The person depicted in Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" is perhaps the most recognizable woman in the world. The subject of songs and the inspiration for films, her image can be found on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs. She's so familiar that some people report feeling a let-down upon finally seeing the painting in person. Measuring only 30 by 21 inches (77 by 53 centimeters), the "Mona Lisa" sits behind a bulletproof case in Paris' Louvre, attracting thousands of visitors daily, many of whom could probably get a better view of the painting on a computer screen or in a book.
So, what's the attraction? Few would argue it's her beauty. The more likely answer is the mystery surrounding her identity and how Leonardo da Vinci captured her essence and subtle smile with great precision.
First, who is the woman pictured in the "Mona Lisa"? Some people speculate she was actually male, while others have suggested she represents the ideal of womanhood. Today, it is commonly believed she was Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo, a friend of the artist. The portrait was commissioned around 1503, but the Giocondos never took possession of it. Da Vinci kept the painting until his death. It eventually became the property of King Francois I of France. Passed down through the French court, the "Mona Lisa" has spent the majority of its life hanging in palaces and museums [source: Louvre].
From an artistic standpoint, the "Mona Lisa" represented a new formula both for da Vinci and 16th-century portrait painting. Because the artist used a technique called sfumato, meaning "vanish" or "evaporate," the subject of the painting, with her glowing skin, appears almost real. Critics agree, the Mona Lisa also conveys a powerful sense of harmony both in her features and against the background, a result of da Vinci's understanding of anatomy and his ability to calculate perspective mathematically [source: PBS].
However, it's Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile and gaze that has most intrigued her many admirers. The facial expression in the painting seems to suggest happiness, but that can change depending on how it is viewed. Again, this was an intentional device used by da Vinci who used his understanding of anatomy, light and perspective to create a "dynamic" facial expression, rather than a static one [source: Callaway].
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