Her name was Lisa. What is “Mona”?
It means My Lady, milady, shortened from Ma Donna. She was a rich woman, the wife of a Mr. Giocondo.
Giocondo happens to mean jovial (jocund), and the Italians liked to call Lisa “La Gioconda” for the doble meaning. She looks so happy, so comfortable.
How did Leonardo keep Lisa amused while he painted? Wasn’t he an excruciatingly slow painter—excruciating for the sitter?
To “ keep her in merriment and to chase away the melancholy which painters usually give to portraits he employed singers and musicians and jesters [clowns!],” his biographer Vasari says. “As a result there was a smile that was so pleasing it seemed divine rather than human.”
This sounds like a story teller’s elaboration on her name “gioconda”, on her smile, and on the Leonardo legend; but why not put a smile on the truth too?
Is the smile really hers or a fantasy of the artist’s? Leonardo invented a similar one (and nose and eyebrowless forehead, as well as mountain background) for his St. Anne.
That enigmatic curl of the corners of the mouth seems to have floated in Leonardo’s mind like the cat’s grin in Alice’s Wonderland.
Visitors at the Louvre in Paris spend, on the average, about fifteen seconds contemplating the Mona Lisa portrait, smile and all. “Riveting!” many exclaim as they walk away.
Some curious things have happened to the painting.
Once it was stolen from the museum, yanked right off the wall, and the cops hauled in the famous poet Apollinaire, who was on record for saying the Louvre ought to be burned down. They threw him in jail and then went after Pablo Picasso, another suspect. The real culprit was a Louvre employee, an Italian who thought the painting should be returned to his country and if that couldn’t be done one way it could be done another.