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. Unfortunately, techniques like these don’t create a personal connection between you and the sitter.
But 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 15th century portraits
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 way “certain” couples do on social media today.
In this portrait by Filippo Lippi, the woman is wearing an overdress made of plush velvet, accented with a flashy shoulder brooch that touts the couple’s combined wealth. The pearl embroidery on her cuff spells LEALTA (faithful), literally tagging her as the faithful wife of the man leaning in.
Expensive pearls and an amazing number of tiny feathers adorn her stunning headdress. Married women bound up their hair because loose flowing hair signaled a gal was single and available.
This woman is dressed to the nines, yet she appears encased in her own home, as if she is 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 physical condition of everyone living under his roof) noted that a woman had fallen from a window and been injured. I have to wonder, were these women simply trying to see more of the outside world?
More precious than jewels
What’s striking about this woman’s portrait by Domenico Ghirlandaio (Michelangelo’s teacher) is what you don’t see.
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.
Her 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 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 might 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.
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 “ensemble” 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 think the portrait made Lisa look…er…available?
It doesn’t matter. During the Italian Renaissance, women were always portrayed as something other than themselves: ideals, symbols, and allegories. Lisa Gherardini — wife and mother of five — leaned in to being depicted as herself. You gotta love that.