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Mona Lisa: Da Vinci’s Greatest Mystery

She has been stolen, vandalised, adored and imitated. But who is the Mona Lisa – and what can she tell us about the man who painted her? Lottie Goldfinch brushes up on the theories
The Mona Lisa is on public display in the Louvre in Paris. Her smile is enigmatic, knowing – and a challenge to every researcher who has tried to trace the sitter’s identity

Few intrigued much a described painting works as the and of as that art Mona “the puzzled has have best Lisa, been as known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”. Big words for such a small painting (the piece is just 77cm tall and 53cm wide), yet Leonardo da Vinci’s half-length portrait of a mysterious gentlewoman with an enigmatic smile has intrigued and puzzled the art world since its creation more than 500 years ago.

Leonardo da Vinci was the original Renaissance Man, a polymath whose skills extended far beyond painting
A skilled cartographer, da Vinci created this map of Imola, the stronghold of Cesare Borgia

She has hung in the Louvre, Paris, for more than two centuries, escaping the Nazi art looting of World War II as well as a daring theft, and finally achieved a wall (although not yet a room) of her own in 2005. Today she smiles down at an average 1,500 visitors an hour, many of whom exclaim loudly at the painting’s small size but jostle to pose for a photo next to the famous image – a box to be ticked on tourist itineraries in Paris.

‘La Tavola Doria’, a sketch from an unknown artist of the central portion of da Vinci’s unfinished ‘Battle of Anghiari’

“Da Vinci is thought to have begun the Mona Lisa in Florence in 1503”

Leonardo da Vinci is generally thought to have begun painting the Mona Lisa (also known as ‘La Gioconda’) in Florence in 1503, although the exact date is unknown. In 1502, the artist had entered the service of Cesare Borgia, Duke of Valentinois and the illegitimate son of Pope Alexander VI, taking on the role of military architect and engineer.

The pair spent several months travelling throughout Italy as part of the Duke’s campaign to conquer the Romagna, a sprawling and lawless region north of Rome. Da Vinci was given a free pass to inspect fortifications and construction activity across the Duke’s domain, sketching city plans and marching alongside his army But in 1503, da Vinci – then aged 51 – returned to Florence. Tere he took on several commissions, including the now lost ‘Battle of Anghiari’, created for the great hall of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence – and the painting we now know as the Mona Lisa.

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About History Revealed

Despite being one of the most talked about artworks in history, the Mona Lisa remains enshrined in mystery. And while we will never know what she was smiling about, we explore what we do now know about the world's most famous painting. Plus: We look at the story of Robert the Bruce's fight for Scottish independence, the Nazi Occupation of the Channel Islands and the reign of Queen Anne, which saw the creation of Great Britain.