Written by Essay, First Person, Visual Art

Seventeen Ways of Looking at the Mona Lisa

We asked writers and artists to show us what the ‘Mona Lisa’ means in today’s selfie-seeking, Kardashianized world.

The Last Page

Sophie Tiefenbacher

In the Prado hangs a painting that is not quite the Mona Lisa. When you squint and turn your head ever so slightly, like I did in a summer of boozy, literature-filled traveling during my university years, you might mistake the two. The Prado’s Mona Lisa has all of her famous sister’s traits—the positioning of the body, the hands folded on top of each other, the barely-there smile—but just as they are similar, they are also, unmistakably, not the same.

My older sister and I are very alike. Her hair is straight where mine is curly, she is lithe and long-limbed in places where I’m round, and she runs a successful tech business while I glide between freelance jobs, continuously flirting with unemployment. But when I answer her phone, my voice passes for hers, and I smell similar enough that I’m the only person who can rock her newborn to sleep.

When I saw the Prado’s version, Mona Lisa was sitting in front of a dark backdrop as if posing for a passport photo, the vivid landscape background under the black paint only uncovered during a restoration a few years later. Now, it is thought to be the earliest replica of the famous portrait, most likely painted by Leonardo’s student Salaí at the same time as the original came into being.

My sister and I grew up in the same house, with the same parents, sharing values, pets, scraped knees and formative years. Our similarities are visible not just in the shape of our faces, but in our mannerisms, gestures that we pass back and forth like a basketball, laughing at the same jokes in the same octave. I went traveling, gobbling up foreign languages, literature and art, while she went into science, settled down, and started a family.

When I visited the Louvre, years after that summer in Spain, I stood in the crowd rolling past the Mona Lisa, elbows jostling me from both sides, and felt a pang of disappointment as I compared the portrait behind the safety glass to the woman I had seen at the Prado. They looked the same to me. Clearly, they were two different paintings, but the underlying idea, the essence of the portrait, was the same, like different filters laid over the same photograph.

“I thought she would be more special,” a woman next to me said. “It’s so small.” With different variations on the same theme, how do you distinguish between original and replica? The Prado’s Mona Lisa is only one of several famous copies. The Isleworth Mona Lisa is a version that is said to partially have been painted by Leonardo da Vinci himself, while in at least two other variations, Mona Lisa is nude.

Artist’s Statement

The Mona Lisa is believed to be a portrait of an Italian noblewoman, Lisa del Giocondo, done as a commission by her husband, a wealthy fabric merchant. Given the class distinction of the subject, and the occupation of her husband, it stands to reason that the Mona Lisa represents the epitome of Italian fashion during the renaissance period. Fine silk garments and a veil frame her face and infamous smile, but consider what she might look like if the commission was made today. This illustration aims to hypothesize this thought experiment by shaping her features in a stylized fashion portrait with minimal lines and bold colors, a rendition that is on trend in today’s fashion illustration world—made complete with bold brows. 

– Heidi Corley

For Christmas last year, we congregated at my sister’s house, her having taken over our childhood home from our parents. I turned my wine glass between my fingers, unsure what to do with myself. Her success was intimidating, her expensive clothes and spotless living room reminders of my own unsteady career.

The chocolates were passed around and the baby made a grab for an ornament on the tree.

My boyfriend took my hand.

“I know you keep saying how great your sister is,” he whispered to me, “and I can see that objectively speaking, she’s very impressive.” He shrugged, squeezing my fingers. “But I much prefer you. You’re just better, somehow.”

Maybe it was that I was at an age that seeks truth in art, or that I had too much beer that summer in Spain, or simply that I saw her first, but to me, Mona Lisa at the Prado is the original, and her sister at the Louvre will stay a variation on a familiar theme that doesn’t quite ring true to my heart. I will fight you on this.

Sophie Tiefenbacher is a copywriter with a Creative Writing MSt from Oxford and lives in Cambridge with her partner.

Art:Mona Lisa, But Make It Fashion,Heidi Corley

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