Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

ErN 71                                

a Gioconda  -  Mon[n]a Lisa

I can't find where Mona Lisa used to live in Naples. Her surname —"Gualanda," according to one of many theories— is not even in the phone book, so maybe the family has moved since 1500. I was so looking forward to making one good prank call. 

What, you ask, are the outstanding mysteries in the history of art?  Well, what is Rodin's The Thinker really thinking? Why is Rembrandt's Night Watch so dark? These are puzzlers, yes, but the tough ones have to do with Leonardo's painting erroneously known in English as Mona Lisa (it should be Monna, a short form of Madonna, My Lady —but we even spell mamma mia as "mama mia," so what can you expect?). First, why is she smiling? Second, who was she? 

The Why of the Smile is anyone's guess. Nineteenth-century art historian Walter Horatio Pater said that the Gioconda Smile was the smile of one "who has learned the secrets of the grave." (That revelation, they say, drove late Victorian Romantics —a notoriously melancholy bunch, anyway— even further into white-hot frenzies of suicidal ecstasy.) One recent contribution to scholarly thought on the subject was from a French art historian who appeared on Italian television and claimed, with the help of an anatomical chart, that the Smile of the Ages corresponded to the curve of the human spinal cord, roughly from the juncture of the first and second lumbar vertebra down to the sacrum. Naturally, you have to rotate the spine 90 degrees from the vertical, or ask Mona to lie down, or you'll wind up with the Frown of the Ages, but essentially that's it: Leonardo da Vinci used someone's backbone (his own?) as a model for the painting. 

The Who question is just as interesting and, probably, just as much up for grabs. It is a sure thing that Leonardo did a portrait of one Lisa Gherardini of Florence in the years 1503-1506. She married Francesco del Giocondo; thus, the other name for the painting, La Gioconda —the "playful one"— is a solid pun on her married name. That painting is first mentioned and described by Giorgio Vasari in 1550 in Le Vite de’ piv eccellenti pittori, scvltori, e architettori (Florence 1550). He also identified the model as the "wife of Francesco del Giocondo". 

The problem seems to be that other 16th-century descriptions of the work don't really fit the painting we all know and wonder about. Combine that with a reference by one Giovanni Paolo Lomazzo at the end of that century to Leonardo's painting of a "Neapolitan Monna Lisa" and you may be led to the conclusion that there is more than one painting and, possibly, that the one in the Louvre is not the "wife of Francesco del Giocondo" but someone else. 

An article by Fiorenzo Laurelli in the Rivista Storica del Sannio 2000 sums up the case for Naples by citing Carlo Vecce's 1990 article, "La Gualanda," in the Journal Of Leonardo Studies. The Neapolitan model for the painting on display in the Louvre, says Vecce, was Isabella Gualanda, born in Naples in 1491. Her mother was Bianca Gallerani, one of Leonardo's models in another work, la dama dell'ermellino. Isabella was orphaned and raised at the Aragonese court. She went to Florence in 1514 and, in that year, sat for the famous portrait. Vecce's argument is fortified behind ramparts of exhaustive research and scholarly references. But there is still no Gualanda in the phone book. 

                    to art portal                                        to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023