The Mona Lisa - by Leonardo Da Vinci
This figure of a woman, dressed in the Florentine fashion of her day and seated in a visionary, mountainous landscape, is a remarkable instance of Leonardo's sfumato technique of soft, heavily shaded modeling. The Mona Lisa's enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof, has given the portrait universal fame.
The Mona Lisa's famous smile represents the sitter in the same way that the juniper branches represent Ginevra Benci and the ermine represents Cecilia Gallerani in their portraits, in Washington and Krakow respectively. It is a visual representation of the idea of happiness suggested by the word "gioconda" in Italian. Leonardo made this notion of happiness the central motif of the portrait: it is this notion which makes the work such an ideal. The nature of the landscape also plays a role. The middle distance, on the same level as the sitter's chest, is in warm colors. Men live in this space: there is a winding road and a bridge. This space represents the transition between the space of the sitter and the far distance, where the landscape becomes a wild and uninhabited space of rocks and water which stretches to the horizon, which Leonardo has cleverly drawn at the level of the sitter's eyes.
The painting was among the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape and Leonardo was one of the first painters to use aerial perspective. The enigmatic woman is portrayed seated in what appears to be an open loggia with dark pillar bases on either side. Behind her a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge give only the slightest indications of human presence. The sensuous curves of the woman's hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating imaginary valleys and rivers behind her. The blurred outlines, graceful figure, dramatic contrasts of light and dark, and overall feeling of calm are characteristic of da Vinci's style. Due to the expressive synthesis that da Vinci achieved between sitter and landscape it is arguable whether Mona Lisa should be considered as a traditional portrait, for it represents an ideal rather than a real woman. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting especially apparent in the sitter's faint smile reflects the idea of a link connecting humanity and nature.
In the Renaissance which brought together all human activities, art meant science, art meant truth to life: Leonardo da Vinci was a great figure because he embodied the epic Endeavour of Italian art to conquer universal values: he who combined within himself the fluctuating sensitivity of the artist and the deep wisdom of the scientist, he, the poet and the master.
In his Mona Lisa, the individual, a sort of miraculous creation of nature, represents at the same time the species: the portrait goes beyond its social limitations and acquires a universal meaning. Although Leonardo worked on this picture as a scholar and thinker, not only as a painter and poet, the scientific and philosophical aspects of his research inspired no following. But the formal aspect - the new presentation, the nobler attitude and the increased dignity of the model - had a decisive influence over Florentine portraits of the next twenty years, over the classical portrait. With his Mona Lisa, Leonardo created a new formula, at the same time more monumental and more lively, more concrete and yet more poetic than that of his predecessors. Before him, portraits had lacked mystery; artists only represented outward appearances without any soul, or, if they showed the soul, they tried to express it through gestures, symbolic objects or inscriptions. The Mona Lisa alone is a living enigma: the soul is there, but inaccessible.