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Mona Lisa (mona3.jpg--212x180) Who was

June 12, 2002


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  Caterina Sforza (00.jpg--190x220)  


So, who t’heck was Mona Lisa?

The world’s most famous face—Mona Lisa—may have belonged to a famous (or infamous) Italian lady nicknamed “the Tigress”, according to a decade of research by a German art historian. The true identity of the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s painting—painted between 1500 and 1505—has puzzled art historians for years.

The “Tigress” turns out none other than Caterina Sforza, the Duchess of Forlì and Imola. The above painting was produced in 1487, when Caterina was 25, by Italian artist Lorenzo di Credi.

In fact, Leonardo later painted her when she was around the age of 40. Although the proud pose, the position of the arms and the overall structure appears similar to those of Mona Lisa, there are some discrepancies.

For example, Mona Lisa is well-known for her simple beauty without expensive jewelry or lavish dress. With her well-balanced features, slightly pointed chin, and heavy eyelids, the face of Mona Lisa represents Leonardo’s vision of ideal beauty. Unlike the richly ornamented women painted by his contemporaries, she displays no jewelry and wears a simple dress and a black veil.

On the contrary, Caterina Sforza remained fastidious in her garment and accessories, and wore expensive clothes and jewelry to impress her subjects with her status and beauty.

Art historians had previously believed that Leonardo’s sitter was a young Florentine woman who married Francesco del Giocondo in 1495 and thus came to be known as “La Gioconda”. Other theories suggested she was a transvestite, a prostitute or even Leonardo himself in drag.

If you have ever read his biography, you definitely know that Leonardo was a meticulous man as his notebooks show. He recorded in his notebooks the names of his sitters. Strangely enough, however, nowhere can be found any records of the model for Mona Lisa. Why is that? Who posed for him?

A scientist at Bell Labs suggests that Leonardo painted himself, and was able to prove it by analyzing the facial features of Leonardo’s face and that of the famous woman. The scientist digitized both the self-portrait of the artist and Mona Lisa, flipping the self-portrait and merging the two images together using a computer, and noticed the features of the face aligned perfectly.

Here’s how Leonardo turns into Mona Lisa, and vice versa:

Leonardo da Vinci (leo.jpg--168x178)

Have you ever noticed that Mona Lisa has neither eyebrows nor eyelashes? Her eyes look sad and her smile a bit scornful—not the expression of a young woman. To understand Leonardo, you have to know about his mother.

Born out of wedlock on April 15, 1452, outside the small Tuscan town of Vinci near Florence, Leonardo was the son of a wealthy Florentine notary and a woman who may have worked as a servant in the house of Leonardo’s grandparents. In any case, she didn’t come from a well-to-do family.

Leonardo’s father did take several wives—each a member of a good Florence family—but for over twenty years he had no other children. When he turned fourteen, Leonardo joined the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence.

To paint Mona Lisa, Leonardo didn’t have to use a model because he knew exactly how his mother looked. Yes, Mona Lisa was more than likely his mother. No wonder Mona Lisa looked like himself since a boy tends to look like his mother; a girl, her father.

Leonardo didn’t make his self-portrait in the disguise of a woman. First of all, he was not interested in painting himself. Unlike some artists who produced a lot of self-portraits such as Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt van Rijn, Leonardo da Vinci did hardly leave such a work because his interests were basically placed in everything but himself.

During his youth, Leonardo seldom met his mother. He could probably count how many times he did so. Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile has something to do with the relationship between Leonardo and his mother—Catharina, his biological mother. He loved his mother. She felt alienated from his upbringing but still they had a strong bond. When she died, Leonardo paid for her expensive funeral.

Leonardo always took the Mona Lisa with him on his travels. If Caterina Sforza asked Leonardo to paint her or Francesco del Giocondo placed an order for his wife’s portrait, why did Leonardo has to carry the portrait with him all the time? It doesn’t make sense at all.

If Mona Lisa was his mother, the mist around the famous painting suddenly seems to lift. Remember that his mother didn’t come from a wealthy family of a good name, and that Leonardo’s ideal beauty was simplicity—with neither expensive jewelry nor lavish dress. Unlike the richly ornamented women painted by his contemporaries, the Mona Lisa displays no jewelry and wears a simple dress and a black veil.

In his later years, Leonardo went to France. Francis I welcomed him and built a small castle nearby his own so that Leonardo could get the attention and treatment during his last years of illness. The King highly respected Leonardo and admired his works and talent. He felt honoured to be in the presence of Leonardo. The King admired the Mona Lisa because she was the mother of Leonardo.

Would the French king have such high regard for a painting of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife? Would Leonardo pay so much attention to a painting of a shopkeeper’s wife during the last years of his life?

Probably, the dispute will still go on until somebody discovers a concrete, indisputable evidence. In the meantime, you may draw your own conclusion.

For more information on the Duchess of Forlì and Imola, please visit this page: Caterina Sforza

Wanna know more about this remarkable painter?
Please read this article: Leonardo da Vinci.




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How do you create that animated transformation from da Vinci to Mona Lisa?
    - Dona Cheny

Please visit this page: Introduction to Morphing

    - Akira
Copyright Akira Kato
About this author:
  • Educated both in Canada and Japan
  • Traveled extensively in Europe, Far East, and North America
  • Worked as management consultant, com-puter systems analyst, college instructor and freelance writer.
Akira Kato
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