The DaVinci Code has produced more than its fair share of controversy. From the suggestion that Jesus produced offspring to the mysteries of the Catholic sect Opus Dei, the book and movie contain enough information to polarize entire nations. One of the controversies of the book – yet another controversy not originated by author Dan Brown, but merely extended by him – concerns DaVinci’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa. Is the Mona Lisa a self-portrait of DaVinci? Controversial, yes.
But how’s this for an even greater controversy: The Mona Lisa painting we all know is not the real Mona Lisa.
Which is not to say that it’s a forgery, though since the painting was notoriously stolen from the Louvre in 1911 there is always the slight possibility that the painting hanging there now is a forgery. But there is another Mona Lisa painted by Leonardo DaVinci with claims to being the real Mona Lisa.
DaVinci was well-known for his obsession with La Gioconda, the woman in the painting. Her famous smile may be the result of the comedians that were hired to get her to smile; DaVinci began painting her shortly after the death of her child. DaVinci didn’t just sit down one day and whip out the most famous painting in history. In fact, he spent several years trying to get it just right. Actually, there is some debate as to whether he ever thought he got it just right. According to several biographies, DaVinci handed over an unfinished portrait to her husband, coming back to work on it intermittently. Eventually, the portrait ended up in the possession of King Francis of France. It is commonly accepted that this is the very same portrait now hanging in the Louvre and featured in most ads for The DaVinci Code.
Some, however, are less than convinced.
For one thing, the painting in Paris is certainly not unfinished. For another, Giovanni Lomazzo, an art historian of some renown, refers in a book published 1584 to “the Gioconda and the Mona Lisa.” La Gioconda is the original title of the painting and the reference implies that there was two separate paintings. So if there are two different painting of the woman with the mysterious smile, where is the other one?
The legend goes that it was not the painting that wound up in the hands of the King of France, but rather somehow made its way into the possession of a nobleman in Somerset. Prior to the outbreak of the first World War art connoisseur Hugh Blaker bought it and took it to his studio in Isleworth, where it became known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa. This painting was unfinished as well as being larger than the tiny portrait in the Louvre. In addition, the lady in the painting appeared to be younger than the Mona Lisa.
Lending further credence to the theory that a second Mona Lisa exists is the fact that DaVinci’s contemporary Raphael made a sketch of this painting after seeing it in DaVinci’s studio in 1504. The Raphael sketch includes two Greek columns that are found not in the Mona Lisa, but in the painting bought by Blaker.
By all accounts, the Isleworth Mona Lisa is the superior painting; the subject is more beautiful than the woman hanging in that famous French museum. But is it the same woman? Records indicate that DaVinci made his way to the court of St. Francis in 1517 and showed several works to a cardinal. One of these paintings was a portrait of a woman from Florence and was done at the urging of a member of the de Medici family, Giuliano.
Romantic fantasy has led to the consideration of a theory involving Giuliano having been enamored of La Gioconda when she was young commissioned DaVinci to paint her portrait in order to look upon the love he could never have. The fact that the woman in the Mona Lisa was born after Giuliano died puts an unfortunate crimp in that theory.
The best guess as to whose portrait DaVinci painted for that other Mona Lisa is instead merely a mistress of Giuliano rather than a long lost love for whom he was pining. It is assumed that the model was Costanza d’Avalos. This woman was blessed with such an agreeably personality that she was nicknamed “the smiling one.” That phrase translate into Italian as, well, La Gioconda.
So then, which is truly the Mona Lisa? The one made even more popular thanks to Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code; or one that most of us have never and probably will never see?