What is so special about Mona Lisa? All about the Gioconda

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Last Updated on February 7, 2024 by Laura Teso

The Mona Lisa is probably the most famous and iconic painting in the world. Since I love art, I thought of writing an article about it, including trivia, fun facts, and all the things people often ask about it. 

Trivia about Mona Lisa painting

The name of the painting

In Italy we actually call the painting Monna Lisa with 2 n. Monna is in fact short for Madonna. With the name Madonna nowadays we only define the Virgin Mary (and the singer). But in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance, it was used to call noble ladies. It derives in fact from Latin “mea domina”, meaning “mia signora”, i.e. my lady. Lisa was actually the name of the portrayed lady, Lisa Gherardini. I’ll talk about her in short. 

First, I wanted to say that in Italy the most common name of this painting is not Monna Lisa, but La Gioconda. The term gioconda in Italian means joyful. But do not use gioconda as a common adjective, cause it’s very obsolete. We normally say felice, happy. Plus, it does not refer to the lady’s smile

Why the Monna Lisa is also called Gioconda?

The lady in the painting, Lisa, got married to nobleman and silk merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, in short Francesco del Giocondo. So the nickname Gioconda comes from her husband’s family name. And not because of her cheerfulness. In fact in my opinion that smile is not so smiley. Right?

Leonardo Da Vinci and the painting

Leonardo da Vinci was a Renaissance mastermind. He thrived as a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, engineer, inventor, anatomist, and even musician. His artistic genius birthed iconic works like the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, while his insatiable curiosity led to groundbreaking inventions, like the parachute and flying machines, centuries ahead of their time. But his reach went beyond concrete creations. He meticulously documented his observations and theories, filling notebooks with insights into human anatomy, botany, physics, and more. 

When did Leonardo paint the Mona Lisa?

Leonardo Da Vinci painted it starting from 1503. He made several changes over the years so we do not know for sure when he stopped modifying it. X-rays showed that under the current painting there are 3 other versions.

How big is The Mona Lisa painting? 

The Mona Lisa is an oil painting on a panel of poplar wood. It is actually quite small, 77 x 53 cm (30x 21 inches). I had no idea until I saw “her” at the Louvre. What a surprise! Think that, despite its small size, it weighs a lot, about 8 kg (17.6 lb).

Mysterious smile and other details

The painting presents Leonardo’s technique of the sfumato, meaning blended. The artist worked spreading layers of very diluted color one on top of the other to obtain soft and nuanced paint. This is especially visible in the face, with the shadows on the corners of the mouth. It’s this that gives Mona Lisa’s smile an ambiguous expression. 

Plus there’s the contrapposto technique, consisting of rotating the torso and the head in opposite directions. This twist, which may be more or less evident, infuses movement and expressiveness into the seated figure.

Mona Lisa wears an impalpable veil, which was in vogue in her era for pregnant women or for those who had recently given birth.

What is so special about Mona Lisa?

Lisa Gherardini, aka Mona Lisa in real life

Lisa Gherardini was a member of the aristocratic family of the Gherardini di Montagliari of Florence. Her family wasn’t rich anymore though. In fact they had to rent a home in Florence because they couldn’t pay to restore their family palace. 

On March 5, 1495, she got married by her grandfathers’ will to Francesco del Giocondo. She was 16 while he was 31. She was his third wife. Sadly both the previous wives died in childbirth. Her dowry wasn’t at all huge. That proves her husband’s true affection. It was him who commissioned Leonardo her portrait. Fyi, they had a good life and 5 kids. She died at 63 at the Sant’Orsola Monastery in Florence, where she was buried. 

How old was Mona Lisa in real life?

Lisa was born in 1479. Leonardo started painting the portrait in 1503, so at that time Lisa was 24

Mona Lisa background landscape: is it a real place?

There are many theories but one of the most credited is that it represents a precise place in Tuscany, in the Val di Chiana near the city of Arezzo. The bridge you can see on the right of Gioconda’s shoulder would be Buriano Bridge on the river Arno. On the left, you can see a river inside a gorge. That would be the Gorge of Pratantico. According to these assumptions, the place where the painter and Mona Lisa were standing was the hamlet of Quarata, Arezzo.

Aerial perspective for the landscape

In the painting, Leonardo used the aerial perspective to paint the landscape part. He basically realized that the further away the elements of the landscape are, the more faded they appear, with a bluish-gray color. And that’s precisely what you can see in the Mona Lisa background. This technique gives the painting more depth and a more realistic appearance.  

Why is the Mona Lisa in France and not in Italy?

I found no proof on why Leonardo never gave the painting to his client. Instead, he kept it for years, making many changes. Until he brought it with him to his final home in Amboise, France, in the autumn of 1516. And at some point he gave it to king Francis I. There’s no evidence indicating if it was a present or if the artist sold it to him. Someone says it was Leonardo’s assistant to sell it after his master’s death in 1519.

How did the Louvre get the Mona Lisa?

The king decided to display the Mona Lisa in the Fontainebleau Castle. But later, king Louis XIV moved the painting to Versailles. With the French Revolution in 1797 it was brought to the Louvre Museum, where it still is. Except for a 4 year stay (1800-1804) in Napoleon’s bedroom at the Tuileries Palace because, you know, he had this thing for other people’s stuff. 

Was Mona Lisa always at the Louvre after that?

No. La Gioconda was hidden in safe places during the Franco-Prussian war and the during the two World Wars. For example they hid it in the Loire Castles of Chambord and Amboise plus other locations. 

In 1962 the painting went on a tour to the United States. President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson welcomed her arrival. Mona Lisa was then exhibited at the National Gallery in Washington and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It attracted 1 million 7 hundred thousand visitors. 

In 1974 the Mona Lisa made the last tour, with stops in Tokyo and Moscow.

Is the real Mona Lisa on display at the Louvre?

They say that on display you can admire the real Mona Lisa. But I think no one knows for sure, except the Louvre director or something.  

Monna Lisa’s theft in 1911

In 1911 the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. It happened in August, during the night between Sunday 20 and Monday21. Monday was the closing day, so they noticed the theft only on Tuesday 22. At the time there was no alarm or anti-theft system

Think that one of the suspects was no less than Pablo Picasso. Why? Because because he had purchased some artworks stolen from the Louvre.

Who was the culprit then? It was a former Louvre’s employee as handyman, Italian Vincenzo Peruggia, eager to return the painting to Italy. Vincenzo hid in a storage room of the museum for the night. At first light he simply took the painting, hid it under his cloak and took off. He later hid it in a suitcase under his bed for months before getting back to Italy. 

People were shocked. They started visiting the Louvre just to see the empty space on the wall and to leave flowers or notes.

How did it end up? In 1913 (2 years later) Vincenzo Peruggia tried to sell the Gioconda in Florence. He sent a letter to antique dealer Alfredo Geri. In the letter he wrote “The painting is in my hands. It belongs to Italy because Leonardo is Italian”. He also signed as Leonardo. And he asked for a 500.000 lire (currently it would be around 2.500.000 dollars) ransom for his expenses. The antiquarian obviously notified the authorities. At the trial, the judges considered Peruggia mentally impaired and condemned him to about 1 year of prison. While the Mona Lisa, after an exhibit tour in Florence, Rome and Milan, returned to the Louvre. 

Mona Lisa under attack

The painting was under attack several times. In the 1950’s a man threw acid at the painting and another one a rock. So finally the Louvre decided to cover Mona Lisa with a bulletproof glass. Luckily, because in 2009 it was hit again with a mug. And then with a cake in 2022. 

Why the Mona Lisa is so special?

And why is the Mona Lisa so famous? What makes the Mona Lisa a work out of the ordinary is certainly its perfect pictorial execution, but above all da Vinci’s ability to represent a profound psychological introspection in a simple portrait.

It must be said, however, art critics did not consider the Gioconda so special once. Think that in the mid-19th century it was valued 6 times less than some of Raphael’s paintings. So much so that up to a certain point the Gioconda was in a room among many other works of the Italian Renaissance and not in great prominence.

And then what happened? The sensational theft of 1911 and the American tour in 1962 had the merit of transforming it into a mass fetish. After these events, the Louvre had every interest in promoting the Mona Lisa’s publicity, electing it as an icon. Finally, in the wake of this renewed popularity, dozens of excellent artists will make copies and variations, helping to further push its popularity. Let’s think for example of the Mona Lisa with a mustache by Duchamp and Warhol’s silk-screen prints.

As for me, when I visited the Louvre it was a shock to see people clumping together to see the Mona Lisa, while they completely ignored the marvelous Virgin of the Rocks, also Leonardo da Vinci‘s painting, hanging a short distance away in the next room. Better for me, since I was able to admire it up close in peace.

Leonardo Da Vinci -Vergine delle Rocce, Louvre – Pubblico dominio

How much is the Mona Lisa worth nowadays?

After all these attacks, you may wonder: how much is it worth? Well, I read somewhere that its insurance is worth 800 million dollars. So Mona Lisa is basically priceless imho.


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