The agent replied by suggesting four leading candidates. First and
foremost, there was Sandro Botticelli, “a most excellent painter in tavola et in muro,”
meaning, both in painted panels and wall frescoes. His style had an aria virile, a “virile
air”, executed with a superb technique and fine proportions. Next came Filippino, son of
the venerable painter Filippo Lippi; his art had an aria più dolce, a sweeter air; “but I
don’t think,” the agent added, “that his works reveal as much skill.” The third candidate
was Perugino, a “singular master,” particularly in frescoes, whose figures exuded an aria
angelica, et molto dolce. That left the fourth contestant, Domenico Ghirlandaio. This
artist was likewise “good with panels and even more so with wall work,” but was
particularly noteworthy for the fact that he conduce assai lavaro, got a lot of work
Significantly, three of these four artists—Botticelli, Perugino and
Ghirlandaio, in addition to Signorelli—were chosen by Lorenzo to represent
Florence’s crème de la crème at the papal court in Rome.
Leonardo da Vinci was not included.
Why not? Serge Bramly claims that Leonardo, while technically proficient,
simply lacked the literary sophistication that Lorenzo expected from his artists. That
Leonardo, a bastard son of a Florence notary, had no formal education was well known.
Leonardo himself was painfully aware of it; in his notebooks, he often fumes that “they
think that my lack of literary experience prevents me from expressing myself as I ought
on my subjects.” To compensate for his lack of erudition, Leonardo would become a
voracious reader and an intellectual autodidact; but in 1481, that learning lay still in the
future. Perhaps Lorenzo could not risk the embarrassment if one of his artists was found
not to have the requisite knowledge of Scripture, or lacked the full breadth of Christian
motifs. What little education Leonardo possessed had been imparted on him by a local
village priest. This placed Leonardo at a fatal disadvantage vis-à-vis such young and
coming stars like Michelangelo and Raphael—artists who were good at their craft, who
could cite poetry by heart and hold their own in a Neo-Platonic debate. And so, he was
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There may be another reason why Lorenzo chose to ignore the young Da Vinci. In
1476, Leonardo had suffered one of the most traumatic events in his life. Together
with three other young men, he had been dragged in front of the court on charges of
having committed sodomy with a 17-year old named Jacopo Saltarelli, a goldsmithapprentice who moonlighted as a prostitute. Homosexuality was tolerated in
Florence, certainly among the upper classes, as long as one was discreet. Elsewhere
in Italy, “the Florentine manner” was a by-word for gay sex; in Germany, known
homosexual men were called Florenzer.
Officially, however, sodomy was on the books as a capital offense, even in
Florence; therefore, the hand of the authorities was forced if someone filed an official
complaint. Indeed, as a sop to the clergy (who often denounced the city’s “immoral”
practices) the Signoria had installed drop boxes (known as tamburi or “drums”) where
citizens could anonymously denounce someone. A letter was all it took, although the
authorities were smart enough to realize that the tamburi were a convenient device to get
rid of a business rival, a jaded lover, or a noxious neighbor. As a result, denunciations
were thoroughly investigated before the city decided to prosecute.
And so it happened that on April 9, 1476, an anonymous letter was dropped in the
tamburo of the town hall, the Palazzo della Signoria. The note accused Jacopo Saltarelli
of having engaged in “many wretched affairs and consents to please those persons who
request such wickedness of him.” The note went on to identify four people who allegedly
had sex with the lad: a tailor named Baccino from Orto San Michele; a goldsmith named
Bartolomeo di Pasquino; a certain Leonardo de’ Tornabuoni; and Leonardo da Vinci. All
four were arraigned in front of the court, and asked to explain themselves.
Leonardo must have been mortified. An intensely private person, he cared deeply
about his appearance and his reputation. More importantly, the taint of sodomy carried
the real possibility of depriving him of Church commissions; and in the late
Quattrocento, the countless churches and monasteries of Florence were still a major
source of art patronage.
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As the indictment hearing progressed, it became apparent that the prosecution had
not had sufficient time to investigate the matter. In response, the court ruled for a twomonth adjournment so as to allow the state to gather evidence. In the meantime, the men
were freed without bail, but with the stern proviso of retamburentur, of being summoned
“back to the drum” as soon as new evidence had been brought forward. We can only
imagine Leonardo’s state of mind in those two months, when his career, his livelihood—
indeed, his life itself—hung in the balance. Two months is a very long time, and no
doubt, word of the proceedings had spread throughout the city.
On June 7, the court convened again and the accused were ordered to appear. The
prosecution was asked to present its case, but the investigators confessed that they had
failed to uncover any corroborating evidence. The judge decided to drop the charges.
Some authors have detected the hand of the Medici in all this. One of the accused,
Leonardo de’ Tornabuoni, was possibly related to Lorenzo de’ Medici’s mother, Lucrezia
de’ Tornabuoni. That could certainly have motivated Lorenzo to intervene in the
proceedings and bury the matter, so as to avoid severe embarrassment to his family—not
just in Florence, but in all of Italy. Strangely, some historians have suggested that this
episode could have brought Leonardo and Lorenzo closer. Obviously, the opposite is
true. Leonardo’s involvement in so sordid a matter, with the real potential of staining the
Medici family honor, could have severely damaged his chances of winning Medici favor.
Much to Leonardo’s relief (or so we assume), the affair did not affect his
reputation with regards to sacred subject matter. Two years after the court case, while
Florence still reverberated with the aftershocks of the assassination attempt on Lorenzo
by the Pazzi, Leonardo scribbled in his notebook, “I have begun the two Virgin Mary’s.”
Though historians do not agree which works were meant by this, a sizeable majority
believes Leonardo was talking about the so-called Madonna of the Carnation, now in the
Munich Alte Pinakothek, and the Benois Madonna, currently in St. Petersburg. Both
panels have been mutilated by poor over-painting and crude attempts at restoration.
Furthermore, both suffer from a complete lack of documented provenance. Nevertheless,
certain elements do appear to be by Leonardo’s hand, as we will see in a later chapter.
It was not until 1481, however, that Leonardo received his first “big” commission,
the one that had the potential of cementing his reputation as one of Florence’s most
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brilliant artists. That is the year when the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto, a
wealthy monastery just outside Florence, commissioned an Adoration of the Magi on a
vast scale. The panel was to be more than eight feet wide and seven feet tall.
Madonna of the Carnation, ca. 1475-8
The task of covering such a vast space posed an unprecedented challenge. Adoration
paintings were popular in Florence, because they gave artists the opportunity to clothe the
three kings from the East in the rich cloth and finery that had made the city rich—while
often throwing in cameo portraits of the rich wool merchants themselves. But
Leonardo’s design fully rejects the stereotypical depiction of the event—Mary and the
newborn Jesus in the center foreground, while worshippers line up on either side to pay
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their respects. Instead, he placed Mary in the center of an intense psychological drama.
The young mother and her child are surrounded by a vortex of emotions: some
supplicants express wonder, while others convey confusion or even despair. The habitual
joy of conventional Annunciation iconography is nowhere in evidence.
Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1481.
The background is equally strange and unprecedented. Here looms what appears to be a
dilapidated Roman structure—possibly the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine, which
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according to a medieval legend would only crumble when the Virgin Mary gave birth.xviii
Across from its crumbling arches, a fierce battle is in progress between soldiers on
The Adoration is the first of Leonardo’s “literary” works, a painting filled with
allegorical clues and symbolic meaning, but such was entirely lost on the good friars.
The painting is unfinished—and not, as is so often assumed by historians, because
Leonardo walked away from it. On the contrary: it is more likely that the monks, shocked
by such an iconoclastic work, terminated the commission and went looking for another,
more conventional artist.
In fact, the monks had anticipated such an outcome, perhaps because Leonardo
was still a relatively young and inexperienced artist. The original contract (possibly
drawn up by Leonardo’s father Ser Piero, who represented the San Donato in legal affairs
and may have introduced his son to the project) specified that Leonardo would not see a
penny until the painting was complete. Second, it stipulated that the work had to be
finished within 30 months. And third, even then Leonardo would not receive any cash,
but be given a portion of an estate, left to the monks by a merchant donor. Finally,
Leonardo was expected to pay for all his materials—the panel, the pigments, the gold, the
brushes—himself. No self-respecting artist in Florence would ever have accepted such
terms, but Leonardo did not have that luxury; he was an artist who yet had to make a
name for himself.
The suggestion that the monks sent him packing is supported by two pieces of
evidence. First off, the friars did not sue, which given their well-developed legal skills
they would certainly have done if Leonardo had simply walked away from the project.
But the second and most convincing piece of evidence is the result of a detailed
examination in 2002 by Maurizio Seracini, using extensive X-ray and infra-red scans.
Based on the diagnostic images, Seracini found that there was a considerable elapse of
time between the original drawing and the areas where paint was applied. What’s more,
the painted areas were substantially different from Leonardo’s meticulous technique.xix
Seracini concluded that the work was halted when the monks saw the drawing,
presumably because the design was such a radical departure from the conventional
Adoration format. The painting was consigned to storage—according to Vasari, it was
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placed it in the home of Amerigo Benci, the same man whose wife Ginevra sat for
Leonardo just a few years before—and kept there. Then, Seracini posits, things changed
when, many years later, Leonardo’s fame began to spread throughout Europe. At that
time, someone—either Benci, his heirs, or the friars—commissioned an artist to try to
“paint in” some of the drawings so as to make it more attractive for re-sale, given that
Leonardo’s works were in high demand.
In 1481, however, that re-appreciation still lay well in the future. The friars
decided that they had seen quite enough of Leonardo’s modern experiments. Instead, they
handed the commission to a well-established artist, Domenico Ghirlandaio, though in the
end it was Filippino Lippi who painted a perfectly conventional Adoration that satisfied
the monks.
It is not difficult to imagine Leonardo’s feelings in the wake of this failure, which
came not long after the artist found out that Lorenzo had overlooked him in choosing a
team for the prestigious frescoes of the Sistine Chapel. This is the moment, we believe,
when he decided to leave the city and move to the Sforza court in Milan. Save for brief
visits, he would not return to Florence for another twenty years.
But now it was the year 1500. Leonardo was back in Florence, and his days of glory in
Milan lay in the past. Had he missed the city of his youth? Natives of Florence often
complained of homesickness when abroad. The favored expression was “wanting to see
the cupola,” by which lonely expatriates meant the famous dome that Brunelleschi had
erected over the central crossing of the Duomo. Now it was the emblem of Florence. No
matter how you approached the city, the dome was always the first thing you saw.
But Leonardo was not known for sentimentalism. Nowhere in his notebooks do
we find even the slightest expression of feelings. Affection for human beings, to the
extent Leonardo was capable of such, was expressed in his drawings, particularly of those
in his immediate entourage. One of his pupils was a certain Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno,
a young artist whose mediocre talent was compensated by his exceedingly good looks.
The lad “was most attractive in grace and beauty,” Vasari said, “with fine curly hair,
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which pleased Leonardo very much.” Leonardo called him Salai or Salaino, meaning
“little devil”, since the boy soon proved himself an incorrigible thief and a liar, though
Leonardo was unable to part with him. He produced several sketches of this pretty boy
with his seductive locks; in one drawing he faces an old man, in a stark contrast of age
and youth, beauty and decay. Another pupil who accompanied him to Florence was a
servant known as Il Fanfoia, of whom we know next to nothing.
Presumably the party arrived in Florence on horseback, still wearing their fine
livery from the court of Sforza, which may have been the extent of Leonardo’s
possessions at that time. “He owned next to nothing,” Vasari wrote, “and worked little,
yet he always kept servants and horses.”
It is possible that the weary group of travelers first headed to the home of
Leonardo’s father, the notary Ser Piero, located on the Via Ghibellina. Did Leonardo feel
like the “prodigal son” of Luke’s gospel, who returns to his father’s house, having spent
his fortune in a “distant country”? And did Ser Piero welcome him like a “lost sheep”?
Although Leonardo’s relationship with his mother Caterina was ambivalent, as we shall
see, he always stayed in touch with his father. Skeptics have argued that this was in
Leonardo’s own interest, since Ser Piero seems to have had a hand in several
commissions that the artist received in Florence. But there is no reason to doubt that
Leonardo had genuine affection for his father.
In one letter that has survived, Leonardo expresses his “pleasure” upon hearing
that his father was “in good health,” and adds that he is “unhappy to learn of your
trouble.” The letter does not elaborate, and so we are left to wonder what misfortune
Leonardo may be referring to. Quite possibly, it had to do with Ser Piero’s family life.
His first two wives, Albiera and Francesca, had tragically died childless. His third wife,
Margherita, presented him with his first legitimate child, a son, in 1476. Other offspring
followed in rapid succession, but Margherita eventually died, and was replaced by Ser
Piero’s fourth wife, Lucrezia di Guglielmo; she continued to bear him children as well.
As a result, Leonardo and his companions would have been in for a shock. The house on
the Via Ghibellina must have reverberated with the cries, laughter and screams of eleven
children, ranging from a 24-year old to a toddler who was still in diapers.
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Where else could they go? Perhaps it was Ser Piero who suggested that Leonardo
approach the Servite friars, or “Servants of Mary” as they were officially known, who
were looking for an artist to paint an altarpiece for their church, the Santissima
Annunziata. Unfortunately, Ser Piero’s information was out of date; when Leonardo got
in touch with the Servites, they told him that they already had signed a contract with
another artist, Filippino Lippi. Ironically, this was the same Filippino who only four years
earlier had completed an Adoration of the Magi for the long-suffering friars of San
Donato in Scopeto, the painting that had originally been commissioned from Leonardo.
Filippino was all too aware of the painful history. Upon hearing the news of Leonardo’s
interest in the Servite painting, he graciously bowed out of the contract.
Everyone was delighted, not in the least Leonardo himself, who promptly moved
into quarters provided by the friars, together with Salai and possibly Il Fanfoia as well.
But then, characteristically, nothing happened. For months, Leonardo mulled the project
over in his mind, exploring various possibilities, making some sketches, but never
picking up a brush. “Men of genius sometimes accomplish the most when they work the
least,” he wrote in his notebook, “for they are busy developing original ideas
As if this wasn’t distraction enough, various other job offers began to pour in.
Based on his work in Milan, Leonardo’s reputation as an architect and engineer had
spread, and he was soon approached for restoration projects in and around Florence, as
well as for the design for a new villa for Francesco da Gonzaga. This must have further
aggravated the anxiety of the Servite monks, since, as Vasari tells us, they were “picking
up the expenses for Leonardo and of all his household.”
What was going through Leonardo’s mind in those days? What was he hoping to
achieve? Earlier in 1500, during Leonardo’s brief stay in Mantua, the redoubtable
Isabella d’Este—Marchioness of Mantua and a powerful patron of the arts—had cajoled
the artist into drawing her portrait, presumably in preparation for a painting. Leonardo
dutifully finished the drawing and presented it to her, but then left the city and never
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followed up. As soon as Isabella discovered that Leonardo was in Florence, she prevailed
upon a prominent Carmelite cleric in Mantua, the vicar general Pietro da Novellara, to
find out what was going on. It so happened that Father Pietro had been invited to give the
Lenten sermon during March of 1501 in the Santa Croce in Florence. Soon after his
arrival, he dutifully set out to do as his Mantuan patron had instructed him, but quickly
found out that Leonardo “was difficult to pin down,” since he seemed to “live from day
to day.” Eventually, the priest made his way into Leonardo’s chambers, where he
recorded everything he saw in a letter dated April 8, 1501.
“Since he has been in Florence, he has only made one sketch,” Father Pietro observed, “a
cartoon of a child Christ, about a year old, almost jumping out of his mother’s arms to
seize hold of a lamb.” Mary herself, he continued, “is in the act of rising from St. Anne’s
lap, and holds back the child from the lamb.”xx Clearly, Father Pietro is referring to the
cartoon for The Virgin and Child with St. Anne. The painted version, executed sometime
after 1508, now hangs in the Louvre. In 2008, a sharp-eyed curator discovered several
drawings on the back of the painting, including a sketch showing the infant Jesus playing
with a lamb. Quite possibly, these sketches convey something of the drawing that Father
Pietro saw.
The Carmelite vicar added another line in his letter, which may reveal Leonardo’s
state of mind. “He has done nothing else,” he wrote, “excepting that two of his
apprentices are painting portraits to which he sometimes adds a few touches. He is
working hard at geometry, and is quite tired of painting.”
Leonardo’s fondness for applied geometry is well known, as described in the
recent books by Bulent Atalay. During his sojourn in Mantua, Leonardo spent time with
the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli, a Franciscan monk who taught mathematics in
Milan. Pacioli was universally known for his publication Summa de arithmetica
geometrica proportioni et proportionalita, a treatise which Leonardo often referred to in
his notebooks, and probably inspired his geometric calculations of the human body.
While still in Milan, Pacioli and Leonardo had collaborated on a book called De divina
proportione, whereby Leonardo furnished the illustrations for Pacioli’s text. Finished in
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1498, just two years before Leonardo returned to Florence, it was published in Venice in
And now, at long last, Leonardo saw an opportunity to put those geometric
theories into practice—as an architectural engineer. He had worked on many architectural
designs back in Milan, of course, but most of these involved temporary structures for
masques or balls, and many of his more ambitious projects had never been realized. The
Carmelite monk, Fra Pietro, suspected as much, for a few days after his visit to
Leonardo’s studio he cornered “his pupil, Salaï, and some of his friends” and in due
course found out that Leonardo’s “mathematical experiments have absorbed his thoughts
so entirely that he cannot bear the sight of a paint-brush.” The vicar hastened to add that
“as soon as he has finished a little picture which he is painting for a certain Robertet, a
favourite of the King of France, he will do your portrait immediately and send it to you,”
so as not to antagonize his patron, Isabella d’Este.
The “little picture” Fra Pietro referred to s most likely the Madonna of the
Yarnwinder, also known as The Lansdowne Madonna. It is probably a painting by one
of Leonardo’s more gifted pupils save for the background, which bears a remarkable
resemblance to that of the Louvre Mona Lisa. But whether Leonardo was truly
contemplating a portrait for Isabella d’Este is extremely doubtful, since another suitor
had come a-courting: the son of Pope Alexander, Cesare Borgia. Leonardo was all ears,
for Borgia was not interested in Leonardo’s brush; he wanted the master’s skill as a
military engineer.
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Madonna of the Yarnwinder (Lansdowne Madonna), ca. 1501-7
Today, we tend to identify Cesare Borgia with all sorts of nefarious doings—
including murder, extortion, even incest with his sister.xxi But Borgia was also a cunning
strategist and commander, who had every intention of finishing what Pope Sixtus IV had
begun in the 1470’s: namely, to expand the Papal territories into a vast central state,
including Romagna, that would hold the balance of power between Milan, Venice and
Naples. A close ally of the French king Louis XII, Borgia needed an engineer who could
ford rivers with bridges, build siege engines to subdue recalcitrant towns, and fortify
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them once they’d been captured. Borgia must have met Leonardo in Milan, and probably
saw some of the engineering drawings he’d created for Ludovico Sforza.
Study of defensive armament, ca. 1502
Leonardo leapt at the opportunity. For some of us, that may come as a shock.
By our 21st century standards, it’s impossible to reconcile the artist of such tender
devotional paintings with the inventor of horrific machines of war. For Leonardo,
however, both endeavors presented a scientific challenge of equal merit. For him,
calculating the trajectory of a cannon ball was not much different than studying the
movement of rivers, or tracing the fine veins on the leaf of an oak.
And so, by the summer of 1502 Leonardo was hard at work, inspecting the
fortifications of Piombino, drawing maps for Borgia’s captain Vitellozzo Vitelli, and
assisting in the siege of Arezzo, which had revolted against the Borgias. It’s possible that
during this siege, Leonardo studied the city’s famous Ponte Buriano across the Arno;
some historians believe its slender design would return in the bridge in the background of
the Mona Lisa, as we will see shortly.
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Next, he moved to Urbino, which had recently submitted itself to the Borgias,
before moving on to Pesaro, Rimini, and Romagna. We get the impression that Leonardo
was enjoying himself, moving with his small entourage from town to town, all at his
patron’s expense. Indeed, Cesare had provided him with an impressive passe-partout. It
ordered all officers and commanders in Borgia-held territory to assist “our most excellent
and dearly beloved architect and general engineer” in any such way as he saw fit to ask,
at pain of “incurring our wrath”—as if anyone dealing with the Borgias needed to be
reminded. Once again, Leonardo occupied the position of principal courtier, the star
scholar he’d been at the Sforza court. And work hard he did: among others, he produced
a colored, bird’s eye view map of Imola as part of a crash effort to fortify the town.xxii He
may even have drawn a portrait of Cesare himself; the triple study of a bearded man in
red chalk, dated around 1502, is often identified as the Borgia despot.
Then the winter of 1502 set in, and military campaigning petered out. Troops
were sent into their winter quarters. But some of Borgia’s condottieri, including Vitelli
and Orsini, were plotting an insurrection. After the brutal suppression of Romagna, they
had enough of Borgia’s lust for blood. They prepared to take the field against him, but the
cunning Borgia moved first. He lured them to his headquarters in Senigallia, just north of
Ancona, with offers of gold and high rank—and killed as soon as they entered his
Apologists for Leonardo’s dealings with this unsavory character like to believe
that the Senigallia Massacre was the final straw that persuaded the master to resign his
commission. It may be true; news of the murders rippled all through Europe, shocking
many crowned heads. On the other hand, Borgia had by now achieved most of his
objectives. He’d begun to contemplate the conquest of Tuscany—Leonardo’s native
region. Perhaps he no longer had any need of the artist-engineer. Or perhaps he felt he
could not trust Leonardo, not when the target was the city where his relatives lived.
Unfortunately, Leonardo’s notes are silent on the matter. The only entries of this period
contain the usual trivial expenses for Salai—a pink hose, among others—and a reminder
to write to a monk at Santa Croce.xxiii
What we do know is that in March of 1503, Leonardo was back in Florence,
without a job, without commissions, and apparently, without money. In that month,
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he took the unusual step of withdrawing fifty gold florins from his savings account
at the Ospedale di S. Maria Nuova, and would continue to do so, every three
months, until the summer.xxiv This suggests that the Borgia engagement had been
cut short, and not necessarily in an amicable fashion; a satisfied patron would have
sent Leonardo on his way with a purse of gold in his doublet.
Eventually, Leonardo had no choice but to make his way back to his father’s
house on the Via Ghibellina—perhaps in the hope that Ser Piero had a lead on
another commission. In this he would not be disappointed; although, this time, it
involved a silk merchant looking for a portrait of his wife.
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“Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”
It is unlikely that at any other time in his life, Leonardo would have considered painting
the portrait of a Florentine housewife. He was a painter to the courts of Italy, not a
fawning petitioner to the mercantile parvenues of Florence. Had he not, with varying
degrees of success, fended off the insistent demands of Isabelle d’Este, the most
formidable woman of his time, to paint her portrait? Was his fatigue of the paintbrush, as
Pietro da Novellara had so eloquently put it, not obvious when his mind was wholly
absorbed with marvelous engineering challenges that fortune may decide to put in his
One of these—the greatest, the boldest project that Florence had ever dared to
contemplate—was first introduced to him by an envoy from Florence, a secretary of the
Second Chancery, named Niccolò Machiavelli. Thin, brainy and cunning, Machiavelli
had been dispatched to Borgia’s camp to find out what on earth Cesare was up to, but
whilst there he soon found himself drawn to Leonardo’s charisma and intellect. During
the three months that Machiavelli spent among Borgia’s entourage—much to the despair
of his young bride in Florence, who ached for his return—the two men, Niccolò and
Leonardo, had begun to talk about a daring plan. For seven years now, Florence had been
enmeshed in a costly war with Pisa. Long a Florentine dependency, Pisa’s status had
changed in 1494 when Piero de Medici had committed the unpardonable sin of ceding the
city to the French King. When the French armies withdrew the following year, the Pisans
promptly declared their independence, thus forcing Florence to respond. Since then, the
war had dragged on without any conclusive victory for either side, draining the Florentine
treasury to alarming levels. A bold new initiative was needed to break the stalemate and
secure Florence’s recovery of her former prize.
Niccolò’s idea was to divert Pisa’s lifeline, the Arno river. This would deny
Pisa access to the sea, deprive it of its principal source of supplies, and block the main
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outlet for its trade. If successful, the plan could further be extended to realize a dream that
had eluded Florence for centuries: to canalize the river, make it navigable for Florentine
ships, and thus create a waterway directly to the sea.
It was the type of project that would summon all of Leonardo’s scientific
endeavors to date: his study of soil, of geological formations, of the movement of water,
of weirs and sluices, of floodgates and bulwarks. Unfortunately, it would also be
extremely expensive; in one of his preparatory studies, Leonardo calculated that it would
require some 54,000 man days just to create a 12-mile diversion of the Arno. Such
projects were not entered into lightly. They required months of study, and deliberations in
the Signori—by men with vastly different interests and agendas.
Which goes a long way to explain why, by the time Leonardo returned to
Florence in March of 1503, the Arno project had not yet been approved, and
wouldn’t be approved for quite some time. In the meantime, Leonardo and his
companions needed to eat and have a place to sleep. Naturally, a return to the
Servite monks of the Annunziata, who were still waiting for their painting, was out
of the question. Leonardo had no choice but to fall back on his savings; a
withdrawal of fifty gold ducats on March 4 was followed by another drawdown of
fifty ducats on June 14. On one of Leonardo’s notebook pages, now a part of the
Codex Atlanticus, someone wrote, ‘Tra noi non ha a correre denari’—“there’s not a
lot of money around here.”xxv
And yet, Leonardo insisted on staying in Florence. Word had reached him—
most likely through Machiavelli—that the city was planning another important
project, a bit of military propaganda to buck up the patriotic spirit of its citizens.
The idea was to create a huge painting of the Battle of Anghiari—one of the few
victories in Florence’s rather checkered military history. In 1440, the allied armies of
Florence, Venice and the Papal States—in reality a motley assortment of no more than
around 8,000 troops—was attacked by the vastly superior forces of Milan near the town
of Anghiari, close to Arezzo. The opposing troops were led by two of Italy’s most
famous condottieri: Micheletto Attendolo, the hero of Florence’s victory over Siena in
1432, and Niccolò Piccinino, who had served the Duke of Milan since 1425. In a furious
clash that—unusual by Renaissance standards—lasted over four hours, Micheletto held
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the bridge that led directly to the allied camp, thereby denying the Milanese the ability to
make their numbers count and ultimately driving them from the field.
The Signoria envisioned a vast fresco, on a scale similar to that of the Last Supper
in Milan. They also had the perfect place to paint it in. In 1494, the architect Simone del
Pollaiolo, sibling of the Pollaiolo brothers, had built a huge hall in the Palazzo della
Signoria, the imposing government building now known as the Palazzo Vecchio. Its
purpose was to create a meeting venue for the Consiglio Maggiore, the Grand Council of
500 members, bedrock of Florence’s new republican foundation. The walls of this huge
chamber were still gratifyingly blank.
Leonardo must have felt a deep attraction to the project. His work on the Last
Supper had been the apogee of his Milan period, a vast enterprise that had challenged him
his creative talents and had endowed him with scores of assistants to see it through. Now
here was another such endeavor, another supreme challenge—to capture a massive clash
of arms in one singular moment, one sublime image that would project Florence’s glory
for all time.
That it was Machiavelli who first alerted Leonardo to the project seems plausible;
among the artist’s notebooks is a detailed description of the battle, translated from the
original Latin by Agostino Vespucci, Machiavelli’s secretary. But whether Machiavelli
was also in a position to swing the Signoria’s support behind its wayward son, Leonardo
da Vinci, was questionable. Machiavelli was secretary to the Chancery, with the ability to
whisper into the Gonfaloniere Soderini’s ear, but he was devoid of voting powers
himself. Worse, twice now Leonardo had left a major Florentine commission unfinished:
the Adoration of the Magi for the monks of San Donato a Scopeto in 1481, and by the
Annunziata altarpiece for the Servite monks in 1502. Florentines have a long memory,
and no doubt there were many among the Signoria who bridled at the idea of conferring
this most important commission on an artist who had yet to complete a major project in
his native town—such in glaring contrast to the works he’d seen fit to finish in the capital
of Florence’s sworn enemy, the Duchy of Milan. Leonardo’s involvement with Cesare
Borgia, a man’s whose ambitions on Florentine territory were manifest, certainly did not
help his cause either.
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Enter Francesco del Giocondo, a merchant who in 1503 had already held
four prominent positions in Florence’s republican government, most recently in
1499 as a member of the advisory council of the Dodici Buonuomini. Giocondo and
his extended family had connections throughout town; between 1480 and 1520,
Giocondos had held forty positions at various levels of the Florentine
government.xxvi Here was a man who could very well bring his influence to bear to
grant Leonardo the Anghiari commission—if the artist could indulge him with a
small portrait of his wife.
As we noted before, at any other time in his life Leonardo would have dismissed
the offer out of hand. But this was not like other times. He was living off his savings at
the Santa Maria Nuova and the account was dwindling at an alarming rate. As far as the
Arno project went, it could still take many months before a final decision was made. In
the meantime, he needed to support himself and his entourage as best he could, while
doing his best to demonstrate his bona fides to the city fathers. And, most importantly,
here was a man who could help him accomplish all that. A man of wealth and
consequence, who could sway opinions at the highest levels of government.
And so, we must assume, a deal was struck. Leonardo accepted the commission.
And Francesco, delighted, went home to tell his young wife that the famous maestro
Leonardo da Vinci had consented to create her portrait.
The next step would have been a contract. The details of a bespoke work of art—
including the specifics of paint and wood, of sketch and format, of size and time to
completion—were too complex to be left to a handshake. Regrettably, the contract
between Giocondo and Leonardo has not survived—if it had, many of the conspiracy
theories of the last 100 years would have never seen the light of day—but such is not
unusual if we remember that this was a private commission. Unlike deeds of birth,
marriage and death, private contracts between vendors and their clients did not involve
the civic authorities and thus were not usually recorded in the Florentine archives, there
to be maintained by a professional cadre of archivists. Instead, such papers were held in
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whatever strongbox the master of the house or his notary used for this purpose, subject to
the wiles of future generations for whom such documents were little more than useless
clutter to be disposed of.
But we know that Francesco was a keen businessman who was not likely to
commit to any significant expenditure without a legal document that protected his
interests. Indeed, he had just recently finished two major contracts. One, signed in March
of 1503, granted his male children—Bartolomeo, Piero and Andrea—a share of their
inheritance inter vivos, as well as a guaranteed dowry of 1,000 florins for his daughter
Camilla. One month later, on April 5, Francesco was back at his notary’s office to
purchase the property adjoining his own house on the Via della Stufa. The owner, it
seemed, had fallen on hard times. Rather than settling on a fair market price for the
property, Francesco got the poor owner to agree to a sum equal to his outstanding debts—
an amount far below what the house was worth. Francesco took the house, rented it out
for four years, and then sold it for twice the amount he had paid.xxvii
Further proof of Francesco’s negotiating tactics is provided by a record from the
Otto di Guardia (a police-like militia charged with keeping public order). Drafted in May
1510 over a conflict involving a large amount of wheat, it described Francesco as
confrontational, unscrupulous and quite ruthless.xxviii It is unlikely that such a man would
have embarked on a commission with an artist without stipulating the final outcome to an
exacting degree.
While we don’t have the Giocondo contract, we do have other contracts from the
Quattrocento in Florence that can give us an idea of what such an agreement would have
entailed. These contracts underscore the fact that art was still overwhelmingly a bespoke
business, based on a commission from a patron, largely driven by the cost of materials,
including gold, brushes and paints. Quite unlike our modern day, when artists produce
their own canvases for sale through a gallery, Renaissance art was almost always
produced for a specific client, at a specified size and for a specified subject.
Such a commission was detailed in a contract prepared by a notary and signed by
both parties, artist and patron. It stipulated the key elements of the work to be produced,
including (1) the subject matter; (2) the size and format of the painting; (3) the estimated
cost of the materials; (4) the fee for the artist, and (5) the date by which the artwork was
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expected to be finished. The artist often enclosed a sketch or preparatory drawing that the
patron signed off on. For example, in a letter from Filippo Lippi to his patron, Giovanni
di Cosimo de’ Medici and dated 20 July 1457, the artist wrote that:
“If you agree .. to give me sixty florins to include materials, gold, gilding and
painting, I will… have the painting completely finished by 20 August… And to
keep you informed, I send a drawing of how the triptych is made of wood, and
with its height and breadth. Out of friendship for you I do not want to take more
than the labor costs of 100 florins for this; I ask no more.”xxix
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Magi
Spedale degli innocenti, ca. 1489
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Some thirty years later, Domenico Ghirlandaio entered into a contract with the Prior of
the Spedale degli Innocenti, the Foundling Hospital and children orphanage in Florence,
for a panel of the Adoration of the Magi. Drafted in stern legalese, it specified that “said
Domenico” is to “color and painted the said panel all with his own hand in the manner
shown in a drawing on paper with those figures and in that manner shown in it,” and that
he must “color the panel at his own expense with good colors and with powdered gold on
such ornaments as demand it.” Furthermore, the blue was specified to be “ultramarine of
the value about four florins the ounce;” and that “he must have made and delivered
complete the said panel within thirty months from today.” The price of the contract was
115 florins, including all expenses to be borne by the painter, on condition that the
painting, when completed, “was worth it.”xxx
The Ghirlandaio contract shows that as the Quattrocento progressed and the fame
of artists spread, clients became aware of the growing practice of “farming out” portions
of a painting to pupils and trainees working under the master’s supervision. As we saw,
that was exactly the case in Verrocchio’s bottega, where a gifted pupil like Leonardo was
given the task of painting one of the angels in a panel of the Baptism of Christ. This is
why the Ghirlandaio contract insisted that the artist execute the painting all with his own
hand, rather than delegating it to his school of apprentices.
A similar clause is found in the contract signed in 1445 by Piero della Francesca
for his painting of the Madonna della Misericordia, which stipulates that “no painter may
put his hand to the brush other than Pietro himself.”xxxi
Another important clause in the Ghirlandaio contract is the reference to
aquamarine blue. As we saw, painters had to create their own pigments, by grinding the
compounds and blending them with a binding agent—oil for panels, egg yolk for
frescoes—immediately prior to the application of the paint. Aquamarine, ground from
crushed lapis lazuli, was by far the most expensive and usually reserved for the robes of
the Virgin Mary. There were other ways to produce blue pigment—by using ground
azurite or extracts from copper, natron and sand, for example—but knowledgeable
patrons (or their notaries) would insist on the best.
The other expensive compound was gold. Prior to the Renaissance, gold was often
used in sacred paintings as background, so as to suggest the infinite beauty of heaven.
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Though gilded backgrounds were gradually replaced by nature vistas—under influence of
North European artists, as we shall see—gold remained an important substance for
highlighting ornaments or for gilding the frame. A payment on August 3, 1485 to Sandro
Botticelli for an altarpiece in the San Spirito was itemized as follows:
Ultramarine (similar to aquamarine):
2 florins
Gold and preparation:
38 florins
Brushwork (i.e. Botticelli’s fee):
35 florins
Lastly, the Ghirlandaio contract specified the timeline by which the work was supposed
to be completed. This, too, gained greater importance in the Renaissance as the workload
in artist workshops grew and commissions often had to be prioritized. There is little
doubt that Giocondo’s contract with Leonardo would have been painfully specific on this
point, given Leonardo’s reputation in Florence as an artist who was wont to walk away
from paintings before finishing them. In fact, many contracts stipulated that if an artist
was late in completing the work, a penalty clause would be invoked. The Ghirlandaio
contract indicates that if the artist “has not delivered the panel within the abovesaid
period of time,” he would be charged “a penalty of fifteen large florins,” or some 13% of
the total agreed fee.
Haggling over the details of the contract with a tough negotiator like Francesco
del Giocondo must have been a distressing experience for Leonardo. It was a far cry from
his time in Milan, when as an esteemed courtier he had enjoyed a monthly stipend
irrespective of whatever he would be doing at any given point in time.
Be that as it may, the men must have come to an agreement. As Vasari puts it:
“Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa,
his wife.” ‘Monna’ Lisa is a contraction of Madonna or ‘Madam’, the form of address
Lisa was entitled to now that she was a married woman in a prominent family. Lisa del
Giocondo was then just 24 years old.
Leonardo’s first task was to make a series of preparatory sketches to explore her
facial features and ways to position the sitter. As far as we know, none of these
preparatory sketches have survived. That may be an accident of history—we know, for
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example, that only a quarter of Leonardo’s notebooks are still extant—or a deliberate act,
perhaps prompted by Leonardo’s feeling that the subject of a Florentine housewife was
beneath him. We suspect it is the former, because the solution that Leonardo ultimately
arrived at is so revolutionary, so unprecedented in the history of secular portraiture, that it
could not have been accomplished without a number of exploratory drawings.
To understand this revolution, we must first remember that secular portraiture—
that is, the depiction of everyday citizens, rather than prominent kings, aristocrats or
clerics—was still a fairly recent development in Italy. In the Middle Ages, the
commissioning of one’s portrait was considered an egregious manifestation of vanity.
The body was a mere mortal shell; what mattered was the soul, which would find eternal
peace in heaven if the person had lived a pious and moral life. In this context, one’s
physical likeness was of little account, just as the importance of the individual was
subsumed by the overarching role of the Christian community, governed by the Church.
Consequently, art in the Middle Ages was overwhelmingly religious in nature.
When portraits of lay citizenry did appear, it was usually in their role as a “donor” of a
sacred work of art work. This tradition of “acknowledging” patrons goes back to the
Byzantine era, and specifically the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, where Emperor
Justinian and his consort, Empress Theodora, appear in full regalia amidst a profusion of
mosaics depicting scenes from the Old and New Testament. Vanity, it seemed, could be
indulged if the donor dedicated a portion of his wealth to the creation of art for the
religious enlightenment of the illiterate masses.
Particularly in North European art, these patron figures were usually relegated to
the wings of the painting, depicted on a smaller scale than the featured saints, so as not to
trespass on their sacred space. Around the late 14th and early 15th century, North
European artists like Hans Memling, Jan van Eyck and Hugo van der Goes broke with
this precedent by making patrons an integral part of the composition. In many works,
such as the Portinari Altarpiece by Goes which arrived in Florence in 1483, the donor’s
wife and her daughter (painted at a smaller scale) are “introduced” to the scene by saints,
in this case Mary Magdalene and St. Margaret.
Psychologically, the next phase in the development of secular portraiture took
place in the Italian 14th century, the Trecento. This is when authors such as Dante,
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Petrarch and Boccaccio created a humanist foundation in literature that would inspire the
revival of the arts in the century to follow. It fostered the sense that apart from God, the
individual was an equally worthy subject of study, just as Greek and Roman authors had
done in Antiquity.
Hugo van der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece, right panel, ca. 1475.
This is captured in the word “Renaissance”—or Rinascità in Italian, which literally
means ‘revival’; the idea that poets, artists and sculptors could depict human beings and
human behavior unfettered by Church doctrine, though still inspired by God. Rather than
restricted by traditional stereotypes from the Byzantine tradition, artists, sculptors and
architects felt suddenly emboldened to pursue the imitation of nature on their own accord.
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Just as Petrarch and Boccaccio had been inspired by the works of Virgil, Cicero
and Seneca, artists now turned to Greek and Roman models. Sculptors such as Ghiberti
and Donatello only needed to go as far as the fields and valleys of Tuscany to stumble on
all sorts of Roman statuary. The great architect Brunelleschi, designer of the dome over
Florence’s cathedral, traveled to Rome to study Roman architecture; in the process he
discovered not only the Roman geometric system of proportions, but also a precise way
to reproduce them on paper, using the laws of linear perspective.
Unfortunately, in every other aspect, Renaissance artists like Masaccio, Filippo
Lippi and Mantegna were bereft of the type of ancient models that their brethren in
sculpture and architecture enjoyed. The Greeks and Romans were known to have had
some outstanding painters—based on works like Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder,
who extolled the talent of the Greek artist Apelles, as we shall see shortly—but actual
paintings had not survived, or still lay slumbering in their graves of pumice in Pompeii
and Herculaneum.
There was, however, one manifest illustration of what portraiture in Antiquity
would have looked like, and that was coinage. Ancient coins, found throughout Italy,
typically depicted rulers such as Roman Emperors in a profile view, since this was the
most efficient way of reducing a man’s physiognomy to two dimensions. As it happened,
this discovery coincided with a new interest in secular portraiture, particularly among
those patrons whose wealth and privilege enabled them to collect such coins and discuss
them with their humanist friends. It is therefore not surprising that the first “exclusively”
secular portraits of the Florentine Renaissance—meaning, art for no purpose other than to
commemorate the features of the sitter—use a coin-like profile view of the head as the
principal stylistic motif.
Even as the century progressed, the profile portrait remained the preferred format
among the upper classes because of its obvious classicizing tenor; it signaled to the
beholder that the person was fully au courant with ancient art. A typical example is
Leonardo’s portrait of Isabelle d’Este, executed around 1500 in either Venice or Mantua.
Though at this point Leonardo’s portrait style was already fully developed, with a posture
and placement of the hands that clearly anticipate the Mona Lisa, the lady’s face is
rigorously turned away so that she can present herself en profil. Not surprisingly, Isabelle
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had a large collection of Roman coins; she even asked the artist Gian Cristoforo Romano
to create several medals with her likeness in profile.
Portrait of Isabella d’Este, ca. 1500
Other than the archaizing motif of the profile portrait, however, Florentine painters had
little or no Greek or Roman models to work from. What they did have was the new
technique of linear perspective, developed by Brunelleschi and first adopted by a
visionary artist named Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone, better known as Masaccio.
In 1423, Massacio and his close collaborator Masolino da Panicale followed
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Brunelleschi’s footsteps to Rome and studied numerous Roman sculptures. This
experience, combined with their early mastery of linear perspective, led to the fresco
cycle of the Brancacci Chapel in the Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence. No other work
of the early Florentine Renaissance would have such a profound influence on the
development of Italian art as these beautiful frescoes. In the painting of the Tribute
Money, for example, Jesus and his Apostles are depicted as fully realized human beings,
with their colorful robes draped convincingly over the limbs of their bodies, and with a
monumentality that is unprecedented in medieval art.
Masaccio, The Tribute Money (detail). Brancacci Chapel, Santa Maria del Carmine, 1424-8.
Despite his tragically short career—he died in 1428 at age 27— Masaccio would have a
lasting influence on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling and the development of
Leonardo’s portraiture. In a rare tribute to a fellow artist, Leonardo described “Tommaso
the Florentine” in his notebook as a painter who “showed by the perfection of his work
how those who took as their standard anything other than nature, the supreme guide of all
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the masters, were exerting themselves in vain.”xxxii The imitation of nature by virtue of
observation and science—that is what Leonardo detected in the art of Masaccio, and that
is what had guided the development of his own art ever since. But in other, less talented
hands, the dictates of linear perspective often had the effect of stifling creative ideas.
A case in point is Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506), an otherwise highly talented
artist at the court of Marquis Ludovico II Gonzaga in Mantua, who in 1474 created a
large portrait of the Marquis and his family, including his son, Cardinal Francesco.
Despite the monumentality of the composition and the scrupulously applied perspective,
the figures themselves seem frozen and stilted, devoid of any spontaneity.
Andrea Mantegna, Ludovico II Gonzaga with Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga and his Sons
Francesco and Sigismondo, ca. 1474.
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To compare this painting with Leonardo’s first major portrait, painted in that same year
of 1474, is to instantly grasp the revolutionary change that Leonardo brought to the genre.
In Mantegna’s composition, the figures are mostly arranged in profile—parallel to the
picture frame—or facing the beholder; only the girl holding one of Gonzaga’s younger
sons is turned halfway towards the viewer. Furthermore, in each figure the head, torso
and limbs are all facing the same direction.
Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, ca 1474.
In Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, by contrast—possibly executed at the time
of her wedding, at age 16, to Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini—the sitter is placed in what is
known as the trois-quarts or “three-quarter” position. Her head, however, is turned in a
different direction, to a position midway between the orientation of her torso and the
viewpoint of the beholder. As a result, Ginevra seems to be in the process of turning
towards us, imbuing the portrait with a sense of movement. This heightens the
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impression that we are dealing with a real, living person, with a distinct personality of her
In the original composition, the liveliness of the portrait was further strengthened
by the position of the hands. Of course, the hands are no longer visible, but that they were
once present is clearly indicated by the awkward framing of the portrait—the wide space
above her head is quite in contrast to the narrow framing of her bodice and shoulder
below. In other words, the lower part of the painting must have been cut off at some
point. This is also evident on the reverse side of the panel, which contains an emblem in
the form of a garland; its bottom section is missing. This was not an uncommon practice,
since over the years paintings often changed hands and, when they did, were sometimes
cut to fit a new frame or decoration scheme.
We can get an impression of what the full portrait might have looked like by
blending the panel with Leonardo’s study of a woman’s hands, now in the Windsor
collection. This beautiful drawing of hands, executed in metal point over charcoal with
white highlights on buff paper, shows two positions: one with the hands in repose on one
another, anticipating the composition of the Mona Lisa; and one with the right hand
above the other, holding what appears to be a twig or flower. The latter position reveals
the influence of Leonardo’s master, Verrocchio: it closely resembles Verrocchio’s bust of
a lady from 1475, known as the Lady with Flowers, now in the Bargello Museum.
Long considered a study for Ginevra de’ Benci, recent scholarship has questioned
the date of the metalpoint drawing—as art historians often do with Leonardo’s work,
given that the artist rarely dated his drawings or notebooks. These scholars argue that the
study of hands should be associated with Leonardo’s later portrait of Cecilia Gallerani,
which he painted some ten years later.xxxiii
We believe that the argument is not convincing, given the obvious correlation
between this study and the position of the Ginevra portrait, vis-à-vis the very different
posture of the Gallerani painting. Whatever the case may be, what is certain is that the
Ginevra portrait is Leonardo’s first serious attempt to solve the essential problem of
portraiture: how to capture the character, the soul of the sitter. Leonardo’s solution
is to employ a combination of three elements: the naturalism of the face; the
movement of the body; and the psychological counterpoint of the hands.
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Portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci, ca 1474; reconstruction of the original portrait.
Another aspect of the Ginevra portrait that is especially relevant for our
understanding of the Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s use of allegorical clues for identifying
the sitter. Da Vinci never titled or dated his work. This was in keeping with the
growing role of art in the Renaissance as a form of visual poetry, a conversation
piece. This is when painters strove to become recognized as creative masters and
visionary poets, rather than mere artisans. Consequently, many Renaissance
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paintings are really intellectual puzzles that enable the beholder to demonstrate his
humanistic pedigree and cultural sophistication.
The Ginevra portrait is a perfect example. Rather than betraying the lady’s
identity outright, Leonardo gives us subtle clues. One is the monumental tree in the
background, which surrounds Ginevra’s head like a halo. Close inspection reveals it to be
a juniper tree, ginepro in Italian, and thus a close approximation of her given name. This
association is also revealed in the position of the hands (assuming, of course, that our
montage is correct), since her right hand probably held a sprig from that same juniper
Another important clue is the emblem on the reverse of the painting, which
features a scroll with the words
(“beauty adorns virtue”)
wrapped around a juniper and laurel branch. As it happened, the laurel and palm form the
emblem of Bernardo Bembo, Venetian ambassador to Florence. This may provide
another interesting spin to the portrait, since Bembo was deeply in love with the beautiful
Ginevra, as we know from several of his poems. What’s more, recent infrared scans have
revealed Bembo's motto, ‘Virtue and Honor,’ beneath that of Ginevra.
The next phase in Leonardo’s portraiture is marked by a truly revolutionary work, the
portrait of a Lady with an Ermine. Of Leonardo’s three key elements, the most important
one here is the suggestion of movement—as if the sitter was caught in the midst of
shifting her gaze—which only serves to enhance the sitter’s natural poise and grace.
Leonardo did not arrive at this solution overnight; among others, we have an amazing
worksheet (now in the Windsor collection) where the artist explored some twenty
different ways in which a woman’s head, neck and torso could be positioned, often seen
from a variety of angles. As such, the sheet is a textbook example of what would become
known as contrapposto, the classical ideal of moving the head, torso and limbs of a
human body in different directions from its center axis. “From varied viewpoints,”
Leonardo wrote in his Treatise on Painting, painstakingly put together by his pupil
Francesco Melzi, “each human action is displayed as infinite in itself.” xxxiv
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One of the poses on the worksheet, showing a girl’s head turned to her left, would
set the stage for the portrait of a Lady with an Ermine. The breakthrough elements of this
picture—its soft chiaroscuro light, in sharp contrast with the deep dark background; the
attentive gaze of the sitter, as if caught by something outside our view—has been
imitated so many times in paintings and photography that it is difficult for us to grasp its
Lady with an Ermine, ca. 1490.
Familiarity has worn down our appreciation, but that certainly wasn’t the case for
Leonardo’s contemporaries, who must have been astonished to see such a lifelike and
arresting portrait. For the first time in the Renaissance, an artist had created a portrait of a
human being that not only captured its likeness, but its very soul. Leonardo was very
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much aware of it; in his Treatise, he wrote: “A figure is most praiseworthy when it
expresses the passion of its mind.” A poet at the Sforza court, Bernardo Bellincioni,
agreed and wrote that Leonardo “made her seem so lifelike that she appears to be
listening, and not speaking just now.” Or in the words of John Pope-Hennesy, the Lady
with an Ermine is the first portrait in European art to show that a painting could express
the sitter’s thoughts simply through a combination of posture and gesture.xxxv
Indeed, Leonardo wrote that to capture the elusive thoughts of a sitter, a painter
had to use the “gestures and movements of the limbs.”xxxvi In Lady with an Ermine,
gesture is indeed a key element, not only stylistically but also allegorically. On close
inspection, the slender fingers are slightly elongated so as to make them appear more
graceful—a conceit that Leonardo undoubtedly learned from his master Verrocchio. As
our gaze is drawn towards these beautiful hands, we see that her right hand is
absentmindedly caressing the neck of an ermine, thus enhancing the pensive, almost
intellectual air of the portrait. At the same time, the ermine, a weasel-like animal,
provides a key to deciphering the sitter’s identification. The ermine was a favorite pet of
the aristocracy, and one of the emblems of Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan; known as a
stoat, inspired by the Dutch word stout, it was believed to be ‘bold and courageous.’
Others, including Leonardo himself, equated the animal with “immaculate purity” —a
quality that was both admired and expected from a female courtier at the time. What
these allusions tell us that we must be dealing with an important lady from the court of
Another important clue is hidden in the Greek name for “ermine.” By this time,
Greek had once again become part of the educational curriculum for high-born children,
so many courtiers were expected to have some familiarity with Greek authors and Greek
poetry. As it happened, the Greek name for an ermine is gale or galay. Taken together,
the clues all seem to point towards Cecilia Gallerani, a young woman whom the Duke
took as his lover when she was sixteen.
The portrait was probably executed between 1489, when she began her affair with
Ludovico, and late-1490, when she became pregnant; she then bore the Duke’s son in
January of 1491. Alas, her hopes were dashed when the Duke chose not to marry her.
Instead, Ludovico opted for a dynastic wedding with Beatrice, a daughter of the
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prominent House of d’Este; her father was Ercole I, Duke of Ferrara. Beatrice (a sister of
Isabella d’Este) later sat for a portrait by Ambrogio de Predis, a Milanese artist who
worked closely with Leonardo on the latter’s first version of The Virgin of the Rocks.
Sadly, Beatrice died in childbirth on January 3, 1497; renowned for her beauty, intellect
and political acumen, she was only 21 years old.
Two months later, another woman went into labor at the court of Milan. Her name
was Lucrezia Crivelli, a lady-in-waiting to Beatrice, who in 1495 succeeded Cecilia
Gallerani as the Duke’s maîtresse-en-titre (“official mistress”). In March of 1497, she too
bore the Duke a son; he was named Giovanni Paolo, the later Marquess of Caravaggio.
La belle Ferronnière, ca. 1490
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While the identification is disputed, several historians believe that Lucrezia is the
sitter in another important portrait by Leonardo from this time, commonly referred to as
La belle Ferronnière. The attribution to Leonardo has not been without controversy, but a
scholarly consensus has emerged that in its most important details the portrait is indeed
his. The almost photographic realism of the portrait, achieved through a subtle
chiaroscuro against the black limbo of the background (note, for example, the luminous
passage on her lower cheek, lit by the reflection of her bare shoulder) is certainly a
continuation of Lady with an Ermine. The elegant dress and understated jewelry are
likewise features that this painting shares the Gallerani portrait.
Disappointment only follows when our gaze travels downwards, past the rather
uninspired execution of the dress and ribbons, until it bumps into the plain wooden
balustrade. This is almost certainly the work of pupils; as we know from Pietro da
Novellara’s description, Leonardo preferred to delegate the tedium of portraits to
“apprentices” except for obviously critical areas of the face and hands. At the court of
Milan, Leonardo relied on an large group of assistants, many of whom we know by name.
One of these was Ambrogio de Predis (and possibly his brother Evangelista), who as we
saw worked with Leonardo on the first Virgin of the Rocks. Vasari tells us that these two
associates were joined by Giovanni Boltraffio and Marco d’Oggiono, who were likewise
trained painters rather than “pupils”. Eventually, the studio then grew to a total of six
“dependents” (as Leonardo described them), including his companion, Salai; a painter
named Tommaso Masini or Zoroastro; a German artist known simply as Giulio; and a
bevy of other pupils, variously identified as Gianmaria, Galeazzo, Bartolomeo,
Benedetto, and others. Not surprisingly, the Louvre ascribes the Crivelli portrait to “the
School of Leonardo da Vinci.”
The meaning of the title La belle Ferronière (meaning the wife or daughter of an
ironmonger, a ferronier), which first appears in a 1709 inventory of the French royal
collection, has been subject to extensive speculation. One of the mistresses of King
Francis I of France was married to a man named Le Ferron; it is possible that the
inventory simply confused our Milanese lady with a portrait of the king’s maîtresse.
Another, even earlier inventory, drawn up in 1642, correctly ascribes the painting to
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Leonardo, but calls it a “portrait of a Duchess of Mantua,” further adding to the
confusion. And to make matters even more complucated, the portrait of the Lady with an
Ermine was at one point also described as La belle Ferronière because of the small chain
worn on her forehead, which in 15th century France was called a ferronière.
Stylistically, both portraits are closely linked to Leonardo’s fresco for the Convent
of Santa Maria della Grazie in Milan, The Last Supper. As several historians have pointed
out, the drama of shock and disbelief on the faces of the Apostles is in many ways
anticipated by the portraits of Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli, brimming with
beauty, intelligence and purpose. But they would also provide the psychological
framework for Leonardo’s next great portrait: that of the Mona Lisa.
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“The utmost grace in the shadows and the lights is added to the faces of those who sit in the
darkened doorways of their dwellings.”
We don’t know when, exactly, Lisa del Giocondo sat down for the first time to be
drawn by Leonardo da Vinci. Vasari, who is rather hazy on dates, gives us no clue. We
know that on June 21, 1503, Leonardo traveled to Verrucole, a Pisan fortress on a hill
near Ficizzano, that had just been captured by Florentine forces. The purpose of this visit
was either to advise on Verrucole’s fortification, or to begin scouting for the great Arno
river project.
We do know is that one month later, in July of 1503, Leonardo went back to the
region to begin researching the diversion of the Arno in earnest. During his tour of the
area he met with various officials, including a captain named Guiducci, who on July 24
faithfully reported to his superiors that “yesterday we received Alessandro degli
Albizzi… together with Leonardo da Vinci and certain others. We studied the plan, and
… it was concluded that the project was very much to the purpose.”xxxvii
Leonardo continued to work on the diversion project all through 1503 and
into 1504, though remarkably, he was not retained for the actual construction of the
canal, which began on August 20, 1504. We wonder if Leonardo was disappointed
by the decision—given his keen interest in the endeavor, we would expect that he
was—but as we will see, his removal from the Arno project would actually become a
blessing in disguise.
On the other hand, Leonardo’s high hopes for the fresco of the Battle of Anghiari
in the Great Council Hall were not disappointed. Machiavelli’s influence—and we
suspect, Francesco’s as well—paid off. On October 24, 1503, Leonardo was officially
presented with the keys to a large refectory in the monastery of Santa Maria Novella,
which would serve as his studio for the Anghiari project. Attached to the monastery was a
Dominican church, which in 1470 received a beautiful Renaissance façade designed by
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Alberti and paid for by Giovanni Rucellai; it still faces the Piazza de Santa Maria Novella
to this day. The refectory, known as the Sala del Papa (or “hall of the Pope”), was no
longer in use, which suited Leonardo’s needs; he needed a very large space to
accommodate the full-size cartoon, which like the future fresco itself probably measured
around 75 feet wide by 15 feet high.
Though the actual contract would not be executed until May 4, 1504, it is safe
to say that from October 24 onwards, Leonardo’s attention was fully absorbed by
the great Anghiari project—not in the least since he was expected to complete it by
February of 1505.
If we assume that Giocondo was “instrumental” in securing the Anghiari project
for Leonardo, then it stands to reason that work on the Mona Lisa portrait would have
begun well before October, and possibly before his sojourn to western Tuscany for the
Arno project—around May, 1503, for example. This would have given both parties
enough time to negotiate and sign the contract. A date in the late Spring of 1503 is also
plausible given that in 1504, Raphael drew a sketch of the Mona Lisa portrait at the
artist’s studio, in which all of the principal elements of the painting are already in place.
Where the first sittings took place is likewise subject to debate. Although
Leonardo took possession of the refectory at the Santa Maria Novella in October, 1503,
documents in the Florentine archives show that in January of 1504 an emergency crew
had to be brought in to fix the leaky roof—a problem in wintertime, even in Florence,
when the city can be visited by torrential downpours. Other workmen were put to work to
build a doorway between the refectory and the rooms that would become Leonardo’s
private apartment. Several authors, including Charles Nicholl, believe that given the poor
state of the refectory, it is unlikely that Leonardo would have “moved in” until February
or March of 1504 at the earliest, given the susceptibility of paper and pigments to
Where, then, was his studio during 1503, when Leonardo would have made his
initial sketches of Lisa prior to creating a cartoon? We don’t know. What we do know
that in that same year, on April 5 to be precise, Francesco acquired a house next to his
own home on the Via della Stufa, to be used as rental property until a suitable buyer
could be found. Though not yet proven, it is attractive to think that Leonardo could have
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been living in this adjoining home while working on the Mona Lisa commission. Such an
arrangement would have been of considerable benefit to both parties. It would have given
Leonardo and his entourage an affordable and comfortable place to stay, while providing
Francesco with the opportunity to keep Leonardo close, to facilitate Lisa’s sittings, and to
keep an eye on the artist’s progress. Significantly, when the young Raphael traveled to
Florence to spend some time as an apprentice in Leonardo’s bottega, he took rooms in the
Taddei palazzo, which faced the Giocondo residences on the Via della Stufa.xxxviii
Giuseppe Pallanti, on the other hand, claims that Leonardo took rooms in the house of
Piero di Braccio Martelli on the Via Larga, which was also “just a couple of steps” from
the Giocondo home.xxxix
Assuming that the sittings took place in close vicinity to the Via della Stufa, how
would Leonardo have arranged his model? Would she have been sitting outside, on a
balcony (as the painting suggests), or inside, in his studio? An answer can perhaps be
found in his Treatise on Painting, where he strongly advocates a placement halfway
between the twilight of interiors and the filtered light of the sun. Direct sunlight was to be
avoided at all costs, since it would cast deep shadows across the face. Instead, he
counseled the aspiring painter to look for an open space, like a courtyard, “which you
could for your purpose cover with a linen awning, the light there will be good. Otherwise,
when you wish to portray someone, do it in overcast weather or towards dusk, and have
the person to be portrayed keep her back to one of the walls of the courtyard.” xl In other
words, Leonardo was prescribing exactly the type of soft, filtered light that artists and
photographers have used ever since. The “linen awning” or “window screens” that
Leonardo recommends has a direct parallel in the scrims and soft boxes that modern
production sets use today.
Clearly, Leonardo was looking for the type of subtle, indirect sunlight that allows
a face to be articulated in subtle shades, shaped by the interplay of light and reflection.
“The utmost grace in the shadows and the lights,” he noted, “is added to the faces of
those who sit in the darkened doorways of their dwellings.”xli This opens the possibility
that Leonardo may have drawn Lisa in her own home, which she might have preferred
given her extensive duties in the growing Giocondo household. Of course, suggestions
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such as these belong to the realm of sheer conjecture, but we will return to this question
later on.
* * * * *
As we saw in the beginning of the book, many myths and theories about the Mona Lisa
have kept art historians burning the midnight oil since the beginning of the 20th century.
One bone of contention is the putative dating of the work. As late as 1973, the eminent
historian Sir Kenneth Clark insisted that the Mona Lisa could not have been painted
before 1506; others place its genesis even later. In a similar vein, scores of books and
articles have been written about the “true” identity of the sitter, from courtesans to
duchesses, and any number of young women other than Lisa del Giocondo.
Fortunately, both questions have now been firmly laid to rest. In 2005, a professor
of Heidelberg University in Germany named Armin Schlechter made an astounding
discovery. He was busy drafting a catalogue of various works in the University library
when he stumbled on a publication of letters by the Roman orator and statesman Marcus
Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.). This particular edition had been published under the title
Epistulae ad Familiares (“Letters to his Friends”) in Bologna in 1477, and apparently,
the book had at one point been in the possession of either Niccolò Machiavelli or his
assistant, Agostino Vespucci.
Schlechter was struck by Cicero’s description of the Greek artist Apelles, who
among others created the famous painting of Alexander the Great defeating King Darius
III at the Battle of Issus.xlii Cicero mentioned how Apelles had been commissioned to
paint the portrait of the goddess Venus, but then left it unfinished. In his Natural History,
Pliny the Elder explained why Apelles never completed the painting; as it happened, the
artist had died before he could do so.xliii Cicero, on the other hand, implied that Apelles’
choice to leave the portrait unfinished was deliberate. This must have struck a chord with
Vespucci, who was reminded of Leonardo’s method of painting. He grabbed a pen and
scribbled a note to himself right next to the Cicero passage. Written in Latin, it said,
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“Apelles the painter. That’s the way Leonardo da Vinci works in all of his
paintings, like, for example, the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo and Anne, the
mother of the Virgin. We will see what he’s going to do with the chamber of
the great council, the thing for which he’s just come to terms with the
And then, mercifully, Vespucci added a date: “1503 8.bris,” or October, 1503.
Agostino vespucci’s hand-written note in the margin of Cicero’s Epistulae ad Familiares
This crucial piece of evidence, which has lain dormant on a dusty shelf in
Heidelberg while the battle over Mona Lisa’s identity raged, now proves two things
without a doubt: one, that the sitter of the Mona Lisa portrait is Lisa del Giocondo,
as Vasari had said all along; and two, that Leonardo was well advanced on the
painting prior to his work on the Battle of Anghiari. This firmly places the production
of the Mona Lisa in the Spring, Summer and Fall of 1503. It also shows that Leonardo
was working on a “St. Anne” at the time, which arguably may be the painting originally
commissioned by the monks of the Annunziata; we shall return to this work later in our
Now the pieces begin to fall into place, because we are privileged to have a first
glimpse of Lisa’s portrait as it began to take shape on Leonardo’s easel.
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In 1504, the young Raffaello Sanzio, better known as Raphael, left his native
Urbino to absorb the latest artistic developments in Florence. Urbino itself was not
without cultural renown; Raphael’s father, Giovanni Santi, was the court painter to the
Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. Upon his death in 1482, the Duke was
succeeded by his son Guidobaldo, shortly before Raphael was born. Seven years later,
Guidobaldo married Elisabetta Gonzaga, sister of the Marquis of Mantua, Francesco II, at
a time when Mantua was one of the leading artistic centers in Lombardy. Elisabetta did
not derive much pleasure from the marriage—Guidobaldo, a slender and pale-faced
youth, turned out to be impotent—but she did import a truckload of Mantuan artists,
poets and musicians to brighten her life. By the 1490’s, the erstwhile rather dour Urbino
court had become a center of artistic endeavor in its own right.
That’s when Raphael’s father apprenticed his son to the workshop of Pietro
Perugino. As we will remember, Perugino had begun his career, like Leonardo, under the
tutelage of Verrocchio. By the time Raphael arrived, Perugino had completed his fresco
cycle in the Sistine Chapel and developed sufficient business to establish two workshops,
one in Florence and one in Perugia. It is likely that Raphael was apprenticed to the
Perugia bottega, probably around 1496.
Until 1499, most of Perugino’s work took place in Florence, but that changed
when the Banker’s Guild in Perugia commissioned him to paint their great hall. From this
point on, Perugino spent most of his time in Perugia, becoming a Prior in 1501. This,
then, is probably the time when Perugino and Raphael worked closely side by side and
the older master discovered his pupil’s prodigious talent. Truth be told, Perugino was a
competent painter but with a somewhat limited imagination; his angels and Madonnas are
so often derived from the same stereotype of a sweetly vacuous maiden that it is
sometimes difficult to tell them apart. As Vasari put it, “he had reduced the theory of his
art to a manner so fixed, that he made all his figures with the same expression.”
Michelangelo felt so too, and with his characteristic lack of tact once told Perugino that
he was a goffo nell’arte (which, roughly translated, means “an artistic klutz”). Deeply
offended, Perugino sued for defamation of character, but the lawsuit went nowhere.
What the episode does suggest is that by 1504, the 21-year old Raphael realized
that he had reached the limits of what Perugino could teach him, and instead should set
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his sights on Florence. Vasari claims that he first learned of Leonardo’s fame from a
group of workmen talking about the large cartoon for the Battle of Anghiari, then taking
shape in the refectory of the Santa Maria Novella. A few months later Raphael got
himself an appointment as one of Leonardo’s apprentices in his Florence studio, and
it was there that he saw the Mona Lisa slowly taking shape. Captivated by the
monumentality of the composition and the vivacity of the sitter, he grabbed a pencil
and drew a sketch of the portrait.
Raphael, Drawing of the Mona Lisa, ca 1504.
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Looking at this drawing, we instantly see things that are familiar—and things that are
surely not. The trois-quart position of the sitter is certainly familiar, based on the
portraits of Gallerani and Crivelli, as is the simple treatment of the gown she is wearing,
or the absence of any ornament save for a headband around her forehead, to hold her veil.
The hands are folded below the lady’s chest, which as we’ll remember first appeared in
Leonardo’s metal point study of hands at Windsor. The lady’s gaze, moreover, is pointed
directly at us; not unlike Crivelli’s intent gaze, tha71)t is, although Crivelli’s look seems
to graze just off our eye-line to focus onto an object above our right. In all these aspects,
therefore, the Mona Lisa anno 1504 is a logical development of the portraits that
preceded her in Milan.d
In other respects, however, the painting explores new ground. The most obvious
feature is the fact that the lady is not depicted against a dark background, but is placed on
a balcony of some sort, flanked by pillars that screen her presence from the deep vista of
a Tuscan landscape beyond. Perhaps the idea of a bucolic landscape was requested by
Francesco, who as we saw had properties in the country and may have been eager to
present himself as a gentleman “of means”. By the same token, Lisa spent a good deal of
her youth running around in her father’s country home in Chianti, and had thus every
reason to remember the rural property fondly.
Of course, the motif of a landscape background had already made its appearance
in Leonardo’s oeuvre, notably in his treatment of Madonna portraits. Glimpses of an
Alpine-type landscape can already be seen through the background windows of his
Madonna of the Carnation, dated to the latter part of the 1470’s, followed by the pastoral
river landscape in the portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. The somber setting of the grotto in
the Virgin of the Rocks is likewise relieved by the view of a mountainous landscape
visible beyond the mouth of the cave; the idea is further strengthened in the second
version of this painting, where the vista is both larger and more luminous.
The immediate precedent for the landscape in the Raphael drawing may, in fact,
be the background of the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, which was observed by our vicar,
Pietro da Novellara, in Leonardo’s studio in 1501. We are naturally referring to the
version now in the collection of the Duke of Buccleuch. As in the Raphael sketch, the
landscape is relatively flat and compressed, with the horizon positioned well below the
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gaze of the sitter. In these compositions, the purpose of the landscape is to merely suggest
depth, the vista of an infinite perspective that serves to emphasize the monumentality of
the principal sitter. And indeed, it is the sheer monumentality of the Raphael drawing that
strikes us most of all. In this portrait, Lisa doesn’t merely inhabit the space; she
commands it so fully that we must force ourselves to look at the portrait’s ancillary
By now it should be clear to the reader that what Raphael saw and sketched
in 1504 cannot, by any measure, be the same Mona Lisa portrait that hangs in the
Louvre today. The woman who looks so intently at us in the drawing is obviously
young, with the slightly hesitant look of a young girl; we would be hard-pressed to
see any resemblance between her and the matronly, self-confident figure in the
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Raphael, Portrait of Maddalena Strozzi Doni, ca. 1506.
What’s more, the two prominent pillars in the drawing are missing in the Louvre panel,
save for a small fragment of their bases. It was long assumed that the Louvre portrait
once featured two full-fledged pillars as well, before being trimmed at some point in its
500-year history, but this theory was recently rejected by a detailed spectro-analysis of
the panel.
Most importantly, the dramatic mountainous background of the Louvre Mona
Lisa is nowhere in sight. That this is not the result of impatience or indifference on
Raphael’s part—as has sometimes been suggested—is clearly shown by Raphael’s
Portrait of Maddalena Doni, painted between 1506 and 1507. In almost every respect,
this portrait is a tribute to the Mona Lisa that Raphael observed in Leonardo’s studio in
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1504. The tepid, foreshortened landscape behind Maddalena is almost a replica of
Raphael’s sketch, down to the inclusion of a solitary tree to the left.
Which leaves the question: if Raphael did not see the painting that currently hangs
in the Italian Masters section of the Louvre, then what on earth did he see?
As we explained in the Introduction, one of the core tenets of this book is that
much of the modern mythology surrounding the Mona Lisa is the result of attempts by
scholars to reconcile its many conflicting sources with one single painting. No matter
how hard one tries, it is virtually impossible to resolve the intrinsic contradictions of the
historical record.
Incredibly, the idea of two portraits was already hinted at as early as 1584 in
the book Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scoltura et architettura (“On the Art of
Painting, Sculpture and Architecture’) by the artist and theorist Giovanni Paolo
Lomazzo. In this work, Lomazzo casually refers to two Leonardo paintings, a
‘Gioconda’ and a ‘Monna Lisa’.xlv Over the years since, several scholars including
the British art historian Donald Sassoon have also speculated on the existence of
another Mona Lisa portrait by Leonardo, but no obvious candidate had at that time
been identified. Sassoon speculated in 2001 that if there had been a “first” portrait,
it was now lost.xlvi
This changed on September 27, 2012. On that day, a press conference was
held in Geneva, Switzerland to unveil a portrait that had been out of the public eye,
locked up in a Swiss vault, for over 40 years. Acquired by an 18th century nobleman
from Somerset during a “grand Tour” of Europe, the painting had been identified
and purchased by the art connoisseur Hugh Blaker in 1913. Blaker was curator of
the Holburne Art Museum in Bath and a consultant to a number of prominent
families and collectors in England, including Gwendoline and Margaret Davies, who
eventually bequeathed their fine collection of 19th century French art to the National
Museum of Wales. Blaker himself was also a collector, who kept a modest but
respectable set of paintings at his home on Church Street in Old Isleworth, near
London. To this collection was now added an early 16th century Italian portrait of a
young woman, which bore a striking resemblance to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
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As it happened, the Mona Lisa had been very much in the news that year,
following its theft from the Salon Carré in the Louvre in 1911. Two years later, the thief
was caught as he was trying to sell it to the curators of the Uffizi Museum in Florence,
claiming that he wanted to return the portrait to “its rightful place.” The Mona Lisa was
recovered, and following a triumphant exhibition tour in Italy, reluctantly returned to the
And now, a British art connoisseur, known primarily for his interest in Old
Masters and modern French art, had stumbled on a portrait that looked like the Mona
Lisa but differed from that painting in several significant ways. For one, the lady in
the newly discovered version—for lack of a better term it was referred to as the
Isleworth portrait—had certain attributes which the Louvre portrait missed,
including a set of columns on either side of the sitter, exactly as shown in Raphael’s
1504 drawing. And whereas the lady’s position was very similar to the Louvre
painting, the sitter was obviously much younger, much livelier than her Paris
counterpart. Lastly, the background was not at all like the one shown in the Louvre
version; even to uneducated eyes, it was clear that this part of the painting was
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The Isleworth Mona Lisa, now in Geneva; ca. 1503-7.
Before the painting could be subjected to the scrutiny of leading Leonardo experts, World
War I intervened, less than a year after Blaker’s original discovery. Britain declared war
on Germany and Austria on August 1, after German troops violated the neutrality of
Belgium, which Britain had sworn to defend by treaty. Though aviation was still in its
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infancy, the German use of aeroplanes and zeppelins was well known; many in Britain
felt that it was only a matter of time before German bombs would rain down on London.
To ensure its safekeeping, Blaker decided to ship the Isleworth portrait to the United
States, where it was stored in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. In 1918, the painting was
returned to the United Kingdom. When Blaker passed away in 1936, it was briefly
exhibited at the Leicester Galleries together with other works from the Blaker
Not much happened in the next 25-odd years, except for the intervention of
another major conflict, World War II, from 1939 to 1945. Then, in 1962, the publisher
and media magnate Henry F. Pulitzer, himself an avid art collector, discovered that
the painting was for sale. In his self-published book (actually published by his own
publishing company, Pulitzer Press), Pulitzer revealed that he had first seen the work
during the 1936 show at the Leicester Galleries, and had fallen in love with it. Convinced
that this was an early Leonardo version of the Mona Lisa, Pulitzer decided to
acquire the painting himself. But by that time, rumors in the press about the work
being a Leonardo autograph, rather than a copy, had driven the price sky-high. In
the end, Pulitzer had to sell “a large number of paintings in my collection” as well as
a “house with all of its contents.” But, as he wistfully added, “to realize this dream,
no sacrifice was too much.”xlvii
Thus, for the third time in little more than 50 years, the portrait changed
hands once again, locked behind closed doors in a private collection. This is the
reason why the painting remained incognito, and immune to the rapid post-war
development of Da Vinci exegesis—including the technological revolution that aided
and abetted it. Whilst the Louvre Mona Lisa—and many other works by
Leonardo—were subjected to steady battery of tests, one more exotic than the other,
the Isleworth Mona Lisa remained unseen, un-admired, and all but forgotten. The
rarified world of da Vinci literati chose to ignore it.
To some extent this was Pulitzer’s own fault; though a highly successful
publisher, he was not a very talented author himself. His rather amateurish 1966 book,
filled with screeds in upper caps (“the Mona Lisa before me is NOT A COPY”)xlviii did
far more harm than good, and ensured that no self-respecting historian would go near the
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work. Dismayed by the reaction, Pulitzer brought the work to Berne, Switzerland, where
he owned a gallery. Here, the lovely Mona Lisa from Isleworth found herself condemned
to darkness once more, this time surrounded by the cold steel walls of a Swiss vault.
In 1979, Pulitzer died; under the terms of his will, the painting was inherited
by his girlfriend, Elizabeth Meyer, who (perhaps for tax reasons) decided to keep it
where it was—in a vault. Meyer herself died in 2008. At that point, a Swiss
consortium was formed for the purpose of liberating the painting from obscurity,
and to subject it, belatedly, to a full repertoire of tests so as to establish its
authenticity as a work by Leonardo. By 2012, this consortium, headquartered in
Zürich (though the painting is still in Geneva at the time of this writing) had
gathered sufficient data to once again make the painting known to the world.
Among these tests, perhaps the most compelling is the one conducted by Prof.
John F. Asmus, a research physicist at the University of California in San Diego,
who compared the brushstrokes of both the Isleworth and the Louvre portraits.
Asmus found that “significant portions of the ‘Isleworth painting’ were executed by
Leonardo da Vinci.”
The sentiment was echoed by Prof. Alessandro Vezzosi,
Director of the da Vinci Museum in Vinci, who is currently continuing his own
research on the painting, together with Prof. Carlo Pedretti, Director of the Armand
Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies in Los Angeles. “The ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’”,
he stated, “seems to be the one that, more than any other, presents two elements that
could well be traced back to the 1503 Lisa...”
Based on our own inspection of the painting, there is little doubt in our minds
that this is a veritable autograph work by Leonardo, and that it pre-dates the
Louvre version by several years. The evidence is the obvious similarity with the
Raphael drawing. As in Raphael’s sketch, we see a young woman of considerable
beauty seated in a chair in front of a balustrade, leaning slightly forward, her hands
folded on the armrest, a hesitant smile on her lips. She is young, but the proud swell
of her breasts and abdomen suggest either pregnancy or recent birth. This is a
woman still in the glow of new motherhood, basking in the love of a husband and
the knowledge that his line is secure.
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Seeing this portrait in Geneva, Vasari’s oft-maligned description of the Mona Lisa
immediately sprang to our mind. When gazing at the Isleworth portrait, the large brown
eyes do indeed capture “that luster and watery sheen that we see in real life,” as Vasari
wrote, while the skin does breathe the “rosy and pearly tints” of the lady herself, just as
the mouth “unites the red of the lips to the flesh-tints of the face” and the nose, “with its
beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender,” truly appears to be alive. The portrait is clearly
unfinished, as Vasari also noted; and unlike the Louvre portrait, her elegant eyebrows are
noticeably present.
Vasari’s poetic description has often been ridiculed by modern authors, not only
because one is hard-pressed to recognize the Louvre Mona Lisa in this idyllic description,
but also because it was universally believed that Vasari could have never seen the portrait
with his own eyes—for the excellent reason that in 1540 the Louvre portrait was already
in Fontainebleau, in France, a place Vasari never visited. His elegiac praise was thus
chalked up as another example of Vasari’s penchant for hyperbole. But any serious
student of Vasari’s text will recognize that, whereas the 16th century author would
sometimes embellish his narrative with anecdote, he never went as far as to create a 200word eyewitness account out of whole cloth. In fact, in all of Vasari’s Vite, this
descriptive passage is unprecedented—and, as we will see shortly, certainly based on his
own contemplation of the work.
Naturally, in today’s field of art history, deeply smitten with the mysteries of
modern technology, a sketch and a paragraph do not alone suffice to corroborate an
attribution. Therefore, several recent tests were made available by the Swiss consortium
to the authors of this book. While such tests are still continuing, the results so far provide
additional support recognizing the work as the first Mona Lisa portrait.
First, the question of Leonardo’s authorship. As we saw, tests undertaken by the
nuclear physicist, Prof. John Asmus, showed that key components in both works were
executed by the same artist. Furthermore, a detailed examination of the portrait in 2005
by Dr. Maurizio Seracini revealed a number of downward-extending brushstrokes from
left to right, which is consistent with the work of a left-handed artist.
Now, for the date. Upon acquiring the portrait in 1911, Blaker had the painting
transferred to canvas, but small fragments of the original canvas still remained. In 2010,
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the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology subjected several of these fragments to carbon
dating tests. This technique uses the rate of decay of carbon-14 isotope (14C) to determine
the age of organic materials, such as the fibers in a Renaissance-era canvas, usually
within a range of fifty years. The test results indicated a 95.4% probability of a date no
later than around 1500. This all but eliminates the possibility of the Isleworth Mona Lisa
being a copy of the Louvre original, since almost all experts agree that the Louvre version
could not have been completed before 1508 (and most place it even later than that).
Furthermore, infrared reflectography tests, executed by the prestigious Lumière
Technology Lab in Paris in 2010, revealed a detailed under-drawing, with revisions. This
also strongly suggests that the portrait is an original work, and not a copy.
The aim of this book is not to provide an exhaustive case for the authenticity
of the Isleworth Mona Lisa, which we will henceforth refer to as the first Mona Lisa.
No doubt, the reverberations of this recent re-discovery will be fully explored in the
years to come, both in the scholarly literature as well as the popular press. Our
purpose, by contrast, is to reconstruct the development and chronology of the Mona
Lisa motif in Leonardo’s oeuvre, and to try to solve a quintessential enigma, namely,
what do these portraits mean? Why would Leonardo produce two portraits of Lisa
del Giocondo? And if the first portrait is a true likeness of Lisa, then who is the
Mona Lisa in the Louvre? To answer these questions, let’s return to Leonardo’s
Florentine workshop in the fall of 1503.
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“The painter has the Universe in his mind and hands.”
It’s October, 1503; the sun is still high but the summer temperatures have cooled,
particularly in the higher paini or stories of the patrician homes on the Via della Stufa.
Those fortunate enough to live in these rarified heights, far above the clamor, smells and
bustle of the streets, already sense a change in the breeze carried along by the Arno: a
tangy taste of the ocean and the winter rains to come.
In one of these airy suites, a group of assistants are busy at work on a number of
art works, strategically arranged so as to catch the indirect sunlight streaming through the
gauzy curtains covering the windows. The air is filled with the smell of freshly ground
pigments and minerals, vermilion and lead white, copper blue and lapis lazuli, burnt
umber and Naples yellow, mixed with the pungent odor of oils. While the younger pupils
grind and prep, the senior men, already accomplished painters in their own right, apply
thin layers of paint under Leonardo’s watchful eye. As they work, the master’s words
ring in their ears: The boundaries that separate one body from another are not real lines;
the end of one color is merely the beginning of another. Or: Remember, the surface of a
river has three colors: light, medium and dark. The light part is the foam; the medium
part is the reflection of the sky, and the darkness is shadow tinted with green.
The composition of these paintings is his, of course, Leonardo’s; so are the faces
and the hands, which he has painted himself, not trusting any of his associates with such
vital passages. But the folds of the robes, the rocks at the feet and the indigo of the sky:
these he leaves to his assistants, though always under his supervision.
Several works, such as the Madonna of the Yardwinder for Florimond Robertet,
advisor to King Louis XII, are well advanced; the figures are complete, and an assistant
has begun on the background: a rocky shoal, stretching towards the ocean. A monumental
Saint Anne, the largest work in the studio, stands alone. Still in the early stage of
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development, its web of line drawings and revision are mute testimony to Leonardo’s
thinking as he grapples with this complex composition.
In one corner of the room stands an easel with the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.
Though still unfinished, it is strikingly different from the other paintings. For one, it uses
an entirely new support, a canvas rather than a wood panel. In Leonardo’s oeuvre, this is
so exceptional that for some it is cause to reject the work as an autograph painting. But
when we look closer, the experimental use of a canvas is entirely in character.
Ever since his days in the workshop of Verrocchio and his introduction to oilbased pigments, Leonardo was fascinated by ability of oils to conjure effects that
traditional tempera paints could not. We have seen how most Florentine painters of the
15th century conceived their figures as disegno, in the form of lines; color was merely
added to fill in the spaces. But Leonardo thought differently; he conceived the world as a
montage of form and color, articulated by virtue of hues and shades. Look at nature, he
wrote in his Treatise, and note that nothing is made up of contours; forms are only visible
through the subtle play of light and shadow. And he offered the following example:
“If you wish to truly see the sheer variety of all the compound colors, take
some colored pieces of glass and look through them at all the colors of the
countryside that can be seen behind them. Thus you will be able to see how
things behind the glass appear to be mixed with the colors of that glass.”xlix
The oil palette enabled him to pursue that sense of chromatic transparency, that natural
layering of tone and shadow. That is the key to his first triumph: the photographic realism
of the Lady with the Ermine.
But Leonardo didn’t stop there. His restless mind drove him further, looking for
ways in which the naturalism of oils could be extended to other art forms as well.
Specifically, he wondered if it would be possible to create that same delicate transparency
of colors in frescoes. By definition, a fresco required an artist to work in haste; the
tempera paint—essentially hand-ground pigments bonded with egg yolk—needed to be
applied on wet plaster in order for the two to create a permanent bond. The problem was
that the quick-drying nature of tempera did not allow Leonardo to produce the same
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lustrous hues and effects he had pioneered with oils. And yet, with his Last Supper, he
wanted to employ the same layering of thin hues to create effects like the luminous skin
of La belle Ferronière.
This, as the world knows, led to the disastrous experiments that caused The Last
Supper to deteriorate almost as soon as Leonardo was finished with it. Instead of using
wet plaster, Leonardo prepared a dry wall surface using a seal of pitch, mastic and gesso.
The idea was to create a surface that would patiently tolerate multiple layering, just as a
wood panel does. But the attempt failed; the pigments refused to bind with the surface,
and as early as 1517, the painting had begun to flake. When Vasari visited the refectory
in Milan in 1556, he declared that the painting had been all but “ruined”.
But this was not yet evident when Leonardo left Milan for his journeys to Mantua,
Venice and ultimately Florence. In Mantua, Leonardo met with Andrea Mantegna (who
produced the portrait of Gonzaga and his son the Cardinal), who was another enthusiast
interested in new painting techniques—particularly those that were trickling down from
northern Europe. One of these was the use of canvas. Our first evidence of the use of
canvas is a portrait of a Madonna with Angels by an anonymous French artist, dated
around 1410 and now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin. Canvas had many advantages over
wood panels. Foremost among these was its flexibility and its surface consistency.
What’s more, it was virtually unbreakable. Wood panels, even the high quality poplar and
walnut panels Leonardo used, were susceptible to cracking and splitting as they aged.
Mantegna was a big believer in canvas (or vellum as it was called), as was Vittore
Carpaccio, whom Leonardo probably met as well during his stay in Venice. The Venetian
Republic was a leader in shipbuilding at the time. King Henry III, who knew all about
Venice’s boastful claims, once wagered a bet with the Doge during a state visit that the
Venetian shipyards would not be able to build a ship in the time it took him to finish a
banquet the Doge had laid on. The Doge won: a spanking new ship was delivered just as
King Henry was finishing a desert. The shipbuilding industry had spawned many
ancillary crafts, including the manufacture of canvas for sails. This is one reason why
Carpaccio and other Venetian artists became early adopters of the medium.
With his keen interest in innovative techniques, Leonardo must have been struck
by the potential of canvas to sustain oil layers ad infinitum. This is no mere hypothesis; in
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his Treatise, under the header ‘Modo di Colorir in Tela’ (‘How to Paint on Canvas’),
Leonardo wrote:
“Stretch the canvas onto a chassis, then apply a light coast of fluid glue 1 and
let it dry. Then draw your painting with toning [layers] using silk brushes
adding in your style the sfumato2 technique to place the shadows while the
paint is still fresh. The complexion is made up of white of ceruse [lead white],
lacquer, and Flanders yellow [yellow ochre]; the shadow will be made from
black [bone black], burnt umber and a little lacquer, or if you prefer, a hard
pencil… The longer the mixture is left the better the result, as it remains
matt.” l
The problem, however, was to find the right project that would give him the freedom to
explore this revolutionary medium. Most of Leonardo’s important patrons at the time,
including the French King, expected paintings to be executed on wood panel, a timehonored and therefore trusted tradition. A Florentine cloth merchant like Francesco del
Giocondo, who as far as we know had never commissioned a painting before, probably
did not have such expectations. What’s more, the subject—a portrait of his pretty wife—
was an acceptable risk, in case the experiment went awry. And lastly, the size of the
portrait was fairly small: around 64 by 86 cm. Thus, it seems to us, the portrait of la
Gioconda was the perfect opportunity to try out the properties of oil on canvas.
As tests undertaken by Drs. Kuhn and Seracini on the first Mona Lisa testify,
Leonardo first prepped the canvas with gesso, a binding agent consisting of chalk,
gypsum and white pigment, just as he described in his As Leonardo wrote, the
purpose of this mixture was to produce the same “matt” or smooth surface of a wood
panel. The under-drawing came next. For this Leonardo probably used a cartoon, the final
drawing made to scale, which was transferred to the canvas by pricking tiny holes along
the contours, through which his assistants brushed finely crushed soot. Once these
(slightly blurred) outlines were in place, finalized the drawing, making adjustments as he
A fine gesso mixture known as gesso sotile
Sfumato, literally “smoked” or “smoky,” denotes Leonardo’s unique style of bathing his figures
in an interplay of shadows, both light and dark, to suggest the full dimensionality of the sitter.
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went. Remnants of the under-drawing came to light in 2010, when the Paris-based
Lumière Technology Lab subjected the canvas to infrared reflectography tests. The blurry
changes in the sketchy under-drawing shows that this Mona Lisa is an original autograph
work, and not a copy as has sometimes been alleged.
A mere portrait of a housewife it may be, but Leonardo did not fail to apply the
system of perfect human proportions that he had developed under the tutelage of his
friend, the Italian mathematician Luca Pacioli. As we saw earlier, Leonardo and Pacioli
had collaborated on the book De Divina Proportione just five years earlier, in 1498,
whereby Leonardo furnished the illustrations to Pacioli’s text.
Jacopo de Barbari, Luca Pacioli and his assistant, ca. 1495.
A fundamental principle of Pacioli’s system of “divine proportions” was that the most
perfect geometric figure in nature is the rectangle defined by π or phi. First coined by the
Greek mathematician Pythagoras (570-495 B.C.E.) as the “golden ratio” or the “golden
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rule”, a rectangle of the length-to-width ratio of 1:1.618 can be replicated ad infinitum in
a series of the exact same proportion. The 13th century mathematician Leonardo
Fibonacci developed the Pythagorean theorem into the so-called Fibonacci series,
whereby each number is the sum of the previous two (for example: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21,
34, etc.).lii If we look at the ratio of such sequences—by dividing the second term by the
first in any given pair—the value first varies around 1.62; but after a dozen calculations,
phi is firmly established: 1.618 056. Creating a series of tiles based on the Fibonacci
sequence, and then drawing a circular arc connecting the opposite corners of these tiles,
will produce a Fibonacci spiral. As several authors including Bülent Atalay have shown,
nature is full of such logarithmic spirals, from a simple Nautilus seashell to the massive
“Whirlpool” galaxy, one of the largest star constellations in our universe (Meissier 51).
This is why Pacioli, a Franciscan friar, called phi a “divine proportion’, since it appeared
to be a fundamental rule used by God in the Creation.
It follows that the golden rule would be particularly manifest in God’s most
perfect creation: a human being. To illustrate this idea, Leonardo created the famous
drawing of Man’s Proportions, better known as Vitruvian Man. It depicts a man with
outstretched arms in two superimposed positions, which form both a perfect circle and a
perfect square. The drawing is called ‘Vitruvian Man’ for the simple reason that long
before Fibonacci and Pacioli, the Romans had adopted the Pythagoras theorem as a core
foundation of their architecture. Thus it appears in the third volume of the “Ten Books of
Architecture” written by the Roman architect Vitruvius (c. 70 B.C.E.-15 C.E.), excerpts
from which Leonardo cited just above his drawing:
Vitruvius, the architect, has it in his work on architecture that the
measurements of man are arranged by nature in the following manner:
four fingers make one palm3 and four palms make one foot; six palms
make a cubit4; four cubits make a man, and four cubits make one pace5;
and twenty-four palms make a man; and these measures are those of his
Literally, “handbreadth”
Equal to around 18 inches (46 cm)
A passus was the length of a stride, roughly a yard and a half
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In sum, Leonardo was firmly convinced, like Pacioli and ancient authors before
him, that nature corresponds to a fundamental set of laws, and that these laws
appear in their most perfect, their most ideal form in a human being. It would
therefore follow that in his constant quest for perfection, both in terms of beauty
and realism, Leonardo would try to apply this proportional model in his painting,
and particularly in the depiction of portraits.
Vitruvian Man, ca. 1490.
Several scholars have tried to determine if this is also true for the Mona Lisa.
Alfonso Rubino, for example, superimposed a geometric extension of Vitruvian Man
on both the first and second versions of the Mona Lisa, and found that the head of
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Vitruvian Man is positioned exactly on the portrait’s principal focal point, the lady’s
left eye, in both the Geneva and the Louvre versions.liv
Another key geometric figure derived from the golden rule is the golden triangle,
rising at a 52 degree angle on its sides. More than any other compositional structure, a
triangle exudes monumentality, perfection and permanence. No wonder the Egyptian
pharaohs chose the form to build their eternal resting place, although their grasp of phi
was most likely intuitive rather than scientific.
Did Leonardo consciously fashion Lisa’s portrait according to the geometric
models of the golden rule, the pyramid and Vitruvian Man? Several scholars have
pondered the question, and the answer is: we don’t know. “The first operation of painting
is to put down its scientific and true principles,” Leonardo wrote in his Treatise; “that is,
darkness, light, color, body, figure, position, distance, nearness, motion, and rest… this is
the science of painting.” Geometric proportions are conspicuously missing from this
recital. Perhaps Leonardo had developed a spontaneous grasp of proper proportionate
modeling as a result of his collaboration with Pacioli. Nevertheless, when we
superimpose the Fibonacci spiral over the first Mona Lisa portrait, the proportions match:
the inner curl frames the face perfectly. This is why the position of Lisa looks right to us;
though we are not aware of it, we are unconsciously reminded of similar harmonics in
With the under-drawing in place, Leonardo proceeded with the face, the torso and
finally, the hands. He applied a red-brown base, composed of red-brown ochre and
calcium carbonate, followed by layers of lead white. The flesh tints of Lisa’s skin were
produced through the delicate superimposition of shades of calcium carbonate, black
vermilion and yellow ochre—what Leonardo referred to as “dry cinnabar.”lv
Slowly but surely, her face came alive, her young skin glowing—a woman at
the peak of her fecundity. One reason why this beautiful face has retained that
freshness after 500 years is undoubtedly Leonardo’s choice to use a canvas; the
Louvre portrait, by contrast, has a much greater aged look, due to the extensive
craquelure of the pigments on the poplar panel, as we will see shortly.
If our assumptions are correct, then by October of 1503, the date of Vespucci’s
memorable crawl in Cicero’s letters, the “head” of Lisa del Giocondo was largely
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finished, as were her delicately painted hands. As we noted earlier, the play and position
of hands is a vital element in Leonardo’s portraits, not only as a psychological key to the
sitter’s persona, but also as an allegorical cipher to her identity and the very raison-d’être
of the portrait. In this Leonardo was not unique; as Roy McMullen wrote, “hand gestures
had long been a favorite study among Italian painters.” Some of these pictorial
conventions are still recognizable to the 21st century beholder, such as a clenched fist to
portray anger or protest, or the crossed hands over the chest, universally used by women
standing at the foot of the crucified Christ as an indication of their despair. Other gestures
followed a convention known only to the Renaissance, such as the depiction of a figure
with his chin in the palm of his hand. To us this might signal boredom; to Leonardo’s
audience, it meant a sense of melancholy (or “a state of depression”.
Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre version; ca. 1498.
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From the Last Supper to the Virgin of the Rocks, Leonardo himself had introduced a
repertoire of evocative gestures. In the Last Supper the hands communicate the figure’s
emotional response to Jesus’ declaration of imminent betrayal. As our eye moves from
left to right, we witness a variety of reactions, clustered in groups of three, with the
exception of the figure to Jesus’ immediate right. The unique position accorded to this
individual suggests he is of some significance. Tradition has identified him as John, “the
beloved disciple” in the Gospel of John, though some recent authors believe the
somewhat feminine figure may be Mary Magdalene, or even the Virgin Mary.lvi
The Last Supper, ca. 1495-8. Convent of Santa Maria della Grazie, Milan.
In the Virgin of the Rocks, gestures form a delicate choreography of theological meaning
that would soon be continued in the Saint Anne: while Mary’s left hand hovers
protectively over her son Jesus to safe guard him from evil, her right hand embraces the
young John the Baptist, the figure destined to announce Jesus’ inevitable path to his
Passion. Thus the composition eloquently expresses Mary’s dilemma: while wholly
devoted to her son’s wellbeing, she knows she must submit to God’s will and anticipate
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his future sacrifice. This is further affirmed in the gesture of the angel, who points to
John to emphasize that this part of God’s plan for mankind. The infant Jesus, meanwhile,
raises his hand to bless John, meaning he has accepted his future Passion, and welcomes
John’s role in this.
All in all, the Virgin of the Rocks is a rather mysterious work, given that the
emphasis is clearly on the Virgin and particularly the infant John, who seems to be
getting all the attention; Jesus himself is relegated to a lesser role, at the very base of the
triangular composition. Some authors have argued that Leonardo was inspired by a
pseudo-heretical text known as the Apocalypsis Nova by the Franciscan theologican Joao
Mendes da Silva, which depicts the Virgin and John at the core of the Passion story.lvii
This may also explain why the agency that commissioned the work, the Confraternity of
the Immaculate Conception in Milan, initially refused to pay the agreed price for the
The crossed hands of the Mona Lisa, by contrast, appear to elude any obvious
interpretation. They are evidently at rest, and as such may signal the sitter’s contentment
with her state—as a young, well-to-do wife and mother, secure in the love of her
husband. Another way to look at the meaning of the hands is to state the obvious: that
they are very beautiful hands, free of blemish, soft and delicate—the type of hands that
want to caress, or wipe the tears from a sobbing child.
That they are slightly longer than her anatomy would otherwise suggest is again
the reflection of Verrocchio’s unfailing sense of elegance, particularly because the lower
hand is partly hidden by foreshortening. But given the obvious care with which
Leonardo depicted them, do the hands carry an allegorical meaning? Are they
placed in some unconscious protective gesture, holding the womb that so recently
delivered a third child?
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Isleworth Mona Lisa (Geneva), detail of the hands; ca 1503-7.
There is one other element in the painting that undoubtedly carries Leonardo’s imprint,
and that is the fine filigree ornamentation along the neckline of Lisa’s dress, surmounting
what appear to a repetitive pattern of delicate arabesques. The embroidery catches our
eye because it is the only form of decoration in the entire portrait. We know that
Leonardo was fond of such intricate patterns, but we wonder whether this so prominent
feature is likewise supposed to carry a symbolic meaning. A very similar pattern of
intertwined figures can be found on a Portrait of a Lady in Profile of around 1495, which
some believe may be an autograph work by Leonardo; most scholars, however, believe it
is by one of Leonardo’s close collaborators, Ambrogio de Predis. Then again, the
exquisite treatment of the face has prompted some authors to detect the hand of
Leonardo; if that is true, then perhaps the intricate pattern on the hem of her mantle could
also be ascribed to him.
One other example of Leonardo’s fondness for arabesques is his elaborate fresco
of tree foliage and branches in the Sala delle Asse of Ludovico’s Sforza Castle in Milan,
only rediscovered in 1954; or the finely detailed “logo” he designed for the “Leonardo
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Academy,” an salon of scholars and artists that, as recent research assures us, was
probably more imagination than fact. “He wasted a lot of time drawing knots of cords in
an intricate pattern, in such a way that the thread would continue from one end to the
other, filling a round,” Vasari says with a hint of impatience; “one of these is a very
complex but beautiful design, with the words “Leonardus Vinci Academia” at its center.”
Some have suggested that such interlacing—vincire in Italian—was a subtle way for
Leonardo to sign his work. Whatever the case may be, this single decorative element in
the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, just above the swell of her breasts, is no accident.
Isleworth Mona Lisa (Geneva), detail of the dress; ca 1503-7.
This is as far as the portrait had progressed by the late summer and early fall of 1503.
Other developments were now beginning to claim Leonardo’s attention. As we saw, on
July 23 he was prospecting in the Pisan hills and reviewing his plans for the diversion of
the Arno with officers of the Florentine army. By the early fall, negotiations for the
fresco of the Battle of Anghiari were moving in high gear, culminating in a favorable
decision in October; the keys to his new studio at the monastery of Santa Maria Novella
were presented on October 24. Just to ensure that everything was comme il faut,
Leonardo had duly re-registered in the painter’s guild of Florence a few weeks earlier.
From that point on, the artist’s attention were wholly consumed with the
preparations for the Anghiari fresco, his largest and most prestigious civic commission to
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date. Among others, Leonardo studied a detailed description of the battle composed by
the Dominican humanist Leonardo di Piero Dati in the early 1400’s.lviii Written as a Latin
poem entitled Trophaeum Anglaricum (“Victory at Anghiari”), the story had been
helpfully translated into Italian by none other than Agostino Vespucci, who knew that
Leonardo’s grasp of Latin was rudimentary—thus giving us further testimony of
Vespucci’s and Machiavelli’s close involvement with the Anghiari project.
Soon thereafter, the first sketches began to appear. As revealed in the drawings
now in the Accademia in Venice, Leonardo very early gravitated to the idea of a dense
and violent clash of cavalry at the peak of the fighting. “If you, poet, were to portray a
bloody battle, you would write about the dark and murky air amid the smoke of fearful
and deadly engines of war,” he wrote in his Treatise, perhaps with Dati’s poem in mind;
“it would be a long and tedious thing in poetry to portray all the movements of the
participants in such a war… but the painter can display this in an instant.”lix That
instantaneous moment slowly crystallized into the penultimate moment of victory: the
battle for the standard. In the final sketch, we see a dense tangle of four mounted officers
slashing at each other, while infantry casualties cower below the horses’ hooves.lx With
the composition established, he then moved to close-ups of individual combatants, as
shown in the studies now in the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum in Budapest.
And all throughout this process, the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo stood in a
corner of his studio, unfinished save for the figure with her radiant countenance and
tender hands.
The Anghiari commission had once again moved Leonardo to the forefront of
Florence’s artistic endeavor. Inevitably, it provoked Isabella d’Este into another letter
pleading for a work by the master, or any work by Leonardo for that matter, written in a
tone that betrayed just a tinge of the Marchioness’ growing exasperation. “Maestro
Leonardo,” she began, “understanding that you are settled in Florence, we are hopeful
that we can get from you what we have so much desired, which is something from your
hand.” Isabella went on to remind him of his promise to turn the charcoal drawing he had
made of her “into color,” but since this would now be unlikely, given that “it would be
inconvenient for you to move here,” she magnanimously offered him to “keep your good
faith by a portrait of Jesus as a young man, of about twelve years old, at the age when he
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disputed in the Temple.” What the Marchioness was particularly looking for, she
confessed, was “that sweetness and soft ethereal charm, which is the peculiar excellence
of your art.” lxi
The letter was delivered to the master’s workshop in the Santa Maria Novella by
her agent, the merchant Angelo del Tovaglia. The answer, dutifully relayed back to the
Marchioness, was a shrug. As Tovaglia wrote in his response, he “may do it when he can
spare the time from the project he has begun for the Signoria.” Translated into
Leonardonese, that meant ‘no’. The Anghiari fresco now consumed him fully, and no
other work in paint, certainly not a portrait, was going to detract him from his purpose.
Michelangelo Buonarotti, David; ca. 1501-1504.
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There was one exception, and that was a request from the same Signoria to serve on an ad
hoc committee of artistic luminaries. This committee had been convened in January of
1504 to decide on the proper location for a sculpted figure, originally contracted in 1501,
which had recently been completed by the artist charged with the work. That figure was
none other than the towering David, and the artist was Michelangelo Buonarotti.
Michelangelo was then just a brash 28 year-old, a quarter-century younger than
Leonardo, and already considered the Wunderkind of the new century, and obviously the
wave of the Cinquecento future. Nowhere was that contrast between the old and the new
made more vivid than in a comparison between the strong, purposeful pose of
Michelangelo’s sculpture and the David by Verrocchio, for which Leonardo may have
posed as a model. A strong sense of rivalry between Michelangelo and Leonardo was
therefore inevitable; there are anecdotes, never truly attested, of the two exchanging sharp
words in public.
The committee that the Signoria convened in early 1504 was a veritable Who’s
Who of Florence’s artistic community, with luminaries such as Sandro Botticelli,
Filippino Lippi, Pietro Perugino, Andrea della Robbia and the Sangallo brothers.
Enthralled by the mighty marble of David, the group voted to put it in a place of honor,
right next to the entrance of the Palazzo della Signoria (where a copy of the statue still
stands today). Leonardo dissented; he suggested, not surprisingly, that it should be placed
deep in the Loggia dei Lanzi, “lest it interfere with state ceremonies”—that is, well away
from the public view.
But the Signoria had a nasty surprise in store for him. According to Vasari,
gonfaloniere Soderini, who considered Michelangelo something of a protégé, had come
up with the brilliant idea to commission the artist to create a battle fresco in the same
Grand Council Hall where Leonardo would soon begin to paint his Battle of Anghiari.
“Just imagine,” Soderini may have said; “a grand clash of two greatest titans of our
time!” The city fathers needed little convincing. By the summer of 1504 they had struck a
deal with Michelangelo for the fresco, which was supposed to depict another great
victory from Florence’s past, the Battle of Cascina. Significantly, this battle had been
won 140 years earlier against the city with which Florence was once again at war—the
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community of Pisa. As some have suggested, Michelangelo was to create this painting
right opposite the wall designated for Leonardo.
Leonardo was not amused—certainly not when it transpired that Michelangelo’s
fee was actually higher than his own, which was a mere 150 florins, doled out at a rate of
15 florins a month. Soon thereafter, on September 22, the city handed Michelangelo the
keys to studio space at the Ospedale di Sant’Onofrio, the dyer’s hospital—and Leonardo
decided to pack his bags. True, the Anghiari cartoon was complete by then, and there
were good reasons for his trip, but it’s hard to escape the impression that Leonardo timed
his departure to express his displeasure.
Battle of Anghiari, cartoon, ca. 1505. Copy by Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1603.
Be that as it may, there were indeed some urgent matters to attend to—family matters, in
fact. On July 9, Leonardo’s father, Ser Pietro, had passed away. The event merited a brief
mention on a page in the Codex Atlanticus which otherwise lists various expenses for his
household: “On Wednesday at the 7th hour Ser Piero da Vinci died, on the 9th day of July
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1504.” His father was 78. Elsewhere, Leonardo wrote that he left “ten sons and two
daughters,” including himself in that tally, even though he was his father’s illegitimate
After more than 50 fifty years, that illegitimacy would now come back to
haunt him. Either Ser Pietro had deliberately omitted Leonardo from his will, or his
sons colluded to ensure that Leonardo would not receive his share; the record is not
clear on this point, but what is clear is that Leonardo was not to receive a single cent
from his father’s endowment. To be true, Leonardo had never been close to his halfbrothers; he was already 24 years old when Ser Pietro’s third wife, Margherita,
gave birth to the first legitimate son, Antonio, in 1476. Since then, he had only
sporadically stayed in touch. There was, however, one silver lining: Leonardo’s
uncle Francesco, with whom he always felt close, vowed to make amends. Childless
himself, Francesco now changed his will to ensure that all of his properties around
Vinci would be bequeathed to his nephew Leonardo, exclusively.
So it’s not surprising that Leonardo’s first stop on his journey away from
Florence was his hometown, perhaps to thank Francesco and inspect the lands that
at some time in the future would be his. Charles Nicholl cites a Tuscan historian named
Renzo Cianchi, who suggests that this property would have been located in Forra di
Serravalle, some 4 miles east of Vinci. Francesco’s kind gesture must have touched
Leonardo deeply, not only because it affirmed Leonardo’s kinship, but also because
despite his many labors, wealth had so far eluded him. “He owned next to nothing,” says
Vasari. As we saw, Ludovico il Moro had granted him a small estate in Milan, but the
status of that property was now in doubt, with Milan under control of the French king. A
property in Vinci, close to the place of his roots, held the promise of a comfortable
retirement while at the same time legitimizing him as a true son of the family.
While Leonardo tarried in the Vinci area, a huge rainstorm swept over Tuscany. It
would be nice to know if Leonardo looked up at the clouds and wondered, if only for a
moment, whether the storm would have any impact on what was happening a scant 40
miles to the east, in the region north of Pisa. For it was here that on August 20, 1504, the
first spade had been driven into the dirt for Florence’s great gamble: the project to divert
the Arno, deny Pisa its access to the sea, and thus force the city to surrender. Against all
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odds, the Signoria had voted to authorize this fantastic (and hideously expensive) project,
which probably reflects the desperation with which the government of Florence sought an
end to the conflict.
Equally surprising was the fact that, although the diversion project had been
designed by Leonardo, he had not been offered a chance o be involved in its execution.
Perhaps the Signoria judged his work on the Battle of Anghiari to be of more immediate
value; or perhaps the city fathers had never truly accepted Leonardo as an engineer,
recognizing him only—apart from some minor architectural work—as a man of the
brush. Be that as it may, his exclusion from the Arno enterprise was a blessing in
disguise. A professional waterworks engineer was entrusted with its supervision, a man
named maestro Colombino, who began digging near the town of Riglione with a
workforce of two thousand workmen—far less than what Leonardo had recommended for
the job. When the October storm struck, gusts of rain flooded the plain and quickly filled
the ditches that had so painstakingly been dug over the preceding two months. Worse,
eighty workers drowned. As soon as word of the disaster reached Florence, work was
suspended immediately. The diggers were withdrawn, leaving the Pisans to clean up the
mess. Thus ended another unfulfilled engineering project from the mind of Leonardo da
Vinci, this time at the cost of some “seven thousand ducats,” or its equivalent in florins.lxii
From the town of Vinci Leonardo traveled to Piombino, where he arrived on
October 20 and stayed until All Saint’s Day, November 1. While there, he may have been
consulted on the new fortifications of the city, which had recently been liberated from
Borgia occupation. Then, having exhausted his excuse for staying away, Leonardo
reluctantly made his way back to Florence and the great fresco that awaited him in the
Palazzo della Signoria.
Two months later, in February 1505, the big moment arrived at last: Leonardo had
completed the massive Anghiari cartoon and was ready to transfer it to the wall of the
Grand Council Hall. Across town, in the Ospedale di Sant’Onofrio, his rival
Michelangelo was putting the finishing touches on his cartoon as well. It featured a
number of nude men who are bathing in the river just when the alarm is sounded and the
enemy attacks their camp.
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Michelangelo Buonarotti, The Battle of Cascina, cartoon, 1505.
Copy by Bastiano da Sangallo, ca. 1542.
The concept gave Michelangelo ample opportunity to display his genius in fashioning
nudes in a variety of postures and gestures, with every muscle and sinew straining under
the skin. Vasari adds that when the workmen hired to transport the cartoon to the Council
Hall saw it, they were stupefied, saying that “there had never been such a work in all the
history of art.” And that was the end of the Council Hall fresco as far as Michelangelo
was concerned. Very soon thereafter, he was summoned by the newly elected Pope Julius
II to Rome, to begin a project that interested him a great deal more: the design of the
pope’s monumental tomb. Thus, the great competition between the two “titans” of Italian
art never came to pass.
To paint his Battle of Anghiari, Leonardo once again assembled a large staff of
assistants, just as he had done for The Last Supper in Milan, some ten years earlier. In
addition to Salai, there was Tommaso di Giovanni Masini, commonly known as
‘Zoroastre’, in charge of grinding pigments; an artist-journeyman named Lorenzo di
Marco; an artist named Ferrando Spagnolo, ‘Ferrando the Spaniard’, whom we shall meet
again shortly; and an assistant named Rafaello di Bagio. Other assorted journeymen,
assistants and helpers were added as needed.
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But the project began with a bad omen. On June 6, 1505, when the wall had been
prepped with plaster and part of the cartoon had already been transferred, disaster struck.
The weather turned abruptly, the wind picked up, church bells began to toll, and a fierce
spring storm hit Florence with a vengeance. In the melee, as Leonardo later recorded,
“the cartoon came loose,” “water spilled from its jug,” and “rain poured until nightfall.”
It’s difficult to determine what Leonardo meant by all this, and to what extent the cartoon
(and the drawing beneath it, on the wall) was actually damaged, but a favorable portent it
was not; and indeed, still worse was to come.
Having built an ingenious scaffold that enabled him to move up and down across
the vast expanse of the wall, Leonardo couldn’t help but indulge his fascination with
experimental pigments. As we saw in the case of the Last Supper, the quick-drying
tempera technique didn’t suit him; he wanted to move slowly, deliberately, applying layer
upon delicate layer, so as to achieve the rich three-dimensional effects of his oil-on-panel
technique. To do so, he needed an undercoat that could absorb multiple layers of oil
paints, rather than tempera. According to the anonymous author known as Anonimo
Gaddiano, Leonardo created a unique concoction based on Pliny the Elder’s book
Natural History, which recommended the use of Greek pitch to seal the plaster wall. But
the experiment didn’t work; the wall refused to absorb the pigments, therewith causing
the paint to drip and run. Paolo Giovo, a historian and personal physician of Giulio di
Giuliano de Medici, wrote later that the undercoat turned out to be “resistant to paints
mixed with walnut oil.” As with the Last Supper, the fresco began to deteriorate almost
as soon as Leonardo’s brush left it.lxiii
Desperate to stem the running paint, Leonardo called for braziers to be hung in
front of the painting, hoping that this would make the fresh paint dry more quickly. Alas,
all that this accomplished was to make the paint drip even more. No matter how hard he
struggled to save his grand vision, the painting continued to decay. By early 1506,
Leonardo recognized that the fresco that was to be the crowning achievement of his
career was ruined.
And yet, what remained was still magnificent enough to attract a steady stream of
artists and visitors for the next half-century to come. As Paolo Giovio wrote, “our sorrow
for the unforeseen damage seems only to have wondrously increased the fascination of
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the unfinished work.” Several copies were made, including an oil painting known as the
Tavola Doria, which reveal that the core of the painting, the battle for the standard, was
already far advanced, even though the “standard” (the banner of the Milanese army),
presumably intended for the top of the composition, is missing; only the pole is visible.lxiv
Unfortunately, in 1537 the political winds in Florence changed once again. In that
year, the Medicis returned to Florence with a vengeance. Eventually, Duke Cosimo I
established himself as the autocratic ruler of the newly formed Florentine Duchy, and as a
Medici duchy the city would last until the Napoleonic era—a span of some 250 years.
Determined to eradicate all remnants of Florence’s republican roots, Cosimo I ordered
the Grand Council Hall to be remodeled. The architect charged with this task was none
other than Leonardo’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari. In the 1660’s, Vasari was also
commissioned to paint a series of frescoes in the chamber, now enlarged and renamed the
‘Salone dei Cinquecento’ (‘Hall of the Five Hundred’), for the purpose of extolling the
benefits of Medici rule. At that point, any last vestige of Leonardo’s painting must have
been destroyed, though a persistent modern theory claims that Vasari might have found a
way of “preserving” Leonardo’s masterpiece underneath his own, admittedly mediocre,
work of art.
Precisely how Vasari could have accomplished this is not known. Using NASAdeveloped surface-penetrating radar, followed by an examination of samples taken from
underneath the Vasari fresco, the Italian scholar Maurizio Seracini announced the
discovery of a so-called “curtain wall” in March of 2012. Behind this wall, Seracini
claimed to have found pigment fragments that are consistent with certain ochre-brown
base paints in the Mona Lisa. This is where the investigation ended; after Seracini’s
methods came under attack, the Italian government forbade any further invasive
techniques at the expense of Vasari’s fresco. Perhaps some non-invasive techniques will
be developed in the future to determine whether remnants of Leonardo’s masterpiece still
In the meantime, there is still Leonardo’s original cartoon. Though destroyed in
the 16th century, we know that a number of copies were made, which in turn inspired the
Flemish Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens to make a copy of these copies. This version,
dated around 1603 and now in the Louvre, is believed to be the most faithful
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representation of what the cartoon must have looked like, particularly because Rubens
studied Leonardo’s work closely and meticulously imitated the drawing’s use of rich
sfumato shading.lxv
Michelangelo’s design for the Battle of Cascina did not fare much better;
according to Vasari, it was torn to pieces by an envious artist, Bartolommeo Bandinelli,
in 1512. Fortunately, this cartoon was also copied by several artists, most notably by
Michelangelo's pupil Sangallo. It is doubtful that any of it ever made it to the wall of the
Council Chamber, and if it did, it too would have been obliterated as part of the
chamber’s renovations after 1540.
* * * * *
Deeply disappointed by the result of his labors, Leonardo once again set his sights on the
city of his erstwhile glory: the Duchy of Milan. A perfect pretext presented itself: he and
his Milanese collaborator, Ambrogio de Predis, were still owed payments for their work
on the second version of the Virgin of the Rocks, which de Predis had delivered to the
Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in 1502. Frustrated in his attempt to recover
the final payment, De Predis had lodged a complaint with the King of France (and
nominal ruler of Milan), Louis XII, who thereupon ordered a judicial hearing.
Unfortunately, the judge’s ruling went against the artists, since the Confraternity claimed
that the painting was still “unfinished”. Translated properly, this meant that the
Confraternity believed the painting was more Ambrogio than Leonardo; the magic touch
of the real master, or so it was felt, was clearly missing. Ergo, Leonardo had to return to
Milan and do whatever it took to see the client satisfied, and himself and his partner paid.
There was a problem, however, and that was that Leonardo was not free to get up
and leave at the drop of a hat. A family visit to Vinci was one thing; a move to Milan
quite another. He was still under contract to the Signoria, the Florentine government, and
they were not likely to let him go when the Anghiari fresco in the Grand Council
Chamber was still unfinished and in urgent need of repair. The result was a period of
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tense negotiations between Leonardo and representatives of the Signoria, which took
several months and accomplished little. Eventually, Leonardo had to prevail on the
French governor of Milan, Charles d’Amboise, to intervene on his behalf. Pressed by the
French, Florence begrudgingly issued Leonardo with a permit on May 30, 1506, with the
understanding that the furlough would not exceed three months, and that Leonardo would
have to leave a deposit of 150 florins to guarantee his return. If he failed to do so, he
would forfeit the escrow and—it was left unsaid—incur the enmity of the Republic of
We believe that during this interval, when Leonardo needed every ally in the
Florentine government to support his petition to leave for Milan, the urgency of the
Giocondo commission once again presented itself. As we saw, the unfinished portrait had
been languishing in Leonardo’s workshop ever since the master had become absorbed in
preparations for the Battle of Anghiari with all its attendant challenges and problems. We
may safely assume that Francesco del Giocondo, never a patient man, sent repeated
missives to Leonardo’s bottega at the Santa Maria Novella, inquiring about the status of
his wife’s portrait, only to be brushed off with the sort of vague promises Leonardo was
becoming known for. And as long as Leonardo worked on the government project of the
Battle of Anghiari, there was little Francesco could do: the interest of the state trumped
everything else.
But with the news that Leonardo intended to abandon the great fresco—
although the settlement called for an absence of three months, many suspected that
this was no guarantee whatsoever of Leonardo’s eventual return—that particular
alibi went out the window. Francesco could pull many strings in the Signoria, and as
we saw, he usually got what he wanted, by draconian means if necessary. Therefore,
if Leonardo wanted to leave Florence and be free to pursue a job in Milan, there
was no way he could get past Francesco del Giocondo, unless this client was
appeased in some way.
This is the moment when, we believe, Leonardo charged one of his assistants
to complete the Mona Lisa portrait, and such on an expedited basis. The meticulous
care he usually applied to his work, even when it involved background elements
painted by an assistant, had to make way for the urgency of this task. That is the
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only viable explanation for the rushed execution of the rest of the portrait, notably
the background, which is notably inferior to the portrait figure itself. The artist
charged with this task, we suspect, was Ferrando Spagnolo, ‘Ferrando the
Spaniard’, who previously worked on the second version of the Madonna of the
Yarnwinder (Buccleuch Collection). The similarity between the background in this
painting and that of the Isleworth Mona Lisa, both in the color palette and the
execution of the rocks, is striking.lxvi
Isleworth Mona Lisa (Geneva), detail of the background; ca. 1503-7.
This chronology is further supported by recent ultraviolet scans of the Mona Lisa in
Geneva. Ultraviolet can detect differences in the colored fluorescence of certain
pigments. From these tests, it is evident that the background areas to the left and the right
of the face fluoresce less than the adjacent paint values, thus indicating a clear
discrepancy in the execution of the figure and the background. Even so, Ferrando—or
whoever the artist was—was not given the time, or the proper supervision, to complete
the background with the same delicate realism that Leonardo’s workshop was known for.
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Other than the rocky formations in the immediate background—perhaps intended to
evoke the rocky escarpments of the Chianti region—and the small copse of wood at the
left of the portrait, the space beyond shows little more than the ochre underpaint of
whatever other landscape elements were planned. The sky above never moved beyond its
preparatory layer of calcium carbonate, lead white, and a pale powdered cobalt known as
smalt. Leonardo was in a rush to satisfy his client, and to remove any possibility of legal
action that would prevent him from obtaining his permit to leave Florence.
And thus it was that the Isleworth Mona Lisa, now in Geneva, was presented
to Francesco del Giocondo in the first months of 1506. If there are any remaining
doubts about this chronology, they are refuted by Vasari’s long-disputed passage:
Leonardo undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of
Monna Lisa, his wife; and after toiling over it for four years, he left it
Now we know that Vasari was right all along.
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Part II
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“He who loves practice without theory is like a sailor who boards ship without a rudder and
Returning to Milan was like coming home, a welcome balm to Leonardo’s battered ego
and self-confidence. In sharp contrast to the acerbic Florentines, the French governor of
Milan, Charles d’Amboise, treated Leonardo like a celebrity, just as the Milanese Duke
Ludovico had done before him. And unlike the Signoria, which had always considered
Leonardo a talented but unreliable and somewhat tiresome painter, d’Amboise
recognized the master as an all-round genius, as gifted in engineering and architecture as
in painting and the decorative arts. Whereas Gonfaloniere Soderini had once stooped so
low as to pay Leonardo’s monthly fee in pennieslxvii, the French accorded him a rich
retainer, leaving him free to organize his time as he saw fit.
More importantly, compared to the clamorous coterie of the Florentine
government, Milan was a court, and a glamorous court at that. Deep down inside,
Leonardo had always been more comfortable with the role of a courtier, as a ‘master of
the revels’, rather than as an artist who had to live hand to mouth, from one commission
to the next. The cult of the “artistic genius,” a uniquely Italian invention borne from the
Renaissance, was as yet unknown in France, where painters had traditionally been treated
as artisans in dirty smocks. Hence, both d’Amboise and his master, Louis XII, were
profoundly intrigued by the Leonardo mystique, and eager to co-opt the master’s
celebrity status for the greater glory of the French court.
And so the years of Leonardo’s second sojourn in Milan would witness a whole
range of projects—some executed, some not—that in many ways evoked the former
glamour of the Sforza court. He designed a sumptuous palace, complete with pleasure
gardens and musical fountains, for his host Charles d’Amboise, and improved certain
locks in the extensive network of canals for which Lombardy was famous. He also
completed the second version of Virgin of the Rocks (now in the National Gallery in
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London) with Ambrogio de Predis, and when the Confraternity still balked at paying the
full fee, he graciously agreed—with Ambrogio—to paint a third version, “under license”
so to speak, which both artists would be free to sell and retain the proceeds. Meanwhile,
his improvements on the Lombard locks were such a success that he was granted a
royalty on the water consumption tax charged by the Duchy.
The weeks flew by, and when Leonardo showed no inclination to return to
Florence at the end of the agreed 3-month furlough period, d’Amboise wrote a courteous
letter to the Signoria, asking for an extension until September. Soderini promptly replied
on October 9 with a thunderous volley, which all but accused Leonardo of bad faith. “He
received a large sum of money and has only made a small beginning on the great work he
was commissioned to carry out,” the Gonfaloniere charged, and added, “we do not wish
further delays to be asked for on his behalf, for his work is supposed to satisfy the
citizens of this city.” To do so otherwise would, he charged, “expose ourselves to serious
Leonardo pretended not to hear it. Florence was far away; he was heartily sick of
the city and its republican pretensions; and his new patron, Charles d’Amboise,
represented the greatest European power of his time. So what was Soderini going to do?
Ever the suave gentleman, d’Amboise tried to reduce the escalating tensions by
writing a conciliatory letter on December 16, 1506. “The excellent works accomplished
in Italy and especially in Milan by Master Leonardo da Vinci, your fellow citizen, have
made all those who see them singularly love their author,” he wrote, gently rebuking
Soderini for the lack of respect he’d shown Leonardo. And he continued:
“Now that we have been in his company and can speak from experience of his
varied talents, we see in truth that his name, already famous for painting,
remains comparatively unknown when one thinks of the praises he merits for
the other gifts he possesses, which are of extraordinary power.”
Here was the core of d’Amboise’s argument: that the Florentine government had failed to
recognize Leonardo’s manifold talents other than that of a painter, and that therefore the
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master was better off in an environment where he could fully deploy his wide-ranging
interests, for the greater glory of Italy and indeed, all of Europe. As such, d’Amboise’s
letter enshrined the unique position that Leonardo was carving out for himself under
French tutelage—a position that, in the end, would take him all the way to the Château de
Clos-Lucé in Amboise, and comfortable retirement.
D’Amboise’s eloquent letter was followed, less than a month later, by a far more
imperious note from the French King himself. It bluntly stated that “we have necessary
need of Master Leonardo da Vinci, painter of your city of Florence… please write him
that he should not leave the said city [i.e., Milan] before our arrival.”lxviii
As Leonardo had probably reckoned all along, there was little Soderini could do.
France was Florence’ most important ally against various enemies arranged against her,
not the least of which was Pisa, against whom the city now entered its seventh year of
war. In the end, the Signoria had no choice but to accede to the king’s request. For all
intents and purposes, Leonardo would be allowed to remain ensconced in his comfortable
perch at the court of Milan, indulging in whatever happened to capture his fancy, as long
as he pleased his French hosts. Alas, it was not to be.
Leonardo may have silenced the Florentine head of state, but not his
quarrelsome half-brothers. As it happened, Leonardo’s favorite uncle Francesco
had died a few months earlier. As we saw, the terms of his will stipulated that
Leonardo was to receive the property near Vinci that he had briefly visited in late
1504. Unfortunately, his half-brothers—the legitimate children of Ser Piero—were
evidently not satisfied with excluding Leonardo from his father’s inheritance. They
now vowed to deny him his uncle’s estate as well. A suit was filed with the court
based on the flimsy notion that when both Piero and Francesco were still alive, the
childless Francesco had promised Ser Piero to give his entire estate to his
(legitimate) nephews. Perhaps the half-brothers were aware of the bad blood that
now existed between Leonardo and Soderini; if so, they may have figured that a
Florentine court would have very little sympathy for the master in Milan.
This time, Leonardo vowed to fight. He had stood powerless as his share of his
father’s estate was taken from him, but he would not countenance the theft of Francesco’s
inheritance as well. And thus he found himself in the uncomfortable position of going
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back to Florence just when his reputation in the city was at its lowest ebb—and that’s
putting it mildly.
But he hedged his bets. Just before leaving Milan, he personally supervised the
lavish decoration of the city for the triumphant entry of King Louis, complete with
triumphal arches, sacred tableaux, ballets, masques and dances.” The king was charmed.
Furthermore, Leonardo had the good fortune of being introduced to an exceedingly bright
young man named Francesco Melzi, who had ambitions of becoming a painter. Leonardo
wasted no time in hiring the lad, but recognizing Melzi’s intellect, also appointed him as
his secretary—or what today we might call his “personal assistant.” It was an inspired
choice, for without Melzi’s diligent organizational skills, it is unlikely that the treasure
trove of Leonardo’s manuscripts would still be with us today. What’s more, Melzi—who
was of aristocratic, though suitably impoverished, stock—could serve as Leonardo’s eyes
and ears at the Milanese court during his absence. In early 1508, for example, Leonardo
would send a mock-indignant letter to the lad, wondering why he hadn’t responded to his
letters of late. “You just wait till I get there,” Leonardo wrote, tongue-in-cheek, “and by
God I’ll make you write so much you’ll be sorry.”
And so Leonardo retraced his steps to the city of his youth once more, this time
only accompanied by Salai. To move back into his apartment at the Santa Maria Novella,
at public expense, was obviously out of the question, for he had no intention of picking
up the brush in order to continue working on the Anghiari fresco. Fortunately, a wealthy
patron of the arts, Piero di Braccio Martelli, offered him rooms at his palazzo on the Via
Larga. Leonardo gratefully accepted; after all, everyone expected his stay to be short, a
few weeks at most. But as anyone familiar with Italian jurisprudence would have
expected, things turned out quite different. One of Leonardo’s half-brothers, Ser
Giuliano, had followed his father in the legal profession and now vowed to pursue the
case with vigor. The matter dragged on, motions were filed, witnesses were consulted.
Quite obviously, the republic was in no hurry to give Leonardo what he wanted.
Eventually, the master felt compelled to impose once again on the goodwill of his
French patron, King Louis. The monarch was happy to oblige. On July 26, the king fired
off a note to the Signoria, urging that “this lawsuit be brought to a conclusion in the best
and swiftest rendering of justice possible.” The letter referred to Leonardo as ‘nostre
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peintre et ingénieur ordinaire’, which left no doubt that the master was no longer
considered a mere guest, but an official member at the French royal court. An injustice
against him, in other words, would be considered a slight against the kingdom of France
This missive was followed by another letter by Charles d’Amboise, warning the
Signoria that Leonardo’s absence from Milan had been granted “with the greatest
reluctance,” given that he was working on a “painting very dear to the king.” Soderini
must have laughed at that; clearly, the shoe was now on the other foot.
The pace of Florentine justice brooked no meddling; it simply plodded along as
the lawyers and justices saw fit, which is to say, hardly at all. When there was still no
verdict on the horizon by September and Leonardo began to suspect the vengeful hand of
the Signoria, he turned for help from another presumed ally, Cardinal Ippolito d’Este,
brother of Isabella, the patroness whom he had spurned for much of the last eight years.
Leonardo dictated his letter to none other than Agostino Vespucci, which indicates that
Machiavelli was still involved—though, we suspect, working incognito, from the
sidelines, given that Leonardo was now persona non grata at the Palazzo della Signoria.
By this time, Soderini had finally been prevailed upon to intervene himself. He assigned a
new judge to the case, with the directive to conclude the matter by November—hardly an
incentive for speed. Indeed, no one was particularly surprised when the case was not
settled by the November deadline, and it looked as if the matter—a simple settlement of a
private estate—would drag on into the new year of 1508. If revenge is a dish best eaten
cold, Soderini certainly knew how to savor it.
The upshot of this unexpected delay of six months placed Leonardo in a very
unique and unfamiliar situation: he had nothing to do. All of his paintings, his current
notebooks and sketches, his equipment, and his staff were back in Milan. He was
marooned in Florence, at the mercy of a hostile Florentine government, and
surviving from one day to the next by the sheer grace of his host, Piero Martelli.
What happens to a man when he finds himself in such an unexpected limbo? Does
he fret, or use the opportunity to reflect on his condition, on his past, and whatever
the future might still hold? For Leonardo, certainly, the enforced interlude was an
opportunity for contemplation. Never one to stay still, he remembered that he’d left
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piles of his old notebooks and manuscripts at the Ospedale di Santa Maria Nuova,
the same institution where he had also banked his savings. He decided to use his
respite to put this chaotic pile in some semblance of order. On the first folio, he
wrote ponderously:
Begun at Florence, in the house of Piero di Braccio Martelli, on the 22nd
day of March 1508. And this is to be a collection without order, taken
from many papers which I have copied here, hoping to arrange them later
each in its place, according to the subjects of which they may treat. But I
believe that before I am at the end of this [task] I shall have to repeat the
same things several times; for which, O reader! do not blame me, for the
subjects are many and memory cannot retain them [all].”
Measurements of water currents, botanical studies, geological drawings, geometrical
calculations and much more cover the hundreds of pages of these notebooks. Written in
mirror script, some of these observations are astonishingly correct, while others,
particularly physiological studies, still betray Leonardo’s medieval roots, particularly the
influence of the medical tracts of the Roman physician Galen. Regardless, Leonardo was
a pioneer in what today we would call multidisciplinary science: the observation of
phenomena for their application in a related field.
These “idle” months in Florence found another outlet as well. The Ospedale di
Santa Maria Nuova was a functioning hospital; therefore a source of fresh cadavers. The
workings of the human body were still one of the last forbidden frontiers of knowledge.
Though the Renaissance had loosened the medieval restrictions on anatomical study, it
was still considered a dark science that for many came perilously close to heresy;
Savonerola had only been dead for less than a decade. In the late 14th and 15th centuries
autopsies had been performed at times, but only by qualified doctors, and then only for
medical reasons— such as determining the cause of death in times of plague.lxix
Universities were only given permission to dissect for educational purposes if such
involved the bodies of criminals or strangers. “By law only unknown and ignoble bodies
can be sought for dissection,” the physician Alessandro Benedetti wrote in 1497, just ten
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years before Leonardo’s arrival at the Ospedale in Florence; “[people] from distant
regions without injury to neighbors and relatives.”lxx Dissection and its attendant
violation of the body was still considered an affront to the honor of the surviving family.
Ever since his apprentice days in the workshop of Verrocchio, Leonardo had been
fascinated by the functioning of the human body. This was wholly in the spirit of the
Quattrocento Zeitgeist, which posited that an artist could only draw a human being if he
understood the movements of limbs and bone, and the flexing of muscle under skin. But
here, in the Ospedale, was an opportunity to go beyond the mere surface of the body; to
penetrate the deepest mysteries of human anatomy—which, as Vasari says, “up to that
time had been wrapped in the thick and gross darkness of ignorance.”
Leonardo moved quickly and stealthily. Not only was he careful not to run afoul
of the Signoria; he knew he had to conduct his autopsies while the corpse was still fresh,
before decomposition despoiled the organs and made a proper investigation impossible.
As a result, he would sometimes roam the hospital like some grim reaper incarnate,
looking for prospects. In a note to himself, dated to late 1507, he described how during
one of those perambulations he had come across an old man, clearly within a hair’s
breadth from death. Leonardo sat down at his bedside, whereupon the patient told him he
was over a hundred years old and never had an illness; only old age and “feebleness” had
got him in the end. “And thus,” Leonardo later recalled, “sitting on a bed in the hospital
of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, without any movement or sign of distress, he passed
from this life.”
A few hours later, he was under Leonardo’s knife. “I carried out an autopsy to
determine the cause of such a calm death,” he continued, and discovered it was a result of
the “insufficiency of blood and of the artery supplying the heart and other lower
members”—a condition we now know as arteriosclerosis. Leonardo was the first to
discover heart disease.
In due course, he moved to another frontier: female cadavers. Few men had as yet
ventured to dissect a female, because a woman’s chastity was a highly prized virtue in the
Middle Ages. A dissection would expose her most intimate parts to the eyes of strangers,
compounding the grief of her relatives with shame. And yet, for Leonardo the anatomy of
a woman was the ultimate frontier, the ultimate mystery, for it held the key to the creation
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of life. Of course, matters of conception and procreation were still jealously guarded by
the Church. Even in the Quattrocento, this is where Church doctrine still held sway. To
open a woman’s body and explore the secrets of her womb might bring one in conflict
with Church teachings, and thus expose oneself to charges of heresy. As a case in point,
at the same time that Antonio Pollaiuolo, the first artist to dissect cadavers, produced his
famous Battle of Naked Men, the only known anatomical study of a pregnant woman was
a crude and largely inaccurate illustration in the medical tract Fasciculus medicinae
(1491), known as “the Gravida.”
As we saw earlier, up to this point nothing in Leonardo’s notebooks or
drawings had suggested a heterosexual attraction to the female. His many studies of
young women are routinely limited to the head, neck and torso. By contrast, the
notebooks are filled with sketches of full-length male nudes, including male
genitalia. This does not in itself suggest that Leonardo was a practicing homosexual;
some scholars have posited recently that the near-fatal accusation of sodomy in 1476
deterred him for the rest of his life. That he was attracted to beautiful young men,
such as Salai and Melzi, is well known; but such an attraction need not have
automatically translated into a sexual relationship, as perhaps it would have in our
modern time. “In an age which saw a struggle between sensuality without restraint
and gloomy asceticism,” Freud wrote, “Leonardo represented the cool repudiation
of sexuality.”lxxi In one of his notebooks, Leonardo himself puts it more succinctly:
“The act of procreation and anything that has any relation to it is so disgusting that
human beings would soon die out if there were no pretty faces and sensuous
But his shunning of women in a sexual sense did not affect in any way his
fascination with their mysterious role in creation, and the nurturing of life. Modern
psychotherapists typically associate such an attachment to women as mothers, rather than
sexual creatures, with certain childhood experiences, and in the case of Leonardo they
have a point.
As we saw, Leonardo was the unintended outcome of a romp in the hay
between a promising notary-apprentice called Ser Piero, then just 26, and a comely
farm maid called Caterina, then 25. This moment of passion on a warm Tuscan
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night led to the birth of a love child nine months later, on April 15, 1452. Of course,
marriage was out of the question; the social gulf between Ser Piero and Caterina
was simply too wide. What’s more, Ser Piero was probably betrothed at that time;
just eight months after the birth of Leonardo, he married a young woman of his
class, a daughter of a Florentine notary named Albiera di Giovanni Amadori.
Shortly after giving birth, Caterina married as well. This strongly suggests that
either Ser Piero or his family had a hand in facilitating the marriage, perhaps by paying a
modest dowry, since mothers with newborn bastards usually did not make for attractive
marriage partners. Caterina’s new husband, Antonio, worked in a local kiln and usually
went by a nickname called Accattabriga, or ‘troublemaker’. We can only imagine how
this manifested itself in Caterina’s tiny household. Thus, for the first five years of his life,
Leonardo was raised by his natural mother, who lived with an irascible character who
wasn’t his father, while his true father lived with his young bride in Florence. We don’t
need Freud’s lengthy exposé to realize that for most children this would lead to unhealthy
consequences: an innate sense of insecurity, as well as a deep-seated attachment to the
mother, untempered by the intervention of a strong and benign father figure.
Further complicating Leonardo’s psychological development was his
grandfather’s decision, five years later, to remove him from his mother’s house and
raise him in his own home instead, as tax records from 1457 attest. We don’t know
the reasons for this, but we do know that Caterina had just given birth to her second
child, a daughter named Maria, after another daughter named Piera had been born
in 1454. The family was living in a small cottage in Campo Zetti that, as it turned
out, also housed seven other members of Accattabriga’s extended family. We can
imagine Accattabriga’s reasoning: his wife had just given birth to his second child,
room had to be made, and in the final analysis Leonardo was not his son. It
probably broke Caterina’s heart—and perhaps young Leonardo’s as well. At a
vulnerable age in his development, he was taken away from the only true source of
love he had known all his life.
Did Leonardo’s traumatic childhood instill a lifelong yearning for motherly love?
Is this what restrained his development into heterosexual maturity? Or did it, as Freud
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suggest, impel Leonardo to sublimate the sexual curiosity of a pubescent boy into a
different form of desire—a thirst for understanding nature in all of its forms?
Leonardo’s drawing of a woman’s genitalia, now in the Royal Library at Windsor,
has often been cited as evidence of his aversion to female sexuality. It is not an
anatomical drawing, but a depiction of a woman’s vagina and anus, with legs spread; the
labia are grossly exaggerated while the vulva is enlarged, giving the sketch the
appearance of a vulgar caricature. Some authors, including Charles Nicholl, believe these
“cavernous” genitalia evoke Leonardo’s childhood fear of a dark cave, an “unconscious
confrontation with the disturbing mysteries of female sexuality.”lxxiii Perhaps they’re
right; underneath the drawing, Leonardo wrote: “The wrinkles or ridges in the folds of
the vulva have indicated to us the location of the gatekeeper of the castle.” And yet, it
might just be that the drawing represents a woman in post-partum state, having given
birth at the Santa Maria Nuova hospital. Rather than a caricature, it could simply be the
type of detached, scientific observation we’d expect from Leonardo. If that’s the case,
then perhaps we should interpret the reference to the “gatekeeper” as one guarding the
newborn life until such time it was ready to leave the “castle” of the womb.
In the months and years to come, Leonardo would produce some two hundred detailed
anatomical studies, based on the autopsies of some thirty cadavers.lxxiv All but a few of
these drawings wound up in the Royal Collection of Windsor Castle. In most cases,
Leonardo undertook multiple dissections of a certain part of the human body in order to
fully understand its functioning. Thus he performed three autopsies just to “properly
discern the veins and arteries”; another set to reveal the “tendons, muscles, and
ligaments”, and yet another group to study the “bones and cartilage.” Sometimes he was
compelled to inject decomposing organs with liquid wax, in an effort to restore them to
their original shape.
The red-chalk drawing now in Windsor, is perhaps the first detailed, scientific
anatomical study of an adult woman.lxxv Among others, Leonardo correctly identified the
uterine artery, as well as the vascular system of the cervix and vagina. What’s more, he
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drew the uterus as a single chamber, contrary to contemporary belief that the uterus
comprised of several compartments so as to conceivably accommodate more than one
Anatomical study of a woman, ca. 1508-1510.
Having probed the mysteries of the female body, he was inexorably drawn to the ultimate
enigma, the greatest secret of all: how a woman nurtures and sustains life within her. As
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best as we can determine, he was never able to dissect a pregnant woman, but he was able
to study the corpse of a seven-month old fetus. The result is the two famous drawings at
Windsor, drawn in red chalk and ink.lxxvi While the embryo is incorrectly placed in the
uterus of a cow, the fetus itself is instantly recognizable to us from modern medical
imagery. Clearly, Leonardo was fascinated with this glimpse of the gestation of human
life. It fulfilled his ambition, first articulated in Milan, to understand “the conception of
man” by studying “the form of the womb, and how the child lives in it, and to what stage
it resides in it, and in what way it is given life and food.”
Anatomical study of an embryo, 1508-1510.
The anatomical studies would soon be continued after his return to Milan, at the
University of Padua, where he worked alongside a young anatomist named Marcantonio
della Torre. Using an engineer’s “rigorous technique of representing three-dimensional
forms in plan, section, elevation, and perspectival view,” in Carmen Bambach’s words,
Leonardo produced the first complete inventory of the female body in human history—
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developing, in effect, a vocabulary of anatomical illustration that is still relevant in
modern medicine today.lxxvii
More important for our story, however, is that the studies in Florence gave
further impetus to Leonardo’s lifelong fascination with womanhood—not as sexual
beings, but as mothers, as paragons of grace and unstinting, nurturing love. As we
saw, the root of this desire was very likely his own traumatic experience of being
separated from his mother at age five, without the polar balance of a strong and
loving father figure. And while it may well have stymied his sexual development in
puberty, it certainly endowed him with a lifelong yearning to capture the elusive
ideal of a motherhood—graceful, loving, eternally young and beautiful—in his art.
This desire had found an early outlet in the motif of the Madonna, a theme that
dominates Leonardo’s oeuvre and would grow in importance in the later stages of
his life, culminating in his last great masterpiece, the Saint Anne.
At the same time, the experience at the Santa Maria Nuova and the
contemplative nature of his forced sojourn in Florence may also have rekindled the
memory of Lisa del Giocondo. Lisa, we should remember, was 24 years old when
she posed for Leonardo in 1503—exactly the same age as Caterina when Leonardo
was born. And as we saw in an earlier chapter, Lisa embodied all the qualities that
Leonardo identified with motherhood: youth, beauty, kindness and love, so vividly
exemplified by the recent birth of her daughter Andrea in December of 1502. Very
likely, Lisa’s figure still bore the traces of that recent pregnancy when she posed for
Leonardo in early 1503. This may explain why Leonardo took care to depict her
glowing skin and the fullness of her breasts, further accentuated by the enigmatic
arabesque ornamentation of her dress.
Did Leonardo retrace his steps to the Giocondo house on the Via della Stufa?
In the winter of 1507, Lisa had just given birth to her fourth child, Giocondo.
Meeting her again in the flush of young motherhood, and seeing her portrait—its
unfinished background in sharp contrast to the polish of her features—may have
rekindled an idea that had been quietly budding in his mind.
To paint her again.
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Not as a portrait of her likeness—that had been done, and done ably—but as
a portrait of what she represented: the flower of maternity, the quintessence of a
loving mother. A Florentine Madonna made flesh.
* * * * * * *
All that was needed was for the Florentine judge to make up his mind and issue a verdict
on the lawsuit, so Leonardo could return to his studio in Milan and begin the second
Mona Lisa. Leonardo’s French patron, Charles d’Amboise, was getting impatient,
prompting Leonardo to write that he was very close to the end of his litigation and
believed he would be back in Milan at Easter, 1508 at the latest.
In this he was correct: at long last, the judge—a member of the Signoria named
Ser Rafaello Hieronimo—found for the plaintiff. Leonardo was to receive il Botro, the
property owned by his uncle Francesco, as his will had intended. Not that anyone ever
doubted the verdict; in 1508, Florence’s political position was becoming increasingly
precarious, and it would have been folly of the highest order for the Signoria to go
against the wishes of the French king.
But at least they had inconvenienced Leonardo with a delay of six months—a
delay that, in the end, had proven most fruitful.
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“Where the spirit does not work with the hands, there is no art.”
Leonardo’s meditation on the mystery of motherhood would become the principal
theme of his art in the last 10 years of his life. And no painting would more fully
dominate that quest than a concept he had been working on since his first return
from Milan in 1500: the Trinity of Saint Anne.
Saint Anne is a figure who appears exclusively in the apocryphal writings—
Christian texts which were not accepted in the final canon of the New Testament but
nevertheless enjoyed great popularity in late Antiquity. First introduced in the 2nd century
Proto-evangelium of James and later developed in countless legends, St. Anne was
believed to be the mother of Mary, and grandmother of Jesus. Some legends went as
far as to suggest that she was married three times, and that each marriage produced
one of the three women who stood at Jesus’ cross: Mary, Mary Clopas, and Mary
Salome. In the Middle Ages, when the distinction between canonical and noncanonical writings blurred, she became as revered as an integral, and indeed a
cardinal figure of the Holy Family. This is when the belief arose that while married
to her husband Joachim she, too, gave given birth to Mary as a virgin, keeping her
chastity intact. The idea produced a motif known as The Meeting at the Golden Gate,
depicted among others by Giotto. The story, inspired by the Old Testament
precedent of Abraham and Sarah (or that of Hannah and Elkanah) went as follows:
Joachim and Anne were childless, which they interpreted as a sign of God’s
disfavor. But one day, an angel told Anne that this was not so, that she was favored
by God, and that as a sign of this favor she had conceived a child. Overcome with
joy, she rushed to meet her husband at the Golden Gate in Jerusalem to tell him the
news. The traditional iconography of this event shows Anne and Joachim, both
advanced in age, embracing each other in front of the gate.
St. Anne held a particularly favored place in the hearts of the Florentines, for it
was on the feast day of St. Anne—July 26, 1343—that the city had risen in revolt against
the Gautier VI, Count of Brienne, thus restoring its Republic. That moment in history
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gained special significance when in 1494, the city ousted another dynasty, that of the
Medicis, and returned to its republican roots. As Vincent Delieuvin has noted, the
veneration of St Anne increased in the years that followed.lxxviii
As we saw earlier, when Fra Pietro da Novellara visited Leonardo’s workshop in
April of 1501, he saw “a cartoon of a child Christ, about a year old, almost jumping out
of his mother’s arms to seize hold of a lamb,” while Mary is “rising from St. Anne’s lap,
and holds back the child from the lamb.”lxxix This proves that Leonardo must have been
working on a portrait of Saint Anne, Mary and Jesus from the very beginning of his
second sojourn in Florence. Such a triple portrait was wholly consistent with the
prevailing Saint Anne iconography in early Renaissance Europe, sometimes referred to as
the “Saint Anne Trinity” (the very term used in Fra Pietro’s letter). What it purported to
show was the theological idea of a seamless, divinely ordained line from Saint Anne to
Mary, and from Mary to Jesus, as part of God’s overall plan to redeem mankind through
the sacrifice of his only Son.
Just a few years earlier, the Vatican had issued a powerful incentive for the
production of such images. In 1494, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI declared that prayers
made in front of images representing Saint Anne, Mary and Jesus would result in special
indulgences—Catholic parlance for the remission of temporal sins, which presumably
reduced one’s time spent in Purgatory.
And yet, the questions that has bedeviled art historians ever since is: why did
Leonardo undertake the work?lxxx Who commissioned him? Indeed, was there even a
commission to begin with? The painting that would ultimately result from these
endeavors—the Saint Anne, Mary and Jesus now in the Louvre—is a monumental work.
As we saw, Leonardo arrived in Florence in 1500 with little to show for his eighteen
years at the court of Milan, other than his manuscripts and drawings. Would he have had
the means and the incentive to begun such an ambitious painting on his own volition,
even as his mind drifted towards challenges in the realm of architecture and engineering?
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Saint Anne, Mary and Jesus, ca. 1507-1515. Louvre, Paris.
One school of thought holds that the Saint Anne began as a commission from Louis XII.
As it happened, upon succeeding Charles VIII as king of France, Louis had decided to
marry Charles’ widow, Anne of Bretagne, in order to retain France’s claim on the duchy
of Brittany. Naturally, St. Anne was the queen’s patron saint. Given the close contacts
between Leonardo and the French court at the time—as Fra Pietro attests, Leonardo was
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working on a Madonna of the Yarnwider for Florimon Robertet, one of the king’s
counselors—it seems feasible that Louis would turn to the most famous artist in his orbit
to commission a painting for his queen. Other scholars object to this hypothesis, however,
on the grounds that if the painting observed by Fra Pietro was intended for the king, then
why didn’t he say so? It seems odd for Leonardo to tell his visitor that Robertet was one
of his clients and yet remain silent about the order from the king—particularly given the
huge prestige associated with royal commissions.
Another group of scholars believes the Saint Anne stemmed directly from
Leonardo’s stay at the Servite monastery in Florence in 1501. As we saw, the friars had
contracted with Filippino Lippi to paint an altarpiece for their church, the Santissima
Annunziata, but when Filippino learned that Leonardo was in town, he graciously
withdrew so the friars could contract with Leonardo instead. This also appears to fit with
Vasari’s description of the events, although some scholars are uncomfortable with the
ambiguity of the last sentence:
“He returned to Florence, where he found that the Servite Friars had entrusted
to Filippino the painting of the panel for the high altar of the Nunziata;
whereupon Leonardo said that he would willingly have done such a work.
Filippino, having heard this, like the amiable fellow that he was, retired from
the undertaking; and the friars, to the end that Leonardo might paint it, took
him into their house, meeting the expenses both of himself and of all his
household; and thus he kept them waiting for a long time, but never began
anything. In the end, he made a cartoon showing a Madonna and a S. Anne,
with a Christ…”lxxxi
This citation is taken from the second edition of Vasari’s Lives of 1568. In the first
edition, the text is even more ambiguous: “he kept them waiting for a long time, but
never began anything. And in the meantime he made a cartoon showing a Madonna and a
S. Anne, with a Christ…” (our italics). The strange juxtaposition would suggest that
while the friars were waiting for the altarpiece they had contracted for, Leonardo started
something entirely different, simply because the subject occupied his mind. The skeptics
further point to archival evidence that the wooden structure ordered for the altarpiece was
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much larger than the cartoon Leonardo eventually completed. Ergo, the Saint Anne could
not have been painted for the Servite friars.
We disagree, for the simple reason that nothing in the Renaissance, and certainly
not in the world of Leonardo, was ever clear-cut, or black and white. Leonardo’s
workshop was not a factory were orders entered on one end and finished products flowed
out the other. On the contrary, his mind was always moving in a million different
directions, whether this involved military fortifications, the channeling of rivers, the
design of elegant dwellings or the probing of the secrets of flight. Ideas came and went
with the ebb and flow, just as commissions were considered, accepted or delayed as the
mood might strike him. This is exactly the reason why in Florence, Leonardo surrounded
himself with assistants of such talent as to make copies of the few paintings he worked
on, side by side with the master, or as soon as he finished them. Only in this manner
could he generate a consistent source of income while allowing himself leisure to pursue
his flights of fancy.
Thus it would seem eminently plausible that Leonardo was already grappling with
the Saint Anne Trinity concept before he traveled to Florence in 1500. It is even possible
that the original idea came about because of Louis XII marriage to Anne of Bretagne the
year before; Florimond Robertet may have suggested it, either on behalf of the king, or
on his own initiative. In a letter to Giovanni Bellori, the 17th century collector Sebastiano
Resta argued that this is exactly what happened:
“Before 1500, King Louis XII of France commissioned a cartoon of Saint Anne from
Leonardo da Vinci, who was living in Milan in the service of Ludovico Sforza.
Leonardo made a first sketch, now with the Arconati counts in Milan. After the first,
he made a more complete second drawing, this one, in the state we know… In
Florence, where Leonardo lived after the death of Louis XII, to whom he had not sent
it, he made a third version…”lxxxii
There are many problems with this letter, not in the least because the second drawing that
Resta refers to was not an autograph drawing, but a copy; and second, because the author
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erroneously states that Leonardo lived “in France until 1542”. This is most likely a
transposition of Leonardo’s birth date; by 1542, he would have been a hundred years old!
But Resta’s letter is important in that it underscores a putative link between Louis XII
and the genesis of the Saint Anne. It may not have resulted in an actual commission; it
may simply have been a suggestion, but it very well may have prompted Leonardo to
begin thinking about the subject.
Why then was he attracted to his motif? The answer is simple: because of the
theme of motherhood, exemplified by the Madonna. Saint Anne is the Madonna motif in
duplicate: it overlays one maternal bond over another, creating an unprecedented level of
complexity—both in an aesthetic and in a theological/allegorical sense.
The theological complexity appealed to Leonardo’s intellect. We are so often
temped by the stereotype of Leonardo as a scientific maverick, a dyed-in-the-wool
empirical secularist rejecting all Church dogma, that we forget that Leonardo always
retained a deep sense of faith—or perhaps awe is a better word—vis-à-vis the sheer
perfection of nature. And that is true for his contemporaries as well. It would be a mistake
to think that, just because the Renaissance empowered individuals to explore the world
beyond Church doctrine, they would somehow feel less attached to Christian ideas. The
opposite is true. For many humanists, architects and artists, the exploration of the natural
world meant that they could experience the Divine in a far more authentic way. Artists
like Botticelli could paint pagan subjects like the Birth of Venus on day and be fully
immersed in a pious representation of the Nativity the next. The two were not mutually
exclusive, as they so often are in our modern world.
If anything, the autopsy studies of 1507-1508 in Florence, and the subsequent
sojourn in Milan, would deepen Leonardo’s wonder at the sheer perfection of human
anatomy. While drawing the intricacy of heart ventricles, for example, Leonardo wrote
that it “demonstrates that the Almighty creates nothing superfluous or imperfect.” As we
will see, Leonardo interest in the allegorical representation of spiritual themes would only
intensify as he entered the last decade of his life.
But the Saint Anne Trinity represented a difficult aesthetic problem as well.
Placing three figures in a dynamic cycle of movement and emotion posed a major
challenge; but as we know, Leonardo positively thrived on such challenges. As we saw
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previously, he had faced a similar problem with the Virgin of the Rocks. Here, the
solution involved placing the three figures in a pyramidal scheme, relying on gesture to
constitute the principal meaning. For all that, the Virgin of the Rocks remained an austere
and academic work, without any obvious emotional attachment between the figures.
The Saint Anne was an opportunity to rectify this. For one, all three figures shared
a unique powerful connection—a double layer of maternity, the strongest human bond
imaginable. How to represent this tender bond became the subject of a series of sketches
that vividly illustrate the ways in which Leonardo grappled with the idea, placing his
figures this way or that, moving ever closer to the ultimate configuration.
Given the sheer effort that Leonardo poured into the project, it is difficult to
imagine that this was not a commissioned work, as some have proposed. It’s also rather
implausible to think that the project was completely divorced from whatever Leonardo
was supposed to be doing for the Servite friars, since they were paying for Leonardo’s
upkeep—and that of his entourage—all through these months.
What is more likely is that the Saint Anne was on Leonardo’s mind when he
received the commission for the Servite monastery, possibly as a result of conversations
with the King, and that what eventually emerged from his mind was not what the friars
were expecting. This would explain the discrepancy in size, as well as the fact that
Leonardo “kept them waiting a long time” before finally showing a life-size cartoon. The
maestro may have figured that all would be forgiven once the friars saw a fully executed
rendering, confident that its sheer beauty would placate them. And as Vasari tells us,
that’s exactly what happened. As soon as Leonardo finished his full-length design, using
wash and silverpoint to render the drawing in painterly detail, his hosts were
overwhelmed. Not only were they overwhelmed, but they enthusiastically organized a
“public exhibit” of the finished drawing, which had people lining up around the block—
perhaps the first public exhibition of a work by Leonardo da Vinci:
“When it was finished, men and women, young and old, continued for two
days to flock for a sight of it to the room where it was, as if to a solemn
festival, in order to gaze at the marvels of Leonardo, which caused all those
people to be amazed.”
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It is hard to imagine such a public display if, in fact, the Servite friars had been unhappy
with Leonardo’s final design, or felt that the terms of their contract had not been met.
Unfortunately, this particular cartoon has not survived. What has survived is what
we—and a large number of historians—believe is an earlier cartoon, namely, the famous
full-size drawing which today has pride of place at the National Gallery in London.
Saint Anne, Mary, Jesus and John (the Burlington Cartoon), ca. 1499-1500.
Known in the literature as the Burlington Cartoon, it shows the three figures in a
horizontal composition, with the addition of a fourth—John the Baptist as a young child.
As part of this configuration, Mary is seated on her mother’s—that is, St. Anne’s—lap,
while holding the child Jesus in her arms. Jesus bends forward to bless the young John
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the Baptist, who crouches next to St. Anne. The allegorical flow is therefore as follows:
Jesus designates John as the one who will announce him as the Messiah. Mary’s gesture
is slightly ambiguous; it’s not clear if she is holding or restraining Jesus, for clearly she
wishes to protect her young child from the Passion soon to be announced by John. Anne,
however, turns to her and points to heaven, reminding her that this is God’s will; though
she too anticipates the terrible suffering that is to come, she urges her daughter to submit
to God’s plan.
The cartoon is a magnificent, highly finished work; a perfect painting in
monochrome, executed in chalk and wash with highlights in white chalk. The face of
Mary is as lovely as any female portrait ever drawn by Leonardo. As such, it is truly a
work of art that marks the transition from the linearity of the Quattrocento to the realism
of the High Renaissance. The sheer finish suggests that Leonardo was very close to
committing this composition to the final work; one could even imagine, perhaps, that this
was the cartoon he originally intended to paint for the French King, during his last
months in Milan. But arriving in Florence in 1500, he went back and revisited the idea,
ultimately producing a very different and more vertical solution.
The final solution (as already present in the version witnessed by Fra Pietro in
1501) changed the dynamic of the composition entirely. While Mary is still seated on St.
Anne’s lap, she is now turned diagonally towards Jesus, who has slipped off her lap and
is holding a lamb. This forces Mary to bend forward, just as Jesus turns his head to see
what it is his mother wants. What she wants, quite obviously, is for her child to turn away
from the lamb—the symbol of the great sacrifice that awaits her son at his Passion. St.
Anne neither restrains nor corrects her; she simply contemplates the scene, torn between
her love for her daughter and her knowledge of God’s Plan; but her incipient smile
reveals her knowledge of the ultimate outcome: the salvation of mankind. The same
bittersweet smile has begun to form on Mary’s lips: she too knows that her son’s sacrifice
as a Paschal Lamb is necessary for humanity to be redeemed.
Where once the composition was static and low-key, the new arrangement is fully
animated by a circular flow of movement, each gesture a response, a reaction to another.
This dynamic was instantly grasped by our perceptive eyewitness, Fra Pietro, who wrote:
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“It shows an infant Christ of about one year old almost escaping from the
arms of his mother. He has got hold of a lamb and seems to be squeezing it.
The mother, almost rising herself from the lap of St. Anne, holds on to the
child in order to draw him away from the lamb, which signifies the Passion.
Saint Anne is rising somewhat from her seat; it seems she wants to restrain
her daughter from trying to separate the child from the lamb, which perhaps
symbolizes the Church’s desire that the Passion should not be prevented
from running its course” (our italics).lxxxiii
Two years later, in 1503, Agostino Vespucci saw the same work after the cartoon
had been transferred to wood panel. Given Leonardo’s laborious pace of working, always
rethinking every move, it was still far from finished. As we saw, Vespucci made a point
of describing St. Anne’s head:
“That’s the way Leonardo da Vinci works in all of his paintings, like, for
example, the head [caput] of Lisa del Giocondo and Anne, the mother of the
The suggests that this passage had already been colored in to some degree, but that the
remainder of the painting was still mere underdrawing. In fact, Leonardo would keep
working on the Saint Anne for the remainder of his life, making it perhaps the most
important painting of his late period.
But the Saint Anne was not his only meditation on the mystery of motherhood. Another
work would approach the subject of conception and maternity from an entirely different
perspective—that of Greek mythology. This, of course, is the enigmatic Leda and the
Swan, a work that is only known from copies since Leonardo’s original has been lost.lxxxiv
Unlike the chaste piety of the Saint Anne, it is an unabashedly sensuous work, and the
only Leonardo painting with a full-length female nude.
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How it came about is another mystery, but the story of Leda itself is well known
from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The book relates how the Greek supreme god Zeus fell in
love with the beautiful Leda, wife of King Tyndareus of Sparta. Zeus proceeded to
seduce her in the guise of a swan. As a result of this encounter, Leda conceived and bore
two sets of twins, each delivered in an egg shell: Helen and Polydeuces, children of Zeus,
asw ell as Castor and Clytemnestra, children of her husband Tyndareus.
Leda and the Swan, tentatively explored in the Quattrocento, became a highly
popular theme in the Cinquecento. One reason, as some scholars have surmised, is that it
enabled artists (including Coreggio and Michelangelo) to depict the passion of human
intercourse using the swan as a proxy.
Leonardo’s first exploratory drawings date from around 1505, which once again
may place them in the contemplative “hiatus” in Florence, while the master was awaiting
the verdict from the lawsuit. An early composition shows a nude Leda kneeling next to
her newborn children—a formula which would inspire an oil painting by one of
Leonardo’s Milanese “pupils”, Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli, nicknamed Giampietrino.
Interestingly, scans have revealed an underdrawing of part of the Saint Anne under this
painting, which indicates that both art works originated around the same time. Leonardo’s
final composition, however, shows Leda standing in a classic Leonardo contrapposto
pose: her breasts are turned towards the libidinous swan while her gaze is facing the other
way, and her voluptuous thighs are facing the beholder. At her feet, four infants scramble
out of their broken egg shells.
Why would Leonardo paint such a beautiful yet openly sexual work, which
seems so out of character compared to his other, far more demure studies of
women? Was it composed in response to a commission, or was Leonardo genuinely
intrigued by the idea of examining the theme of birth from a purely erotic point of
view? Some authors, including Charles Nicholl, have posited that after his return to
Milan, Leonardo may have had a relationship with a woman named Cremona.lxxxv
The suggestion is largely based on a reference to “chermonese” (perhaps intended to
mean “the Cremona girl”) in one of Leonardo’s notebooks, and a passage in the writings
of the 19th century Italian artist Giuseppe Bossi. In this essay, Bossi claims—based on
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“an authoritative source” –-that Leonardo “loved the pleasures of life” as evidenced by
his affair with “a courtesan called Cremona.”lxxxvi
In principle, there is nothing wrong with the idea of Leonardo falling in love this
late in life, even though he was now nearing sixty. As evidenced by the profile portrait
drawn by Melzi, he was still a very handsome man with his flowing beard and long hair,
which gave him both the air of a savant and the whiff of a bohemien. The affair with
Cremona, if indeed it happened, would also lay to rest the insistent drumbeat that
Leonardo was exclusively homosexual throughout his life. On the other hand, the
reference to the chermonese does not appear until 1509, when the Leda and the Swan
project was already well advanced; a direct correlation seems unlikely.
Cesare da Sesto, Leda and the Swan (after Leonardo). Original dated ca. 1508-10.
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Instead, the true genesis of both the Leda and the Saint Anne lies in Leonardo’s
fascination with the enigma of human conception and birth, as seen from two
entirely opposing perspectives: the sacred (through the virginal conception of both
Anne and Mary) and the profane (through lusty intercourse, bordering on
bestiality). The depiction of Leda, perhaps the most erotic representation of a female
nude since Antiquity, was undoubtedly assisted, if not stimulated, by Leonardo’s
anatomical exploration of the female body at the Santa Maria Nuova. Similarly, we
believe, the study of the wondrous world of the unborn fetus at the same hospital
would inspire Leonardo to a third major discourse on the theme of motherhood.
This, as we saw, is the second Mona Lisa, now in the Louvre.
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The poet in question is Enea Irpino, who claimed that “Vinci” painted Costanza
d’Avalos as a widow, sotto il bel negro velo (“under a beautiful black veil”).
Based on a description of Florence written by a Medici agent named Benedetto Dei in
1472 under the title La Cronica; republished in 1984 by Francesco Papafava Editore.
From: Archivio Storico dell’Ospedale degli Innocenti, Estranei 409, reproduced in
Pallanti, p. 51.
For some unfathomable reason, the idea that Francesco had two wives before getting
engaged to Lisa Gherardini had fastened itself on the Mona Lisa literature, though
without any corroborating evidence. Some sources claim he was also married to
Tommasa di Mariotto Villani after Camilla’s death, although the question of how
Francesco could have managed another marriage in the span of only seven months is
never explained. There is no record of such a marriage in the archives in Florence, which
should hopefully put the matter to rest.
Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Decima repubblicana 17, c. 78; reproduced in Pallanti, p.
Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Notarile antecosimiano 17148, c. 298; reproduced in
Pallanti, p. 68.
The Bargello, an austere crenellated building built in the mid-13th century, is the oldest
building in Florence. It served as the model for the Palazzo della Signoria, today known
as the Palazzo Vecchio.
Another persistent rumor claims that Lisa gave birth to daughter in 1499, who died
shortly thereafter, on June 1, and was subsequently buried in the S. Maria Novella. This,
some authors have argued, may explain while the veil in the Mona Lisa painting is black,
for obviously the lady was still in mourning. First, no such death is recorded in the city
archives. Second, by 1502 Lisa had given birth to another little girl, who was alive and
well when Leonardo undertook her portrait, therewith obviating the need to wear clothes
of mourning. And third, the veil is not black (an effect produced by layers of varnish and
soot), but transparent.
This is attested is records of the Innocenti Estranei 410; Pallanti, p. 59.
Later in his life, Francesco del Giocondo would commission other works, mostly sacred
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The Latin text reads …mutuum amorem et dilectionem dicti testatoris erga dictam
Lisam eius dilectam uxorem.. et attento qualiter se gessit prefata domina Lisa erga
dictum testatorem ingénue et tanquam mulier ingenua. From the Notarile antecosimiano
7799, c. 6, Archivio di Stato di Firenze; reproduced in Pallanti, p. 71.
The full title of the book, first published in 1550 and re-released in an expanded edition
in 1568, is Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architetti (“Lives of the Most
Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects”). The full paragraph reads: “Leonardo
undertook to execute, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife;
and after toiling over it for four years, he left it unfinished; and the work is now in the
collection of King Frances of France, at Fontainebleau.”
Bramly, Leonardo, p. 106. Leonardo would later describe this technique in his
Treatise on Painting.
Burke, Culture and Society in Renaissance Italy; p. 69.
Most armies retained by Italian city states were mercenary forces, commanded by a
professional commander-for-hire, known as a condottiero or condottiere. Bartolomeo
Colleoni, who died in 1475, was captain-general of the forces of the Republic of Venice.
Though he switched sides many times, he retained his reputation as a fair commander (a
rare quality in the military in those days) and left a sizable sum upon his death, to be used
to fight the Turks and to erect an equestrian statue to himself. Following a competition,
Verrocchio won the contract and set up a workshop in Venice, but the master died in
1488 before it could be completed. The massive statue was completed by Alessandro
Leopardi and still stands to this day in front of the SS Giovanni e Paolo church in Venice.
From P. Müller-Walde, “Beiträge zur Kenntnis des Leonardo da Vinci” in Jahrbuch
der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen Vol. XVIII (1897), p. 165.
An important early 16th century author on Leonardo’s life, an anonymous writer
referred to by scholars as “Anonimo Gaddiano”, claims that “in the days of (Leonardo’s)
youth he was admitted to the company of Il Magnifico, who paid him an allowance and
had him work in the garden of Piazza San Marco.” This account rings true, since the
garden was used by Lorenzo as a workshop as sorts, were young sculptors in training
could work to repair broken Roman statuary from the Medici collection. But most
scholars reject the assertion, ascribing it to the growing Leonardo mythology of the time
(which Leonardo himself actively abetted), since the garden wasn’t actually acquired
until 1480. Leonardo was already 28 years old at that time, and such restoration work
would have been far beneath a self-respecting Master of the Guild.
The author known as “Anonimo Gaddiano” claims that Leonardo painted a portrait of
“Piero Francesco del Giocondo”, but this is obviously an error; Lisa’s son Piero was only
eight years old when Leonardo undertook her portrait. As Frank Zöllner has suggested, it
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is more likely that Piero was the source of the information about the Mona Lisa portrait,
and that Gaddiano misunderstood him. See Zöllner, Frank, p. 245.
Zöllner, Frank, “Leonardo’s Portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo,” in: Farago, Clair (Ed),
Leonardo da Vinci, Selected Scholarship: Leonardo’s Projects, c. 1500-1519.
The ruins of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine still stand on the Roman
Forum today.
M. Seracini, “Diagnostic Investigations on the Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da
Vinci” (2006) in The Mind of Leonardo – The Universal Genius at Work, exhibit
catalogue edited by P. Gauluzzi, Giunti Florence, 2006, pp. 94-101.
Copsey, Richard O. Carm., “A Carmelite Link to Leonardo da Vinci”, from The British
Province of Carmelite Friars, December 26, 2011.
His reputation certainly hasn’t been helped by the recent Showtime series The Borgias,
which unfortunately has many historical inaccuracies.
Some authors have argued that this is the first instance of a “modern” map, drawn
from a bird’s eye view, as is common with all maps today. The fact that Leonardo had, of
course, no way of actually observing the town from altitude makes this achievement even
more remarkable.
Bramly, Leonardo, pp. 329-330.
T, “Leonardo’s Portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo,” in Gazette des Beaux-Arts.
Beltrami, Luca, Documenti e memorie riguardanti la vita e le opere di Leonardo da
Vinci. Milan, 1919; document 125.
Feldman, Mona Lisa: Leonardo’s Earlier Version; p. 66.
Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Notarile antecosimiano 17146, c. 160, as cited in
Pallanti, p.67.
Otto di Guardia 147, 19-20, as cited in Pallanti, p.67.
C. Gaye, Carteggio inedito d’artisti dei secoli XVI, XV, XVI, Vol. I; Florence, 1840;
pp. 175-176.
Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth Century Italy; p. 6.
Ibid, p. 20.
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Codice Atlantico, 141 r. b.
For example, Syson, Luke et al, “Studies of Hands” in Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at
the Court of Milan; Exhibition catalog, National Gallery of London, 2011.
Codex Urbinas 110v.
Pope-Hennessy, J., The Portrait in the Renaissance. New York, 1963: pp 101-2.
Codex Urbinas Latinus 60v (McM248)
Villata, Eduardo, Leonardo da Vinci: I documenti e le testimonianze contemporanee.
Milan, 1999; no. 180.
I should, however, mention that Vasari claims Raphael and Taddeo Taddei were
good friends, and that Taddei “would have him ever in his house and at his table,” so
perhaps the proximity of Raphael’s rooms in the Palazzo Taddei to the Giocondo home
was purely coincidental.
Pallanti, Mona Lisa Revealed, p. 91.
MS Ashburnham II; Paris, Institut de France; 2038 33r.
Codex Urbinas Latinus 1270; 41v.
This work by Apelles, which was famous throughout the ancient world, has been
preserved in a mosaic in the House of the Faun in Pompei. A copy is still visible in situ;
the original is in the Archeological Museum in Naples.
Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book 35.
The original text of Vespucci’s handwritten note reads: “Apelles pictor. Ita Leonardus
Vincius facit in omnibus suis picturis, ut enim caput Lise del Giocondo et Anne matris
virginis. Videbimus, quid faciet de aula magni consilii, de qua re convenit iam cum
vexillifero. 1503 8.bris.” From: Probst, Veit, “Rätselhafte Mona Lisa: Wer ist die
geheimnisvoll lächelnde Dame auf Leonardo da Vincis Bild?” in UniSpiegel, University
of Heidelberg, 2008.
Lomazzo, Gian Paolo: Trattato dell'arte della pittura, scoltura et architettura [Milano
1584] in Scritti sulle arti Vol. II, Roberto Paolo Ciardi, Florence 1974.
Sassoon, Donald, Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon. New York:
Harcourt, 2001; p. 22.
Pulitzer, Henry F., Where is the Mona Lisa? London, UK: Pulitzer Press, 1966; p. 9.
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Ibid, p. 65.
Codex Urbinas Latinus 75v-76v.
On Painting, Chapter CCCLIII, as quoted from Feldman, S., Mona Lisa; p. 241.
Ibid. p. 243.
Atalay, B., “Painting by the Numbers,” in Math and the Mona Lisa; pp. 26-52.
Codex Urbinas Latinus 104v (McM 296)
Alfonso Rubio, Modello Geometrico Iconografico, retrieved from
I am quoting here from Dr. Hermann Kuhn’s analysis as described in Feldman, S.,
Mona Lisa, p. 243.
John 13:23-25; 19:26-27.
Mendes da Silva was also known as “Amadeus of Portugal.” One of Leonardo’s
inventories lists a “libro dell’Amadio.” Madrid MS 8936, fol. 34.
lviii Codex Riccardianus 1207, fol. 47v-58r. Interestingly, Leonardo Dati served as
Master general of the Dominican Order from 1414 until his death in 1425, residing at the
same monastery of Santa Maria Novella where Leonardo da Vinci would create the
cartoon for the Anghiari fresco. He was buried at the Cappella Rucellai in the same
church, under a tombstone designed by Ghiberti.
Codex Urbinas Latinus 6r-v (McM 36)
It has been suggested that the four officers represent the four principal commanders in
the battle: from left to right, Francesco Piccinino; Niccolò Piccinino; Ludovico
Trevisan; and Giovanni Antonio Del Balzo Orsini.
David S. Chambers, Patrons and Artists in the Italian Renaissance. Columbia, SC:
University of South Carolina Press, 1971, pp. 147–8.
Based on a report by Machiavelli’s assistant Biagio Buonaccorso, in MS Machiavelli
C 6.78; Biblioteca Nazionale, Florence; reproduced in Nicholl, Charles, Leonardo da
Vinci; p. 359.
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For more information about the Battle of Anghiari project, please see the new study
by Margherita Melani, The Fascination of the Unfinished Work: The Battle of Anghiari.
CB Edizioni, 2012.
Adding further to the mystery surrounding the Anghiari project, the Tavola Doria
copy was stolen in 1940 and only recently emerged in a Japanese collection; as
announced on December 3, 2012, the painting will now be exhibited in Japan and Italy on
a rotating basis.
Zöllner, Frank, “Rubens Reworks Leonardo: ‘The Fight for the Standard’”, in:
Achademia Leonardi Vinci, 4, 1991, S. 177-190.
Fernando “the Spaniard”, properly known as Fernando Yañez de la Almedina, would
shortly thereafter return to his native Spain and execute a portrait of St. Catherine of
Alexandria (1510), whose features betray the influence of the first Mona Lisa. The
painting is currently in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
According to this story, told by Vasari, the Florentine cashier offered Leonardo his
monthly stipend in stacks of quattrini or “pennies,” whereupon the artist indignantly
exclaimed, “I’m no penny painter!” If anything, the anecdote illustrates the growing
irritation between Leonardo and the Florentine head of state, who greatly favored
Michelangelo and probably considered Leonardo an inflated prima donna who had yet to
complete anything of merit in his native town. This irritation would explode into fullblown animosity when Leonardo used the power of the French Crown to extricate
himself from the Anghiari commission, leaving the Signoria high and dry with two
unfinished compositions. Of course, Michelangelo had abandoned his battle fresco as
well, but then again, in Soderini’s eyes Michelangelo could do no wrong.
Louis XII, Letter to the Signoria of Florence, January 14, 1507; reproduced in
Delieuvin, V., Saint Anne; p. 127
At some universities and colleges, autopsies for educational purposes were limited to
one per year. See Park, Katharine, “The Criminal and the Saintly Body: Autopsy and
Dissection in Renaissance Italy”, in: Renaissance Quarterly Vol. 47, No. 1 (Spring,
1994), p. 8.
Ibid, p. 12.
Freud, Sigmund, Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (English
translation). New York: Norton, 1964; p. 19.
As cited in in Freud, Sigmund (1909–13). Gesammelte Werke VIII
Nicholl, Charles, Leonardo da Vinci; p. 421.
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The number of thirty cadavers, “both male and female,” is provided by Leonardo
himself, based on an account of Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Louis d’Aragon,
who paid a visit to Leonardo at the Chateaux de Cloux on October 10, 1517. Biblioteca
Nazionale Vittorio Emanuele III, Naples, MS X F.28; f 77.
Clark 1228lr, Q1 12r
Human uterus with fetus, Windsor RL 19102r. The other drawings of a fetus in utero
are shown on Windsor RL 19101r.
Bambach, Carmen. “Anatomy in the Renaissance”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art
History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2002.
Delieuvin, Vincent, “A Saint Anne, but for Whom?” in: Saint Anne: Leonardo’s
Ultimate Masterpiece. Exhibition catalog, Musée du Louvre; 2012.
Copsey, Richard O. Carm., “A Carmelite Link to Leonardo da Vinci”, from The
British Province of Carmelite Friars, December 26, 2011.
Not even a special symposium, held at the Louvre in 2012, has been able to resolve
the issue.
The original Italian text is as follows: “Et così li tenne in pratica lungo tempo, né mai
cominciò nulla. Finalmente fece un cartone dentrovi una Nostra Donna et una s.Anna
con un Christo…” From: Vasari, Giorgio, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e
architetti; 1568 Edition.
Sebastiano Resta, Letter to Giovanni Pietro Bellori, reproduced in Delieuvin,
Vincent, “Discovery of a Third Cartoon,” in: Saint Anne: Leonardo’s Ultimate
Masterpiece. Exhibition catalog, Musée du Louvre; 2012.
Fra Pietro Novella to Isabella d’Este, dated Florence, 3 April 1501, in L. Beltrami,
Documenti e memorie riguardanti la vita e le opere di Leonardo da Vinci. Milan, 1919:
doc. 17.
Some scholars insist that Leda and the Swan never existed as an autograph work, but
the plethora of copies and the clearly Leonardesque use of sfumato strongly suggests that
a Leonardo original did exist.
Nicholl, Charles, Leonardo da Vinci; p. 438
Bossi, 1982.
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