The Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work, has sparked discussion for generations. The female subject’s muted smile has made critics ponder what she’s thinking about, while her faded, dampened colors have led some to wonder what the painting originally looked like. But the most talked-about aspect of the painting is its most basic: Nobody knows for sure who the woman actually is.
Who is the Mona Lisa?
Author Robin Maxwell posits that the portrait’s subject is perhaps da Vinci’s mother, Catarina. Maxwell cites the great affection da Vinci showed toward this painting throughout his life as evidence for the lady being his mother.
Naturally, there are other ideas. The breadth of identity theories is exemplified by this question: Could it be that the woman in the Mona Lisa isn’t a woman at all? Two persistent arguments believe it to be so. One such proposal posits that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of da Vinci himself. Some researchers have hoped to get access to da Vinci’s body in order to reconstruct his face, with the goal of proving (or disproving) the self-portrait theory.
The other Mona-as-man theory speculates that the portrait’s subject is da Vinci’s assistant and rumored lover, Gian Giacomo Caprotti. It would make some sense for an artist to surreptitiously paint his lover, and the Mona Lisa and Caprotti have similar facial features. Art historian Silvano Vicenti defended this theory for a time.
While the idea of a cross-dressing Mona is certainly interesting, a more conventional theory has begun to take hold. In 2005, a researcher at the University of Heidelberg claimed to have identified the woman in the Mona Lisa. The researcher, Dr. Armin Schlechter, found notes written by a friend of da Vinci’s in the margin of a book. The notes identified the woman as Lisa del Giocondo (also known as Lisa Gherardini), the wife of a silk merchant. It seemed to confirm speculation by 14th-century writer Giorgio Vasari. (The 2005 discovery didn’t spark the giant news event you’d expect: Word of the findings didn’t reach the public until 2008, three years after the fact, perhaps because manuscript researchers tend to keep to themselves.)
The del Giocondo theory has caught on as the preeminent one regarding the Mona Lisa‘s subject, but the search to prove it continues to the present. Vincenti himself came around to this idea, and, with a team, recently began examining skeletons found in a tomb, one of which the researchers thought to be del Giocondo.
The fact that all of these theories compete with each other to the present day highlights the fascination the Mona Lisa sparks in viewers. What in her (or his) life sparked that mysterious smile? Why did da Vinci put so much effort into this portrait? Why is it so hard to figure out who she is, driving people to write books and dive into tombs to figure it out? Though she’s had millions of visitors throughout the years, the Mona Lisa‘s identity will likely remain a mystery—and source of debate—for years to come.