The Mona Lisa Foundation

Why Lisa?

One of the great mysteries surrounding ‘Mona Lisa’ is: why was she painted at all?

There are really two parts to this question. Firstly, why did Francesco del Giocondo commission a portrait of his wife? Over the years, historians and scholars have given us several plausible reasons.

The birth of a child is popularly quoted, probably Francesco and Lisa’s new son, Andrea, who was born in December 1502. They had other children as well: Piero, Piera, Camilla, Marietta and Giocondo. In addition, Lisa brought up Bartolomeo, Francesco’s son by his first wife Camilla Rucellai, as her own. The move at that time to a larger residence in Via della Stufa, and the desire to decorate it with a painting of significance, may well have been another reason. However, the likelihood of either of these would have been predicated on when exactly Francesco and Leonardo agreed the commission.

Another strong possibility of course, was ego. The stature of Francesco was rising; wealth from his commerce and trade was growing, and his business was expanding internationally. Simultaneously he was becoming an increasingly influential and respected member of the community, and playing his part in Florentine politics. In addition, there was the simple matter of personal pride. He had a beautiful, young and fertile wife, and, coupled with the suggestions above, was now in a position to purchase what was generally the privilege of nobility: a portrait by one of the country’s greatest living artists.

Private, secular patronage of the arts, as opposed to that initiated by various religious institutions, was increasing in Renaissance Florence. With the rise of that city as a mercantile powerhouse, a new and affluent middle-class was emerging. For example, Francesco del Giocondo had business transactions with Marcello Strozzi of the prosperous banking family; and Marcello’s sister Maddalena, in turn became betrothed to the wealthy Agnolo Doni. Doni had commissioned art to celebrate this marriage, from both Michelangelo and Raphael.

It was Raphael’s famous sketch ‘Young Woman on a Balcony’, now in the Louvre, that is based directly on the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo on which Leonardo was working at that time. Raphael went on to paint a beautiful portrait of the young Maddalena, ‘Lady with a Unicorn’ , that is also based on the Mona Lisa.

All three of these portraits, Leonardo’s ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’, Raphael’s ‘Young Woman on a Balcony’, and his subsequent painting ‘Lady with a Unicorn’, have in common the conspicuous columns that indicate Leonardo’s portrait to be of that date. [See section: ‘Critical Comparisons’]

The second part of the original question is even more intriguing. Why did Leonardo accept the commission, and under what circumstances?

His seventeen-year sojourn at the Sforza court in Milan had perhaps marked some of the least tormented years of his life; but that was now over. He was back in Florence, and once again the issue of financial security reared its ugly head.

It is known that he had recently completed two portrait drawings of Isabella d’Este while he was her guest in Mantua for a brief time, after fleeing Milan in 1499. Now she was hounding him for a promised painting. Extensive correspondence exists that clearly exemplifies Isabella’s tenacity in pursuing her objectives. But all her enquiries, requests and demands to Leonardo, made through her representatives in Florence, Fra’ Pietro da Novellara, Manfredo de Manfredi, and others, fell on deaf ears. As late as May 14, 1504, Isabella reproaches Leonardo directly: “When you were in this country and drew our portrait in chalk you promised you would one day paint our picture in colours.” Leonardo refused, politely and evasively. The correspondence itself wonderfully reveals what Leonardo was both doing and thinking at that time, and how he functioned. Here was an artist, used to painting for dukes and princes now rejecting the request of one of Italy’s most influential personalities, and instead accepting the commission to paint the wife of an untitled merchant. There must have been a significant reason.

The lingering suspicion was that he felt he was not going to be paid by Isabella, and perhaps with good reason. Leonardo was short of funds as usual, having likely been inadvertently short-changed by Ludovico Sforza when the Duke was marched-off to his permanent incarceration. Once again he was reduced to living in temporary accommodation, kindly provided by the Servite friars of SS Annunziata. At this time, Leonardo makes it clear he has no patience to work for prestige alone: money was the issue, and as well, he had a small studio staff to support. Throughout Leonardo’s life, he recorded numerous instances that illustrated his concern for savings and expenditure, often down to explicit details.

There is no simple method of analyzing the motivations of the complex Leonardo; no cut-and-dried answer as to the why or wherefore.

So, in spite of his reluctance to earn prestige with another portrait of Isabella, and in further spite of his reduced financial circumstances, he had the fortitude to remain true to his own self. He was still in close contact with Luca Pacioli, his mentor in mathematics, and still single-mindedly pursuing his studies in geometry and proportion. When the offer came from Francesco del Giocondo to paint a portrait of his wife, Leonardo was mentally prepared.

Here was an opportunity for further invention; to put into practice some of the theories on which he had been working, and ideas that were germinating for years, and to experiment, as it were, with a ‘not famous’ or important, though beautiful, personality. The triangular structure of the composition; the introduction of the flanking columns to frame the subject; the aura of modesty and fidelity that manifested in the pose; all were here as never before.

‘Not famous’ is certainly an understatement: nor was Lisa del Giocondo a mistress of someone famous. She was virtually unknown, and here Leonardo would have been away from the convention of painting only important people. It would have been a calculated risk, and an unspoken reply to the Florentine aristocracy who had for so long ignored him.

How Francesco del Giocondo came into contact with Leonardo at that particular time is also subject to some educated guesswork. Leonardo’s father, Ser Piero, seemed to know everybody of importance in Florence: he had done notarial work for the Medici, the Signoria, the Servites of SS Annunziata, the del Giocondo family, and probably anyone of significance that his artist son subsequently met there. Niccol๒ Machiavelli may have played a part in the introduction. If the latter were the case, then that would probably date the start of the painting to early 1503, when both Niccolo and Leonardo had returned to Florence after their adventures with Cesare Borgia.

Francesco was seriously patronizing the SS Annunziata in those years, and could easily have met Leonardo there, and visited his quarters. Francesco furthermore made plans to transfer the Giocondo family tomb to a prime position in the choir of the basilica there.

Contacts between Francesco and Leonardo could also easily have been facilitated by Leonardo’s intricate web of connections. His father, Ser Piero, had been instrumental in having Leonardo patronised by Lorenzo the Magnificent, who subsequently dispatched Leonardo to the Milanese court of Ludovico Sforza as a kind of cultural emissary. Meanwhile the real Florentine ambassador to Milan was Bernardo Rucellai, who just happened to be married to Lorenzo’s sister, Nonnina. Lorenzo was father to the Giuliano de Medici connected with this story. What has this got to do with Francesco del Giocondo?

Another interesting suggestion has been proposed. It is known from Agostino Vespucci’s notation on the Heidelberg Document that Leonardo was working on the portrait of Mona Lisa, and planning his ‘Battle of Anghiari’ fresco at the same time. This is effectively dated October 1503. It is also known that Niccolo Machiavelli was Second Chancellor of the Signoria at that time, and that both he and his assistant Vespucci were well-connected with the politicians and leading families of the day. Francesco del Giocondo had served the Signoria as early as 1499 in his capacity as one of the twelve ‘Buonomini’, and he too was as well-connected as anyone.

Leonardo himself became aware in 1503 of the likely forthcoming commission from the Signoria, under the ‘Gonfaloniere’ Piero Soderini, for one of the largest works of art yet commissioned; a fresco commemorating the Battle of Anghiari that was fought in 1440. This proposed work was to decorate the ‘Salone dei Cinquecento’ (‘Hall of the Five Hundred’) in the Palazzo Vecchio. To get this commission would mean not only additional prestige for Leonardo, but a steady and substantial income. The suggestion is that a deal was struck, whereby Francesco would use his significant influence to help Leonardo get the coveted Signoria commission, in return for a portrait of his wife. The idea is not that far-fetched. The portrait would then have been commenced after the return to Florence of Niccolo and Leonardo from their disastrous experiences trying to alter the route of the Arno.

In all of this, Leonardo’s own focus should not be forgotten: that painting, his always-reliable source of income, was never his main priority. In his studio he had apprentices to do some of the preparatory work, under his supervision of course; and he would invariably employ his own skills for the critical elements, particularly the face and hands, that he always considered priorities.


Facade of Palazzo Ruccelai, Florence; designed by Alberti, 15th Century.

The Rucellai family epitomized mercantile aristocracy in 15th Century Florence. The founder of the dynasty, Giovanni Rucellai, was reputed to have been one of the two wealthiest men in Europe in the 1450s. Though the Rucellai tended to steer clear of the main political arena, they were prominent in local government. The real money was made in cloth manufacturing and through their banking connections with the Medici. Giovanni’s son Bernardo, who was Florentine ambassador to Milan for a while, wrote a history of the French invasion of 1494-95, De Bello Italico, in which he coined the term “balance of power.” His grandson Cosimo, in turn, hosted public discussions there on various topics ranging from politics to arts. Machiavelli, a frequent participant, dedicated his Art of War to Cosimo; and their respective families also had title to properties in the beautiful hilly countryside of San Casciano, just outside Florence.

Lisa’s father, Antonio Maria (or Antonmaria) Gherardini was married three times, and his second wife was Caterina, a daughter of Mariotto Rucellai, from another arm of that family. Sadly, she died in childbirth, and it was Antonmaria’s third wife, Lucrezia del Caccia, who gave birth to Lisa, in 1479. Another daughter of Mariotto Rucellai, Camilla, was the first wife of Francesco del Giocondo, who eventually became Lisa’s husband. Camilla had given birth to Francesco’s first-born son, Bartolomeo, and after her early death, Lisa raised the boy with her own children. It is possible that because of the disparity in years between Caterina and Camilla that, though sisters, they were of different mothers. Regardless, to have married into the Rucellai family, the status of both the Gherardinis and the Giocondos must have been held in high esteem. The coincidences would not have been lost on Leonardo.