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 historians love to talk about the painting’s sfumato (its ombré-ness) and its aerial perspective, techniques Leonardo either invented or took to the next level. But cutting-edge technique rarely creates a personal connection with the woman in a portrait.

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 threads of Renaissance portraits

In the 15th century, married women wore high-priced clothes and oodles of jewelry in their portraits, to trumpet their parent’s wealth and their husband’s social rank. The idea was to create a carefully curated public image, the way “certain” couples do 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)

The woman in this portrait by Filippo Lippi is wearing an overdress made of plush velvet. Her eye-catching shoulder brooch touts their combined wealth. Note the pearl embroidery on her cuff: It spells LEALTA (faithful), literally tagging her as the faithful wife of the man leaning in.

Her headdress is decorated with pearls and an amazing number of tiny feathers. Married women bound up their hair in public and in portraits because loose, flowing hair signaled a woman was single and available.

This woman is dressed for a night out, 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.

More than one Florentine man’s tax return (listing the name, age, and condition of everyone living under his roof) noted that a woman had fallen from a window and been injured. Were these women simply trying to see more of the outside world?

Something more precious than jewels

What’s striking about this portrait by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s teacher) 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. Giovanna 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 says —

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

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

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

Ghirlandaio’s inscription challenged the artists who saw it . . .

….and Leonardo da Vinci (who knew Giovanna’s family) accepted the challenge to depict a woman’s character and mind rather than her social status. His first decision was to throw out the playbook. No bejeweled dress. No flashy brooch. No bound up hair. No meaning-laden attributes.

His second decision was to throw out the canon of corporeal beauty associated with literature. If you were looking only at 15th-century portraits, you would think all Italian women had the same golden hair, pale skin, and blue eyes as Laura, a married woman who was the lifelong 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, a time when fashionable women emulated the Spanish court of Charles V, the most powerful ruler in Europe. It’s likely Lisa chose her own clothing for this portrait.

She’s sitting in an open-air room called a loggia. Her dark 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 with him for the rest of his life. Did Lisa’s husband refuse to pay for it? Did their friends say the portrait made Lisa look, um, available?

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

5 responses to “Leonardo’s brazenly feminist portrait”

  1. I have written a bit about the Mona Lisa. In my opinion is it a second rate portrait by an artist who could have done better, and actually did in Lady with an Ermine. Although I am not a big fan of Leonardo, I do recognise that in that portrait he did reflect genius. Cheers and all the best.

    • The Mona Lisa is a peculiar painting, isn’t it? Popular and unpopular in equal measure.

      What do you think of Leonardo’s portrait of Ginevra dé Benci? At first glance, she’s a little off-putting . . . pale and glum. Leonardo used a red pigment that’s a “fugitive” color — it’s fading over time. Centuries ago, the young lady (a poet) was rosy-cheeked.

      At the National Gallery of Art in Washington, Ginevra’s portrait hangs in a room surrounded by portraits painted around the same time. And wow, what a difference in background settings. In Portrait of a Youth, c.1495/1500, by one of the Mazziere brothers, the sitter seems to be placed on a different planet. (Mars, but with some trees.) Leonardo’s background is more convincing. It’s almost photographic.


      • I think the Mona Lisa is famous because of all the publicity it received when it was stolen from Le Louvre, and after it was found, when it went on a tour to the most famous museums around the world, even to Japan. I see nothing more of interest in that painting. The portrait of Ginevra dé Benci also reflects Leonardo’s lack of interest in finishing things begun. The look, the eyes, the expression appears to be a beginning of something that was never finished, like starting off an expression in her face that was never done properly. All it takes, like you have said, is to compare with other painters of the same Cinquecento and you will find that da Vinci’s work is far inferior (in my opinion as I know he is like a god to many).
        Thank you so much, it is very important to have well informed and civilised conversations about art. All the best.

        • You bring up an important point that’s worth underscoring. There can be different, competing, and contradictory interpretations of the same artwork. As long as the interpretations are more or less reasonable, enlightening, and informative, it generates an interesting conversation. Thank you!

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