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Leonardo’s Unfinished Magnum Opus: Mona Lisa

By: Ram Govardhan

It’s inconceivable that Mona Lisa is Leonardo’s unfinished magnum opus, even after he took fourteen years to refine the elusive, enigmatic half smile. Yet, discontented with the outcome, he sought to improve upon it, even on his deathbed

He was 50 when he began painting Mona Lisa in October 1503, when Lisa was 24. At the height of the Italian renaissance, the master procrastinator dabbled at it until 1519, the year of his death. His right hand was paralyzed in 1517, which is why, even if he was a southpaw, it remained unfinished forever.

The is-she, isn’t-she smile is ephemeral and that was Leonardo’s way of whispering the transient nature of life. While Lisa’s mysterious story is more storied than her looks, studying Leonardo’s genius and flamboyance renders the dullest of us ingenious.

Leonardo was illegitimate, precocious, unschooled (but literate), vegetarian, unorthodox and homosexual. Unlike the diminutive, bald-pated Picasso, who worked with his bare bronzed torso while smoking, Leonardo was quite a hunk. So dishy, so husky with a Grecian nose, long curls of hair, with an intense stare, that he is undoubtedly the Vitruvian man. To illustrate the elegant mathematical composition of squaring the circle, he portrayed himself as the Vitruvian man on the square of earth, in the circle of cosmos, pondering over his tiny place in the unfathomable scheme of creation.

Mona Lisa, the artwork, is a glorious mosaic, the quintessence of Leonardo’s flair, intuition, and metaphysical take. The magic smile is the outcome of a unique fusion of his artistry, optics and illusionism, outshining the prosaic realms of portraiture of the time. He pioneered the virtual reality, for Mona Lisa reciprocates human interface.

He relentlessly studied as to how light bounced off surfaces and faces, how lightrays entered the eye, how retina unraveled perceptions. He endlessly dissected faces, skulls and teeth to examine the muscles that moved the lips.

With less than twenty finished paintings, Leonardo had left umpteen unfinished ones, many of which have remained untraceable to the day.

“Not finishing smacks of genius,” the choosy Leonardo often said.

A self-taught country boy of Vinci town, right from his formative years, was incurably inquisitive and persistent with his own experiments. Unlike us, who silo everything, he allowed all the distractions of the world to get to the perfection he was after.

He was born in 1452 out of wedlock to his father Ser Piero, and his mother, Caterina Lippi, a young rustic woman, who later married a kiln worker, after leaving 5-year-old Leonardo under the guardianship of his father. Being an illegitimate child was a blessing in disguise. Otherwise, learning Latin in school, he would have ended up a notary like his father, grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

Even after five hundred years, his nineteen notebooks containing over 7200 pages of every day jottings, now scattered over Venice, Rome, Milan, Florence, Paris and London, are a testimony his prodigious brilliance. In them, he had jotted down, apart from ideas, the things he wanted to learn. He meticulously drew and scribbled down things related to plants, clouds, skeletons, human circulatory system, water spirals, hair spirals, air spirals, weaponry, geology, architecture, mathematics, sculpture, biology, thespian art, hydraulics, aircraft, armoured tanks and submarines, scuba diving gear and sound waves.

He almost discovered cholesterol without naming it cholesterol, calling it, “Too much nutriment in the blood that squeezed the arteries.”

His work as a dissector was profoundly serious. The beauty, elegance and grace of his anatomical drawings can only be produced by an artist of his stature.

At the age of 14, looking at his exceptional pictorial skills, his father introduced him to one Andrea Verrocchio, who owned five of the most successful art studios in Florence, which was the cradle of creativity. 15th century Florence, at the height of renaissance, was a cool town for Leonardo’s restless mind. With mounting interest in humanism, with a burgeoning merchant class dying to expend their disposable incomes, Florence was the city to live, work and prosper. Florentines had invented double entry bookkeeping and Medici family, who ran Florence as a republic, encouraged all sorts of creative people. The city was a melting-pot of arts and science and, after the fall of Byzantine Constantinople to Muslim Turks, artists and artisans headed to Florence to work in the coolest workshops. Arabian mathematicians, slaves, chemists, sculptors, painters, smiths, weavers, quacks, astrologers, dramatists, traders and other craftsmen thronged to Florence in droves. Successful bankers preferred to show off their good taste and money to splurge on art. Since the noble and the wealthy needed portraits to adorn their newly built palaces, portrait painting turned fashionable. And, looking at the contemporary outlook of the city, technicians from Guttenberg landed, making Florence the centre of publishing industry.

Young Leonardo first worked on the largest masonry-built dome of cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence and assisted Verrocchio in painting parts of the massive Baptism of Christ painting, which is now housed in Uffizi Gallery in Florence, impressing Verrocchio immensely.

At the age of twenty, after six years of tutelage under Verrocchio, Leonardo established his own studio with the help of his father. It was in Florence that Leonardo grasped that art meant science, art meant truth and art meant life. He could see science in art and art in science for the city as a whole was art in itself. Before long, he earned his laurels as an accomplished artist embodying the legendary Italian art to conquer universal values. Florence taught him the inventive serenity of an artist, the persistence of a scientist and of the rhapsodic spell of a great bard.

Golden-haired Leonardo, as was his wont, always preferred purple pink silk tunics, drawn up to thighs. Unlike other fashion capitals of the world, the cosmopolitan Florentines didn’t consider such flashy flamboyance a sartorial incongruity. 

His fascination with mirror writing (writing backwards) was shrouded in secrecy. Why did he write backwards? Was it for secrecy? What secrecy? If you put a mirror, you can read everything he wrote in the 7200 pages that are available to us.

Along with Michaelangelo and Raphael, Leonardo was in the pantheon of the three renaissance greats by now. But not having a last name was publicising his bastardy every day, one of the two disgraces he regretted all his life. The second one being his arrest for sodomy (anal intercourse) with the member of the Medici family, who, perhaps, was a male prostitute. Leonardo was let off by a court for want of evidence. Leonardo hated heterosexuality and successfully kept his gay life from the Catholic church, despite having many male lovers. It was this ignominy that ultimately forced him to leave Florence.

Florence was a soft power, hence, as it had no great military, it kept losing to Pisa. To please the new Duke of Milan, Medici sent Leonardo and his male companion, Salai, as part of a cultural delegation as musicians. Yes, Leonardo had invented number of musical instruments too. Establishing as to how human he was, Leonardo coloured his hair before presenting himself before the Duke.

It was love at first sight with Milan, but Leonardo hated the all-Gothic architecture of the city, particularly the pointed arches and the flying buttresses.

Abandoning his role of a cultural delegate, deciding to stay put in Milan, he wrote the coolest 11-paragraph, 1482-word job application to the Duke of Milan. Of the eleven paragraphs, the first ten talked about his skills in engineering, weaponry, architecture etc. and in the eleventh, he said, he can also paint and sculpt better than anyone.

Of all the things, it is in painting his genius was revealed, but he always believed he was a greater engineer, because an artist always belonged to working class.

He was appointed as the chief military engineer for the army. He hated wars but was fascinated with war-weapons like trebuchet, catapults, banisters and canons. Pretty soon he earned his name as a weapons design expert.

He was also a stage producer, producing pageants for the Duke every night. He would steal jokes from plumbers, tailors, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, brickmakers and hawkers to entertain the Duke in private auditions.

In a few years, his artistic eminence spread throughout Europe, so much so that he grew past his immigrant psyche in Milan.

Who was Mona Lisa, the person? The answers range from conjectural to imaginative to bizarre, because she looks too twentieth century, not sixteenth. As a sitter, when Leonardo painted the piece, she looked her age, a woman in her mid twenties in the portrait: vivacious, ethereal and graceful. But in the picture in the Louvre in Paris now, she looks about forty, puffed out with a pallid skin. Time, five hundred years of time, takes its toll on your age, even if you are a painting, even if the portraitist is the great Leonardo.

Her mysterious smile is not an unemotional curl of the lip. Research, using motion recognition software, rates it as 83% happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, 2% angry, 1% percent neutral and 0% surprised.

Giorgio Vasari, one of Leonardo’s near-contemporaries, the inventor of the very idea of renaissance, had claimed that the painting is of Lisa Gherardini, the young wife of twice widowed wealthy silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo and that it was commissioned in 1502 for their new home to celebrate the birth of their second son.

Lisa Gherardini lived in a dark, narrow street of Florence, in a rented mansion that housed an old wool shop, right opposite to Leonardo’s father’s mansion. The silk merchant, de Giocondo was notorious for his aggressive trading practices, often requiring Leonardo’s father’s solicitorial services to solve disputes.

There’s a belief that the woman in the portrait is the mistress of Medici, ruler of the Republic of Florence. It is also believed that Mona Lisa could be the self-portrait of Leonardo, given the uncanny resemblance between Lisa and Leonardo’s own facial features. And that the model may have been Leonardo’s mother, Caterina. Sigmund Freud believed that Mona Lisa’s mystifying smile might have originated from a memory of Caterina’s smile.

Lisa’s identity is still shrouded in mystery, however, consensus of art scholars is that the portrait in the Louvre most likely is that of Lisa Gherardini.

In the oil-paint-on-wood-panel portrait, Lisa is seated in a chair in the open. While it looks a pretty still picture, watch the smile flicker and the emotions come to the surface, as nature connects with her. The ambiguity, the visual tease, the mysterious inner emotion are the consequences of years of painstaking work. Leonardo had deliberately blurred things, leaving enough to our imaginations.

The uncovered positioning of hands reveals that Leonardo was too modern with a twentieth-century disposition, for, in the sixteenth century, women’s hands were usually kept from view. Leonardo’s purpose of not revealing the wedding ring was to depict her as an impeccable, truehearted wife. Long hair over shoulders too was unthinkable in 16th century. Even the beautiful strand of drapery over her shoulder was unnatural for women of the time, it was an attribute of goddesses.

After painting a relatively straightforward painting by his standards in 1503,over a decade or until he was paralysed few years before his death in 1519, he was obsessed to turn the portrait of the Florentine woman into an aesthetic, poetic and enigmatic artwork of universal appeal. Not only as a painter and a poet, he painted it as a scholar and thinker, rendering Mona Lisa a living enigma. It is a remarkable instance of Leonardo’s sfumato technique, which softens the transitions between colours, a sort of soft, finely shaded graphic art. The sfumato technique creates a background that integrates gently.

Without the usual trappings of dynastic hints, costume jewellery or other emblematic clues, Leonardo purposely drew our attention to her face and the enigmatic smile. Until 18th century, sitters kept their faces stiff and unemotional. Public display of emotions and broad smiles implied lowbred demeanour.

In fact, given its universal fame, Mona Lisa is too small in size: just 30 inches by 21 inches and weighing all of 18 pounds. Leonardo was careful in avoiding the usual melancholy of portraits by employing entertainers, musicians and buffoons to keep Lisa amused during the sessions.

The most hypnotic feature is that her eyes follow us from any direction. When we look away and look back from a different angle, her eyes seem to be staring at us. Some people feel watched by the Mona Lisa, no matter where they stand.

If we directly look at her lips, they turn down a bit, not smiling at all. And then, as we look upwards at her chin and then the cheek bone, the smile is turned on. Her smile never changes, rather it’s the mindset of the viewer that does.

In the three-quarter view, the sitter’s position mostly turned towards the viewer, the soft sculptural face shows Leonardo’s adept handling of sfumato that reveals his understanding of the musculature and role of the bones beneath the skin. The delicately painted veil, the finely shaped tresses, and the painstaking rendering of folded fabric demonstrate Leonardo’s lifelong observations.

The real portrait of Lisa Gherardini in hidden behind the face we see now. Layers after new layers emerge, as underneath the painted face of Mona Lisa, four separate images are hidden.

Was she unwell? Swelling around her eyes was diagnosed as excess cholesterol in her diet. Even facial paralysis, deafness and syphilis are speculated. And that the look of contentment on her face indicates that she was pregnant. From the notes Leonardo wrote, one can find twelve hairpins, lion’s head, crocodile, and other hidden animals in the portrait. Look closely, the backdrop is broken: the left one higher than the one to her left.

What about the invisible eyebrows and eyelashes? Were they plucked as they were unsightly? Or they had disappeared because of over-cleaning over the years. Is the non-existence of eyebrows a proof that Mona Lisa is an unfinished masterpiece? No. In 2007 ultra-detailed digital scans revealed that Leonardo had once painted the eyebrows and bolder eyelashes. Both had simply faded over time or had fallen victim to years of restoration work.

Using reflective light technology, French scientist Pascal Cotte has found several images hidden beneath the surface. Cotte’s childhood dream was to see what’s inside. He studied it with layer-amplification techniques, with the help of ultra-high resolution scans and discovered that the painting was reworked by Leonardo several times, with changes made to the size of the Mona Lisa’s face and the direction of her gaze. He also found that in one layer the subject was depicted wearing numerous hairpins and a headdress adorned with pearls which were later scrubbed out and overpainted.

On the morning of August 22 1911, Louvre employees were shocked to discover that the painting was stolen the previous night. A Louvre employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, simply walked out of the museum after closing time with the painting wrapped in his smock coat. He spent the next two years with it hidden in his lodgings. During the investigation, the policemen went so far as to question known art collectors such as Pablo Picasso about the theft. The suspicion proved to be unfounded. Two years later, the Louvre employee was identified as the thief. Peruggia claimed his motives were patriotic: he believed the masterpiece belonged in Italy.

After its discovery, the Mona Lisa was exhibited throughout Italy before its celebratory return to the Louvre in 1914.

The picture is now kept under strict, climate-controlled conditions in its bulletproof glass case. The humidity is maintained at 50% and the temperature is maintained between 18 and 21°C. To compensate for fluctuations in relative humidity, the case is supplemented with a bed of silica gel treated to provide 55% relative humidity. The glass ceiling lets in natural light, a shatter-proof glass display case maintains a controlled temperature. Of late, it has been illuminated by a 20 watt LED lamp specially designed for this painting. The lamp has a Colour Rendering Index up to 98, and minimizes infrared and ultraviolet radiation.

Leonardo spent his final years in France, where his patron the King of France, Francis I, purchased Mona Lisa for the royal French collection. Although Leonardo began work on his masterpiece while living in Florence, he did not finish it until he moved to France. Leonardo spent his final years in King Francis I court. After Leonardo’s death, it became the property of the French Republic itself, on permanent display at the Louvre Museum in Paris since 1797.

Mona Lisa hangs in the centre of the Louvre’s Grand Gallery, which is the prettiest prison for the greatest work of art.

It turned a sort of prison because Mona Lisa was attacked several times. If you look closely at the subject’s left elbow, you might notice the damage done by a Bolivian, who chucked a rock at the portrait in 1956. A few months earlier, someone had splashed acid at the painting, damaging the lower section. These incidents necessitated the bulletproof casing, which in 2009 successfully rebuffed a mug flung by a Russian woman who was denied French citizenship.

Over the centuries, French officials have only rarely let the painting out of their sight. However, when first lady Jackie Kennedy asked if the painting could visit the U.S., President de Gaulle agreed. From December 1962 to March 1963, the portrait went on display in Washington D.C. and in New York City. In 1974, the painting was exhibited in Tokyo and Moscow.

Leonardo da Vinci died a poor man at sixty seven in 1519, and he is buried at a French castle. Italy’s National Committee for Cultural Heritage is undertaking an inquiry, and wants to exhume his skull to reconstruct Leonardo’s face, using CSI-style technology. Will he resemble the mysterious Mona Lisa?

Surely, with his extraordinary genius, Leonardo has left the posterity of portraiture the poorer.


Ram Govardhan’s short stories and poems have appeared in Asian, African and American literary journals. His novel, Rough with the Smooth, was longlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize, The Economist-Crossword 2011 Award and published by Leadstart Publishing, Mumbai. He lives in Chennai. Email:


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