The answer to the above question may seem self-evident: in the Louvre. But the matter is not quite as straightforward as it looks. The Mona Lisa is better known in continental Europe as La Gioconda, or ‘the smiling woman’ – the word means the same as the antiquated English term ‘jocund’. It was painted, as everyone knows, by the great Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. Mona Lisa was a young married woman who was about 24 when Leonardo met her. She was the wife of a man 20 years her senior, and when Leonardo started to paint her around 1500 she had just lost her child (her husband had to hire jesters and musicians to make her smile during the early sittings). For some reason Leonardo became obsessed with her, and went on painting her for several years, always dissatisfied with his work. He gave the unfinished portrait to Mona Lisa’s husband when he left Florence in 1505. This, we assume, is the famous portrait in the Louvre. Yet this raises a puzzling question. If it was given, unfinished, to Mona Lisa’s husband in 1505, how did it end up in the possession of King Francis I at Fontainbleu, in a finished state, a mere forty or so years later? Also, why, in 1584, did the art historian Lomazzo publish a book on painting in which he refers to ‘the Gioconda AND the Mona Lisa’, as if they were two separate paintings?
If there are indeed two paintings, this begs the question: where is the second one? And, perhaps more importantly, who is this second Gioconda? The answer to the first question is, oddly enough: in the Louvre. The world famous painting, which has been reproduced more often than any other painting in history, is almost certainly not the Mona Lisa that we have been talking about. Where is it then, you might ask? There is evidence to show that this original Mona Lisa was brought from Italy in the mid-18th century, and went into the stately home of a nobleman in Somerset. Just before the First World War the art connoisseur Hugh Blaker discovered it in Bath. He picked it up for a few guineas and took it to his studio in Isleworth, hence it became known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa. It was bigger than the Louvre painting, and – more importantly – it was unfinished. The background has only been lightly touched in and the girl was younger and prettier than the Louvre Mona Lisa. If you don’t believe me, do an internet search on ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ right now!
There is another point that seems to establish beyond all doubt that Blaker’s picture is Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. The painter Raphael saw it in Leonardo’s studio about 1504, and later made a sketch of it. This sketch shows two Grecian columns on either side – columns that can be found in the Isleworth Mona Lisa, but not in the Louvre painting. Blaker believed that the Isleworth Mona Lisa was a far more beautiful work than the Louvre painting, and many art experts have agreed with him. It is arguable that the beauty of the Louvre Mona Lisa has been sacrificed to technique. No one could say this of the far more fresh and lively Isleworth Mona Lisa. But if the lady in the Louvre is not Leonardo’s Lisa del Gioconda, then who is she? One possibility is that she is Costanza d’Avalos, mistress of Giuliano de Medici, who may have commissioned Leonardo to paint her portrait when the artist visited the court of Francis I in 1517.
Regardless, it would seem that the painting in the Louvre has been labelled ‘the Mona Lisa’ by a simple misunderstanding. Its subject is obviously a woman in her thirties, not, like Mona Lisa del Gioconda, in her twenties. Leonardo took it with him to France, and it went into the collection of Francis I, then eventually into the Louvre. The unfinished Mona Lisa stayed in Italy, was brought to England, and was purchased by Hugh Blaker in 1914. In 1962 it was purchased for some vast but undisclosed sum – undoubtedly amounting to millions – by a Swiss syndicate headed by the art collector Dr Henry F Pulitzer. Pulitzer has since written a book setting out the claim that his own painting is that of Mona Lisa del Gioconda. Pulitzer’s contention is simple: there is only one Mona Lisa – and that is not in the Louvre but in his possession. A lot of people think that he is right – what do you think?