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Art / The Mona Lisa

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The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire...She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave...The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
Walter Pater

Without a question, the single most famous portrait painting of The Renaissance and in the Western world as a whole, a true icon of artistic excellence, and the image which represents aesthetic beauty, enigma, and mystery. It's believed to have been painted between 1503-1504 by Leonardo da Vinci, and he maybe worked on it on and off for a decade until 1517. The painting entered the personal collection of King Francis I of France and is famously housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Also known as La Gioconda and La Jocondenote , the painting's famous title was coined by art critic Giorgio Vasari (who first described the flowering of art and culture at the time of Giotto as rinascita). Vasari said that the painting was a portrait of "Mona Lisa", which is an Italian shortening of Madonna Lisa (My Lady Lisa/M'lady Lisa would be the correct English translation), and referred to the subject as Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. But for many years there wasn't any hard evidence to corroborate this. Then in 2005, a researcher found marginalia in an old book in the University of Heidelberg, written by one Agostino Vespucci (cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, yes that Amerigo). In it, Agostino wrote in Latin about:

"Apelles the painter. That is the way Leonardo da Vinci does it with all of his paintings, like, for example, with the countenance of Lisa del Giocondo and that of Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see how he is going to do it regarding the great council chamber, the thing which he has just come to terms about with the gonfaloniere. October 1503."

Hence, most academics now accept as a proven fact that the subject of this portrait is Lisa Gherardini (June 15, 1479 – July 15, 1542), who upon her marriage to Francesco del Giocondo became Lisa del Giocondo. But for centuries, "Common Knowledge" was that the subject was a mystery, enhancing the enigma of her smile.

The portrait has long fascinated art historians and theorists thanks to Leonardo's mastery of sfumato, which is an Italian word with no proper English equivalent, but one that refers to the airiness, the blurred quality, and fineness of objects, much like smoke which is visible despite being without colour and form in the air. It's been noted that if one looks at the portrait closely, it's very hard to locate the exact beginning of the smile, but on standing back, the effect is quite clear. Indeed the phrase "mona lisa smile" often refers to the unique nature of the smile; some observers are convinced that the subject is not actually smiling but gazing plainly, while others are certain that she is smiling happily. The size of the painting (77 cm × 53 cm) draws special attention to her expression, which gazes outwards to the observer, almost convincing people that the painting is actually seeing them. This is especially the case when one considers the background, which is generally quite flat and vague, with Lisa sitting against a balcony illuminated with a greenish light, her arms crossed and resting on the right arm-rest of her chair.


The Mona Lisa was an immediate hit and widely influential on the next generation of painters; the likes of Raphael Sanzio especially drew on it for his famous portraits (such as Baldassare Castiglione). Vasari, in his landmark book Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, praised it for its realism, but that hasn't stopped legends and concepts cropping up around it. In the 19th Century, it became celebrated for being the painting, with much ink spilled on the subject, the art critic Walter Pater lionizing it, and many artists and critics offering weird theories and ideas about who Mona Lisa is. In the 20th Century, it was already considered overexposed by the likes of Marcel Duchamp, the Surrealists, and others. A landmark incident of art-theft brought new attention to the painting and further cemented its legend. It also has had the effect of making the painting completely inaccessible since its now sealed in a special glass container with heavy guards in the museum, thronged by gaggles of tourists.


  • Artistic License – Art: For the most famous painting ever, the Mona Lisa is more often than not presented incorrectly in fiction. The most common mistakes are making it larger than it is (the actual painting is only 30-by-21 inches) and it being painted on canvas when it was actually painted on wood.
  • Dated History: For a long time everyone believed that the Mona Lisa and its subject will forever be a Riddle for the Ages and Shrouded in Myth. The common traditional answer that it was the wife of a Florentine nobleman was dismissed for being "boring" until it was confirmed in 2005.
  • Early Installment Weirdness: Contrary to modern depictions of the painting with the greenish sky, the brown clothing, and the ochre skin, the colors used to be brighter and more vibrant, with one critic even describing her skin as "rosy and tender".note  Centuries of varnish, cleaning, and exposure made it as it is today. True Art Is Ancient indeed.
  • Famous for Being Famous: It's the most famous painting in the world, and by extension its female subject is one of the most universally-recognized faces. Art historians generally agree that Mona Lisa is not the best painting, nor the most important. However its fame has become self-sustaining. The mythical status of its painter Leonardo da Vinci also adds to its mystique.
  • Mona Lisa Smile: Trope Namer, Trope Maker, Trope Codifier. The particularly deft way Leonardo created the effect of the smile, almost but not quite fully smiling, and which from another angle doesn't seem to be there, is one of the greatest mysteries in art history. The fame of the painting has also made it a popular object of spoof.
  • Mustache Vandalism: Marcel Duchamp codified this with his famous spoof of the painting, where he put a mustache on a postcard of her. Salvador Dalí also painted his own thin, upward mustache on a black and white copy of Mona Lisa, with a man's hands holding coins in place of her hands, calling it a "self portrait".
  • No Brows: How she is always depicted. She used to have brows, but centuries of cleaning have removed them. This may be a contributing factor to the aforementioned hard-to-read smile.
  • Proper Lady: The painting is the emblem of the proper lady, and the ability of a woman to moderate and hide her expressions in social situations. As noted by Walter Isaccson in his article for the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic:
    Walter Isaacson: "So the world’s most famous smile is inherently and fundamentally elusive, and therein lies Leonardo’s ultimate realization about human nature. His expertise was in depicting the outer manifestation of inner emotions, but here in the Mona Lisa he shows something more important: that we can never fully know another person’s true emotions. They always have a sfumato quality, a veil of mystery."
  • Shrouded in Myth: A lot of fiction revolves around theories on who sat for the Mona Lisa painting. Particular theories even argued that it was Leonardo himself in drag, because apparently some think Lady Lisa looks like a Dude. Of course, these were all retroactively debunked in 2005, when the Louvre revealed a letter confirming that the model was Florentine noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo.
  • Wolverine Publicity: Most art critics believe that the effect and aesthetic greatness of the painting is endangered by its constant overexposure. Almost anything to do with Leonardo features the Mona Lisa. For instance, the book cover of The Da Vinci Code and the posters of its film version features the painting even if it doesn't have anything to do with her (the so-called "da vinci" code revolves around Conspiracy Theory surrounding Leonardo's notebooks, scientific research and Dan Brown's fantasies).
    • Vox, in their Overrated series, expressed this trope when the painting was put into popularity after the art theft.

Works featuring Mona Lisa:


  • Mona Lisa appears at the start of Hudson Hawk, being painted by Leonardo.
  • In the 2011 French film L'Apparition de la Joconde (The Appearance of the Gioconda), a divorced Parisian screenwriter is visited by a strange woman named Lisa who pretends to come out of the painting itself. The two of them visit the Louvre to see the painting at one point.
  • In Mr. Peabody & Sherman, Peabody visits his good friend Leonardo as he is painting the Mona Lisa, struggling to get his model to smile.


  • Again, The Da Vinci Code has the painting on its most common book covers (and only its eyes on most of them).

Live-Action TV

  • The 1979 Doctor Who serial "City of Death" features a villain who is attempting to steal the Mona Lisa, having previously gotten Leonardo to paint him six more back in 1505 so that he can steal the "original" in 1979 and sell all seven to private collectors for a hundred million dollars to finance his real Evil Plan.
  • The 2005 My Hero episode "Nothing to Hide" has the superhero Thermoman, alias George Sunday, taking the Mona Lisa home with him after confiscating it from an art thief. Before he can return the painting, it is punched through the face by his angry father in-law, who had assumed it to be a fake. To avert disaster, Thermoman picks up the still living, actually an alien, 500+ year old Leonardo da Vinci from his home planet to paint the Mona Lisa again, which he obliges after first painting a Blue Period version, believing his original to be "old cliched crap". As a superpowered Ultronian, da Vinci is able to whip up a new Mona Lisa in a matter of seconds.

Newspaper Comics

  • In Safe Havens it's hinted that the true identity of Mona Lisa is Candide Fuerte, when Leonardo promises to come back to what for him is the future when they're older to paint her, and she's seen in Mona Lisa's pose.

Video Games

  • The Mona Lisa appears in the Animal Crossing series as an acquirable painting that you could either put up in your home, or donate to the museum. Its in-game title is called the “famous painting”.
  • In the DLC "The da Vinci Disappearance" of Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, the unfinished painting can be seen in a cutscene where Ezio Auditore visits Leonardo at his workshop in Rome, circa 1506. Ezio thinks Leonardo is doing a "decent work" on it, and Leonardo is much more critical of his own work, thinking she is "badly drawn" and that her smile is "overdone and meaningless".
  • Mona Lisa herself is a playable character in the mobile RPG Grimms Notes Repage.
  • In Fate/Grand Order, Leonardo chose to model themselves after the Mona Lisa, stating that the Mona Lisa was the ideal in beauty to strive for. Leo once even claimed Mona Lisa was their gender. (It should be noted that this is a notable departure from other Gender Flips in this series, as most of them are a case of 'really the opposite gender in real life', Leonardo chose to present as a female.)

Western Animation

  • Looney Tunes: The Pepé Le Pew cartoon "Louvre Come Back" ends with Pepe in the air vents of the Louvre, his smell affecting all the paintings; Mona Lisa's reaction, however is more subdued, deadpanning the line on the stinger below.
  • Name-dropped in an episode of The Venture Bros.. Phantom Limb is trying to sell Rembrandt's Storm on the Sea of Galilee, but the Nouveau Riche mafiosi says he wants the Mona Lisa. Phantom Limb responds that he can't get it, and that the only reason that painting is famous is because it was stolen, as is the one he currently has (it was stolen from a Boston museum in 1990 and has yet to be recovered).
  • In the Courage the Cowardly Dog episode "So in Louvre Are We Two" two planets aligning causes all the painting and sculptures of the Louvre come to life. Mona Lisa is among them, and spends the night trying to win the affections of The Thinker, who can't stop thinking. She ends up running off with another sculpture while the Thinker ends up stuck in the painting Nighthawks, still trying to decide what to eat.
  • Madeline: The episode "Madeline at the Louvre" has Miss Clavel naturally takes the girls to see the Mona Lisa. Chloe and Nicole get into a brief argument on whether she's actually smiling or not.

"I can tell you chaps one thing: it's not always easy to hold this smile."

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