Friday, November 7, 2008


Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci
executed in red chalk sometime between 1512 and 1515
Image from

Leonardo was born in Vinci, Italy on April 15th, 1452, the illegitimate son of a young notary. Leonardo grew up in an environment rich with scholarly texts and art, provided by his father, who himself taught Leonardo how to paint, and by his father's family. When he was in his late teens, Leonardo was sent to Florence to be an apprentice in the studio of famous renaissance sculptor Andrea del Verrocchio, where he met with other Renaissance artists Botticelli and Ghirlandaio, and continued honing his skills, which were proving to be greater than his teacher's...
Leonardo's first moment in the sun came when Verroccio asked him to help paint an angel in his "Baptism of Christ" piece. Leonardo so impressed his master that Verrochio himself decided he would never paint again. Leonardo continued working with Verrochio for a few years, and then the two parted ways.
Leonardo went on to be in the service of the Duke Ludovico Sforza of Milan, where he remained for 16 years. Leonardo didn't only paint for the Duke, but he also designed machinery, weapons, and a fair bit of architecture. Science and art were merged in an unending output of impressive works and studies. Leonardo's designs were so ahead of their time, that they even included plans for various assault vehicles, flying machines, and even a submarine.
Duke Sforza died shortly after the completion of one of Leonardo's most famous work, The Last Supper; Leonardo who had now lost his patron, and decided to leave Milan. He eventually returned to Florence after having traveled, lived, and worked for various patrons throughout Italy.
Shortly after his return to Florence, he and Michelangelo were commissioned to paint frescos on the walls of the new city hall. While he was working on his mural depicting the battle of Anghiari, which had been commissioned in part by Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo also painted his most famous work, the Mona Lisa.

Mona Lisa
(Italian: La Gioconda, French: La Joconde)
Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1503–1506
Oil on poplar
77 × 53 cm, 30 × 21 in
Musée du Louvre, Paris
Image from

The painting is a half-length portrait and depicts a woman whose expression is often described as enigmatic. The ambiguity of the sitter's expression, the monumentality of the half-figure composition, and the subtle modeling of forms and atmospheric illusionism were novel qualities that have contributed to the painting's continuing fascination. Few other works of art have been subject to as much scrutiny, study, mythologizing and parody.
The woman sits markedly upright with her arms folded, which is also a sign of her reserved posture. Only her gaze is fixed on the observer and seems to welcome him to this silent communication. Since the brightly lit face is practically framed with various much darker elements (hair, veil, shadows), the observer's attraction to Mona Lisa's face is brought to even greater extent. Thus, the composition of the figure evokes an ambiguous effect: we are attracted to this mysterious woman but have to stay at a distance as if she were a divine creature. There is no indication of an intimate dialogue between the woman and the observer.
Detail of Lisa's hands, her right hand resting on her left. Leonardo chose this gesture rather than a wedding ring to depict Lisa as a virtuous woman and faithful wife.
The painting was among the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape. The enigmatic woman is portrayed seated in what appears to be an open loggia with dark pillar bases on either side. Behind her a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge give only the slightest indications of human presence. The sensuous curves of the woman's hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating imaginary valleys and rivers behind her. The blurred outlines, graceful figure, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and overall feeling of calm are characteristic of Leonardo's style. Due to the expressive synthesis that Leonardo achieved between sitter and landscape it is arguable whether Mona Lisa should be considered as a traditional portrait, for it represents an ideal rather than a real woman. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting—especially apparent in the sitter's faint smile—reflects Leonardo's idea of a link connecting humanity and nature.
Mona Lisa has no visible facial hair—including eyebrows and eyelashes. Some researchers claim that it was common at this time for genteel women to pluck them out, since they were considered to be unsightly. For modern viewers the missing eyebrows add to the slightly semi-abstract quality of the face.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
The Mona Lisa is the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter in a half-length portrait. The painting is generous enough in its dimensions to include the arms and hands without them touching the frame. The portrait is painted to a realistic scale in the highly structured space where it has the fullness of volume of a sculpture in the round. The figure is shown in half-length, from the head to the waist, sitting in a chair whose arm is resting on balusters. She is resting her left arm on the arm of the chair, which is placed in front of a loggia, suggested by the parapet behind her and the two fragmentary columns framing the figure and forming a "window" looking out over the landscape. The perfection of this new artistic formula explains its immediate influence on Florentine and Lombard art of the early 16th century. Such aspects of the work as the three-quarter view of a figure against a landscape, the architectural setting, and the hands joined in the foreground were already extant in Flemish portraiture of the second half of the 15th century, particularly in the works of Hans Memling. However, the spacial coherence, the atmospheric illusionism, the monumentality, and the sheer equilibrium of the work were all new. In fact, these aspects were also new to Leonardo's work, as none of his earlier portraits display such controlled majesty.
(Source: homepage)
Theories about what lies behind the Mona Lisa's famously enigmatic smile appear regularly every few years. The enigma of her smile is summed up in the Italian word sfumato. It means ambiguous, nebulous, up to the imagination. This is why, for many, Mona Lisa smiles with her eyes, rather than her mouth. Amid so many painting masterpieces, how did the Mona Lisa get to become the most famous painting in the world? Why do six million people flock to the Louvre in Paris to see the painting.

Crowd in front of Mona Lisa at the Louvre
Image from

La Joconde
© 1 Jan 1996 Nicolas Pioch