Nothing is certain in this world: there we all were, from Tokyo to Toronto, absolutely convinced that the most famous painting in the world depicted Mona Lisa alias the Gioconda. Scholars all around, however, knew better, and for decades have been coming up with suggestions as to who she might be, until she was as confused as to her identity as Shakespeare’s Dark Lady of the sonnets.
At last the matter is solved, and it is we who have been right all along. This month’s Burlington Magazine publishes an article by Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi, who have come up with a document of 1525 in the Milan State Archives, the inventory of goods on death of Leonardo’s assistant for thirty years, Salaì, which lists a “Quadro dicto la Joconda” (a painting called la Joconda) with an enormously high value assigned to it. The significance of this find is that it is the earliest known reference to the painting in the Louvre by that name and it settles the above- mentioned confusion as to the identity of the sitter, which has come about because of two conflicting sixteenth-century accounts of the work.
The first is the only eye-witness description of what Leonardo was up to in his chateau of Cloux, by one Antonio de Beatis who visited him in 1517, two years before the great man died. De Beatis tells that he was shown a “certain Florentine woman done from life at the behest of Giuliano de Medici”. This has always been assumed to be the Gioconda. However, if that was the case, what was one to make of Vasari’s account, written in the 1540s, of a portrait done by Leonardo in Florence, of “Mona Lisa, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, which he laboured over for four years, leaving it unfinished. It now belongs to King Francis of France at Fontainebleu”?
The attempts to reconcile these two accounts have led to some remarkable intellectual acrobatics on the part of scholars, and the Burlington Magazine article enjoyably lists many of them in the footnotes, ending with the dry comment: “Suggestions that the Louvre portrait actually depicts a man, possibly Leonardo himself, may be rejected out of hand”.
What the Salaì inventory proves is that Leonardo really did paint Lisa del Giocondo, and this portrait, as Vasari said, went into Francis I’s collection at Fontainebleu. Since we know that the painting in the Louvre is definitely the one that was in Fontainebleu ergo the painting in the Louvre is the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (which is why she gets called the Gioconda—nothing to do with her jocund little smile). The De Beatis account must simply refer to quite another portrait. Elementary, my dear Venturi, Pedretti, Kemp et al.
Now does all this amount to a pile of beans?
The authors of the article are modest about the importance of their find: the main thing, they say, is that it helps tell us precisely when the Gioconda was painted; with the aid of other remarks by Vasari they pinpoint the years 1502 to 1506. But now we all know definitely whom the second most famous cult image in the world, after depictions of the Madonna, represents: it is one Lisa Gherardini, born in Florence in 1479 and married to Francesco del Giocondo in 1495; and she had a most intriguing smile.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Presenting: Lisa del Giocondo'