Beauty and the Mona Lisa Smile

Have you ever wondered about the woman from da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa painting? Who was she? Theories abound and range from a da Vinci self-portrait, to his mother, to a princess, to an unknown courtesan.

Self-portrait, you ask? But wasn't daVinci a man, and isn't Mona Lisa a woman? There are some who look at Lisa and think she has masculine facial features. I didn’t think so, but after learning a little more about beauty standards in 15th and 16th century Italy, it made a little sense. 

Notice the wide forehead 
Lisa has a normal forehead. No bangs, but not so wide that it looks as if she has a receding hair line. Women of the Renaissance wanted wide foreheads, and if they didn’t have one naturally, which most women didn’t, they would pluck out the hair around their faces in order to get that look. My research tells me that hair was a bad thing for women. They would often pluck their eyebrows either completely or to a very fine line. While no eyebrows is kinda weird, thin has been an on again off again trend within my own lifetime. But some say they would even snip off their eyelashes if they were too long. Huh? I thought long eyelashes were a part of a woman’s charm. It goes back to the ideas of the time period. Men were, humoraly speaking, “hot and dry” and women were “cold and wet”. Don’t ask. Remember that this was a bridge period, a transition from centuries of Medieval superstitious beliefs to the modern age of constantly increasing knowledge. Hot and dry, masculinity, bred hair. Cold and wet, femininity, didn’t. If a woman had too much hair anywhere on her body except for the back of her head, she might be overlooked for a good marriage arrangement because she would be seen as too hot and dry, or masculine, to be a good baby oven. Ah, but Lisa has no eyebrows or eyelashes that we can see. So maybe she was a lady and not a man. (Or maybe over-cleaning of the portrait through the years removed the paint where eyebrows and eyelashes had been? It’s a theory, but I don’t buy it.)

Oh, that orange tint! Pretty when it's natural, but not as much when it's sun caused
Another clue is her hair color. I used to think Lisa’s hair was dark brown. And maybe it was. Naturally. But closer inspection reveals that the hair under the veil has a reddish or auburn tint. The kind of red that dark hair might take on from being in the sun for long periods of time. Another beauty requirement for Renaissance women was blond hair. Before you get a mental picture of a bunch of chubby Renaissance beauties sitting around outside sunbathing in their linen shifts, faces turned toward the sun and soaking up its warmth, remember that tanned skin was not beautiful. The more pale the skin, the better. Women would use lead based make-up to give their skin that much desired, pale, porcelain look. Make-up that didn’t just clog their pores and give them a little acne if they didn’t clean it off at the end of the day. No, this stuff was poisonous and often ate holes in the skin of their faces, causing them to use more lead paint to cover up the holes. Some women died of lead poisoning just because they wanted to live up to an unreasonable standard of beauty. I guess we haven’t progressed all that far in 500 - 600 years. We might not put lead paint on our faces today, but we still see women, young and old, doing horrible things to their bodies in order to live up to a standard that few, if any, women fit naturally. But I’m rabbit trailing. Or soap boxing. Sort of. 
Hair dying.

To get that beautiful blond hair without access to Walgreens or CVS to buy a box of hair bleach, our Renaissance predecessors would spend hours out in the sun at the hottest part of the day, wearing a hat with a wide brim to cover their faces, but with the top cut out so their hair could catch the rays. I understand that some would also wear a covering from head to toe to be sure they didn't tan. I mean, God forbid they get a little color on their hands. Especially since delicate and feminine (pale) hands were also a thing of beauty to be admired in the perfect Renaissance woman. As a person who does not like the heat, hates to sweat unless I’m exercising, the thought of sitting under a blanket or multiple layers of hot, heavy clothing for hours in full sun, waiting for my hair to lighten to a lovely orange blond is truly torturous. But that’s what they did. Well, the rich ones who had the kind of time to sit around and do nothing but sweat.

Maybe Lisa didn’t have large amounts of free time to sit out in the sun. But maybe when the baby was sleeping and she had a few moments to put her feet up, she would sit outside so her hair could soak up some of those beautifying, hair lightening rays. Her lovely raven locks turned, not to orange blond, but to auburn. Another clue that maybe, just maybe, she was a woman and not a man since men didn’t have the same unnatural beauty requirements and were allowed to have brown or black hair.

Lisa’s full face gives us another clue. Here is one instance where the women had it easier than the men. I know! Finally. :) Women of beauty were supposed to be a little fuller figured. Soft curves and rounded bellies were in. Just look at Botticelli’s women in Primavera if you don’t believe me. Those dome shaped bellies were seen as symbols of fertility. If a woman was too skinny (I.E: most of what the media today  shoves down our throats as beautiful), she might be passed up for a good marriage arrangement because she would be seen as too scrawny or too fragile to bear children. Men, on the other hand, were supposed to be tall, slim, athletic, toned. (See the young man in the painting below. Chicken legs, quite scrawny, but with a toned upper body and arms.) I mean, duh! Who would want to look at fat men running around in those tight tights? (Well, that was 15th century fashion. It changed throughout following century, and men, thank goodness, finally put on some pants that were, though still ridiculous, a little less form fitting.) Lisa’s full face, rounded shoulders, and chubby white hands indicate a fuller figure, which also points to her being a woman. Some believe she was actually pregnant at the time, that the painting was commissioned to commemorate the birth of a child. I’m convinced she was a woman, not da Vinci’s self-portrait or that of any other man.

Botticelli's Primavera.
These ladies are still a little on the skinny side,
especially when compared to later Renaissance ideals,
but they are still fuller figured than today's "beauties",
and have a definite "dome" shape around the middle.

The Visitation by Ghirlandaio.
If you click on the picture to see a larger view,
look at the young men under the trees.
You'll see what I mean by the tight tights. 

So who was this lady? Way back in 1550, Giorgio Vasari, an art historian of the era, identified her as Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo. Francesco del Giocondo was a silk merchant from Florence, wealthy enough to be able to commission a painting of his wife from the famous Leonardo da Vinci. However, since Vasari’s identification was made decades after the portrait’s commissioning, and since the Giocondi never received their portrait because da Vinci got a higher paying job and didn't finish the portrait until later, this identity was argued through the centuries. That is, until 2005, six hundred or so years after Lisa posed for her portrait, a note was discovered from an acquaintance of da Vinci’s that stated he had been working on Lisa’s portrait. Some continue to contend it, saying that the portrait he did of Lisa is a different painting altogether. But most current art historians seem to finally agree that the Mona Lisa truly is the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

A number of the Renaissance beauties immortalized in da Vinci’s, Botticelli’s and other famous painters of the time died early or tragically. Simonetta Vespucci, Botticelli’s Venus, comes to mind. But that doesn’t seem to have been Lisa’s case.
Detail of the face of Venus in Botticelli's Birth of Venus.
It is mostly accepted that Simonetta Vespucci, the wife of
Amerigo Vespucci's less famous cousin, Marco, was the inspiration
for this and most of Botticelli's other women. Simonetta died at 22 or
23 of tuberculosis.
At age 15 she married a man who was quite a bit older—not uncommon at the time. Her family was an old aristocratic family that seems to have lost its influence and a good deal of its wealth by the time of her marriage. Since marriages were often arrangements made to bring wealth or prestige, nobility or even peace to the families involved, the fact Lisa’s dowry wasn’t that large leads many to believe she actually was in love with the man she married. Of course, her family name might have brought him prestige since it was an old, noble family name. But it’s nice to think that, in a time when men sought wives for social status and wealth and mistresses for love and lust, that maybe Lisa was one of those lucky blessed women who actually married for love. I like to think so. Francesco’s own words, however, seem to attest to his love for his wife. In his will, he made sure she would be well taken care of upon his death. And to reinforce that, he wrote the following to his children:

"Given the affection and love of the testator towards Mona Lisa, his beloved wife; in consideration of the fact that Lisa has always acted with a noble spirit and as a faithful wife; wishing that she shall have all she needs…" Pallanti 2006, p. 105 

There is some argument over when Lisa died. Some say she died of the plague at age 63. Others contend—and this is the one I choose to believe—she died at the ripe old age of 71, cared for diligently by her daughter Marietta who was a respected member of the highly regarded Florentine convent of Sant’Orsola.

Lisa’s life may have been comfortable, but it wasn’t all fun and games. She suffered the tragedy of losing a child, a baby daughter, in 1499. And then her eldest daughter, Camilla, died young at age 18. Lisa outlived her husband, and I’m sure his passing was not easy for her.

All in all, it’s nice to think that the Mona Lisa smile isn’t really all that enigmatic, and certainly not sad. I see a middle class woman who fit neither the extreme beauty standards of her day nor ours, but who was happy or at least contented with the life she had been granted. She had a husband who loved her, and though not as wealthy as the Medici, lived a financially comfortable life, and died knowing she had been loved by her family.

I have a whole new perspective about the Mona Lisa. I can relate to Lisa. Although I don’t fit the standards of beauty our Hollywood-dictating media imposes on women and girls, I have a husband and two daughters who love me. We live comfortably, and I’m sure when I’m old, if I cannot fend for myself, my girls will step in and take care of me till my dying breath. I think that’s worth more than living up to (or trying and failing) unrealistic beauty standards.


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