The Shy Museumgoer


Leonardo’s brazenly feminist portrait

Somebody has to say it. May as well be me. I do not have a print of the Mona Lisa hanging in my office and honestly I don’t know anyone who does. Leonardo da Vinci’s painting is more famous for being famous than it is for being loved.

Art experts like to talk about the portrait’s sfumato (its ombré-ness) and its aerial perspective, new methods of painting that Leonardo either invented or took to the next level. But these painterly techniques won’t create a personal connection between you and the sitter.

Here’s something that might: What if I told you the Mona Lisa is a gutsy portrait — not only in the reach of its feminist ambition, but also in its power to rattle the men in Lisa Gherardini’s life?

The tangled relationship between a woman and her likeness

In Renaissance portraits, married women wore high-priced clothes and oodles of jewelry to trumpet their parent’s wealth and their husband’s social rank. The idea was to create a carefully curated public image, the same way “certain” couples brand themselves on social media today.

Filippo Lippi, "Portrait of a Woman with a Man at the Casement" (c.1440)
Filippo Lippi, Woman with a Man at the Casement (c.1440)

In this portrait by Florentine bad boy Fra Filippo Lippi, the woman is wearing an overdress made of plush velvet. Small pearls embroidered along the cuff spell LEALTA (faithful), literally tagging her as the faithful wife of the man leaning in. Her brooch boasts large organic pearls, the most treasured gem in the world at that time.

An amazing number of tiny feathers adorn the stunning headdress. Married women pinned up their hair in public because loose, flowing hair signaled a gal was single and available.

She is dressed to the nines yet appears encased in her own home, as if she’s under house arrest. A French traveler told his friends —

Women are more enclosed in Florence than in any other city in Italy! They see the world only from the small openings in their windows.

A surprising number of fifteenth-century tax returns (listing the name, age, and physical condition of everyone living under a man’s roof in Florence) note that a woman had fallen from a window and been injured. You have to wonder, were these women trying to see more of the outside world?

More precious than jewels

What’s striking about this Renaissance portrait by Domenico Ghirlandaio (one of Michelangelo’s first teachers) is what you don’t see.

Domenico Ghirlandaio, "Portrait of Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni" (c.1488)
Ghirlandaio, Giovanna degli Albizzi Tornabuoni (c.1488-90)

Conspicuously absent is a window view. The woman is portrayed in coffin-like confinement because this hauntingly beautiful portrait was completed soon after she died, during her second childbirth.

Her signature brooch has been removed and placed on a shelf, along with the coral beads new mothers wore as a protective talisman for infants. On the back wall, above her prayer book, the Latin inscription reads:

Art, would that you could represent character and mind. There would be no more beautiful painting on earth.

She is wearing an orange giornea embroidered with “L” motifs and other emblems that identify her as Giovanna, the late wife of Lorenzo Tornabuoni. Her red gamurra features one of the most beautiful sleeves in art history.

After her death, this portrait was placed in her husband’s private suite in the Tornabuoni Palace. Four hundred years after her death, this portrait was purchased by American financier J. Pierpont Morgan, whose wife died of tuberculosis just four months after their honeymoon.

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear

Ghirlandaio’s inscription challenged the artists who saw it. Leonardo da Vinci — who knew Giovanna’s family — decided to try and depict a woman’s character and mind, rather than her social status.

The first thing he did was throw out the Renaissance playbook: No bejeweled dress, no flashy brooch, no bound-up hair, no meaning-laden attributes.

Next, Leonardo threw out the canon of corporeal beauty associated with literature. If you were looking only at fifteenth-century portraits, you might think all Italian women had the same golden hair, pale skin, and blue eyes as Laura, a married woman who was the obsession of Petrarch, a popular poet who dedicated more than 300 sonnets to her.

Leonardo da Vinci, "Mona Lisa"(c.1503-06)
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (c.1503-06)

In her own portrait, Lisa Gherardini is wearing a dark dress and a gauzy veil, not to symbolize her modesty, but because dark colors were en vogue at the turn of the century, when fashionable women emulated the Spanish court of Charles V, the most powerful man in Europe. It’s likely Lisa chose her own ensemble for this painting.

She’s at home, sitting in an open-air room called a loggia. Her brunette hair is loose and flowing, as it naturally would have been. She’s making eye contact with the viewer — indeed, even with male viewers — with a poise and presence not seen in previous female portraits.

It remains a mystery why Leonardo kept this painting for himself. Did Lisa’s husband refuse to pay for it? Did their friends say the portrait made Lisa look, er, available?

Doesn’t matter. During the Renaissance, women were portrayed as something other than themselves: ideals, symbols, allegories. Lisa Gherardini — wife and mother of five — leaned into being depicted as herself. You gotta love that.