Mona Lisa: The Tramp Behind the Smile

It is nearly impossible to have a visual culture blog and not mention Leonardo and the almost annoyingly famous Mona Lisa…so I guess I’ll get it over with early on in my blogging career while it’s right before finals week, and my creativity is lacking.

To me, the funny thing about the Mona Lisa is that, while she may be the most well-known painting in the history of art, she also seems to be cause for the most confusion and backlash about art history among my own friends and family, and other visitors who have been to the Louvre in Paris to visit her.  You see her in text books and on posters and t-shirts in all her glory: she sits in her chair, turns in our direction, and smiles…

Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503, oil on panel, 30" x 21"

When you see her at the Louvre, you see her in all her glory…

image belongs to

…as a 30″ x 21″ painting, behind a glass barrier, velvet rope, armed guards, dozens of camera-holding tourists…and for what??  Some little portrait of a smiling Italian woman?

The most hilarious part to me about all of these people crowded around the tiny Mona Lisa lies in the painting on the opposite wall, directly behind them:

Wedding at Cana, Veronese, 1563, oil on canvas, 262 in × 390 in

Veronese’s completely stunning, larger than life representation of the Biblical story of the Wedding at Cana.

So why is the Mona Lisa so cool and important and special (oh my!)?  Well, aside from other explanations detailing the history of the painting’s numerous thefts, as well as conspiracy theories concerning Mona Lisa’s true identity (Leonardo’s mistress?  His representation of himself in drag?), I’m going to go with the more obvious and less controversial option:  our famous friend, Mona Lisa, is a slut.  So, for those of you sitting there and staring at the conservatively dressed lady in the painting and thinking: “…huh?,” let’s compare our lovely Mona Lisa with a more typical female portrait of the time:

Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1488 Tempera on wood, 76 x 50 cm

This portrait shows Giovanna Tornabuoni, wife to an Italian man wealthy enough to afford to commission this artistic promotion of female virtue.  She sits in profile view, looking away from us (the viewer), wearing an elaborate garment bearing the crest of her husband’s family.  Her dress seems to draw more attention than she actually does.  As the web gallery of art points out:

[The] beads [hanging from her neck] are part of a rosary, and the section that is hanging straight down emphasizes the vertical line of her back, and also directs our gaze to the prayer book. Between these two “pious” objects is a little note alluding to the beautiful soul of the portrayed woman by means of an epigram written by the Roman poet Martial in the first century A.D.: Ars utinam mores animumque effigere posses pulchrior in terris nulla tabella foret. (Art, if only you could portray mores and spirit, there would be no more beautiful picture on earth).

The point is that this entire portait is about everything but Giovanna Tornabuoni’s personality, psyche or individuality.  It is entirely about promoting her as a chaste woman on display for others to see and approve of, thanks to some of the visual clues listed above.  Her detached gaze exemplifies her female virtue, and she is defined by the garment that bears her husband’s family crest, not by anything actually related to her immediate self.  This type of portraiture represents a form of advertisement to the public community to show that this woman is an exemplar of female social roles.

Now…back to the Mona Lisa.

She sits in her chair and, instead of obediently gazing away from us, she stares at us.  She not only acknowledges our presence with her gaze, but she has turned her body almost 90 degrees and moves her hands around in front of her to acknowledge an outside presence.  Then, on top of that, she cracks a smile.  She is a woman indicating her sexual availability to the viewer. Not only does this implicate her in her own socially unacceptable role, but she implicates the viewer as potential clientelle.

As an artist, Leonardo has made formal improvements with naturalism and technique, but has his own fun in this painting by challenging the viewer’s perception.  Look at the background of the Mona Lisa: is she sitting in front of a window with a fabulous view?  Is she in front of another painting?  We can’t tell.  The Mona Lisa is significantly less obvious in its formal characteristics, and yet overtly obvious with its controversial subject matter.  While Giovanna Tornabuoni’s pose advertises her chastity and respectability, Mona Lisa’s simply advertises herself as a sexual being.  This message can be lost in translation these days, considering the flood of semi-nude pictures staring at us from shelves as we wait to check out at the grocery store, or on billboards as we make our daily commutes.  But for her own time, the Mona Lisa was quite the scandal.



3 thoughts on “Mona Lisa: The Tramp Behind the Smile

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