Medici Propaganda

(Detail) Cosimo I de' Medici, Bronzino,1545.            

The Medici Fable

An Alteration of History


    The Medici family had been exiled by the people of Florence during the high renaissance.  Expelled from Florence in 1494, the family remained outcast until, in 1512.  When the Medici hired Spanish mercenaries to attack the Republic of Florence and forcibly regain control over the city.  By the following spring the family had attained the powerful position of Pope and reigned over the Catholic countries throughout Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. 


    Medici propaganda was an important tool to assure the legitimacy of this violent takeover, usurping the preexisting republic and ruling from the Papacy.  The new Medici Pope took the title Leo X.   Francis I the new King of France questioning the legitimacy of this authority and the rule of the Sforza Duke in Milan invaded northern Italy.  After the victories of the French the Medici Pope met with the invading French ruler in Bologna in 1515. 


    The Medici paid Leonardo to be in attendance at this meeting.  Leonardo who had been working in Rome under the patronage of Leo X, was offered to the invading French King during the peace negotiations.  Commanding Leonardo into a foreign appointment during the last years of his life.  Leonardo wrote in his notebooks before leaving for France in 1516, "The Medici made me and destroyed me."


    Leonardo died in France in 1519.  Still in the service of the French King, Francis I.  The portrait of Isabella, La Joconde, became the property of Francis I.  Where it was displayed in his gallery at the French Palace of Fontainebleau.


    In 1516, the same year Leonardo was sent away to France, Pope Leo X attacked the central Italian Duchy of Urbino, ruled by Isabella’s daughter Eleonora Gonzaga and her husband, Duke Francesco Maria I della Rovere.  The Pope gave the Duchy and title of Duke of Urbino to his nephew Lorenzo de’ Medici. 


    Duke Lorenzo de’ Medici had two children, the future Duke Alessandro of Tuscany and Queen of France, Catherine de’ Medici.  Alessandro’s successor, Duke Cosimo de Medici, intent on legitimizing the Medici rule and importance of Florence.  Directed the creation of a textbook on the renaissance arts in 1550.   Cosimo hired a local artist and author, Giorgio Vasari, to write a book about the renaissance.  This book was published and distributed as a tool for state propaganda.  Under the direction of Duke Cosimo I de Medici.  Endeavoring to further the legacy of the Medici dynasty.


    In 1608 Cosimo’s granddaughters ruled over both Mantua and France.  The daughters of Francesco I de’ Medici, two sisters Eleanor and Marie, were the Duchess of Mantua and the Queen of France.  Both sisters were patrons of the famous artist Peter Paul Rubens.  Rueben’s first painted Self-Portrait in a Circle of Friends at Mantua (1602-1604) and a copy of Titian’s aged Portrait of Isabella d’Este (1605).  While employed as the court painter in Mantua.  In 1621 Rubens received a commission from Eleanor’s younger sister Maire, to complete two dozen masterpieces.  These Medici sisters shared both artists and the stories of their Florentine grandfather, Cosimo.  In the locations where La Joconde was created and where the portrait was housed.


    Vasari's publication distributed under Medici rule in France, was read by Father Pierre Dan.  A Catholic Priest taking inventory of the Palace at Fontainebleau in 1608.  The priest had been ordered to catalog the riches of the king’s palace by the Pope's command.  For the first time Father Dan applies Vasari's story, to the material painting La Joconde by Leonardo.  Cataloging the portrait, La Joconde, in the French Palace of Fontainebleau as the “Mona Lisa.”  Renaming Leonardo's painted portrait the Mona Lisa


    A hundred years after its creation, the portrait received this misnomer.  Applied by the Catholic Priest using a subject offered by the Florentine author.  Created an erroneous label and centuries of misunderstandings to follow.   The misnomer “Mona Lisa” inaccurately narrows the identification of the subject to a Lady named Lisa.  Rather than “La Joconde” the original title, referring to a joyful helper of Leonardo.   


    This search is narrowed primarily in English speaking countries, which embraced the colloquial term, known to be historically inaccurate.  Leonardo’s original title is still used in France where the portrait is housed and Italy where the painting was created, translated to La Gioconda.  The last will and testament of Leonardo recorded in Milan lists his painting as Jocunde.  Lending verification to the French and Italian title's authenticity.  


    Jocund, joconda, gioconda; means lighthearted, helpful, joyous and cheerful.  An adjective befitting of one of Leonardo's rare friends, his protector in battle worn Italy.  A lifelong fervent patron of his art, benefactor, champion, friend and muse, Isabella d'Este.  Recognized as the First Lady of the Renaissance, regardless she has yet to be honored for her greatest collaboration with Leonardo da Vinci.  Isabella painted by Leonardo in his masterpiece, La Joconde, the most famous painting in the world.    




Vespucci the source for Vasari

Lisa Gheradini and L’ Isa del Giocondo


    In 2005, a new discovery in Germany concerning the portrait, La Joconde was found.  A margin note by the Florentine official Agostino Vespucci was discovered by Dr. Armin Schletcher shedding new light on the subject in Leonardo’s portrait.  A margin note had been scribbled into the empty space in the edge on the page, describing Vespucci's encounter with Leonardo in Florence.


    The margin note from 1503 revealed the city official had been told of two paintings in the studio of Leonardo as he was inspecting the studio for city records.  Had been informed the paintings were of the mother of Mary, St. Anne, and Lisa del Giocondo.  He went on to compare Leonardo with the ancient painter Apelles, and revealed the face of the portrait had not yet been completed.  Leaving one to logically conclude he had been told of the subject “Lisa del Giocondo.”


    At first, it was presumed this margin note revealed a second witness confirming Giorgio Vasari’s book written in 1550, under the supervision of Duke Cosimo de’ Medici.  However, there were two flaws in this presumption.  First, Giorgio Vasari was a child when Leonardo left for France and never saw the painting.  Therefore he must have received his information from someone, other than Leonardo or as witness to the painting.  After further research of the artist and author, Vasari, it was uncovered, Vasari had lived with Agostino Vespucci’s family in Florence.  Revealing not two verifications of the subject in the painting as first presumed, but instead finally illuminating the source of Vasari’s information for his book in 1550, which had been Agostino Vespucci.  Vasari had been told the subject Vespucci heard in Leonardo’s studio many years before.

    Secondly, the subject Agostino Vespucci offered in his margin note had been “Lisa del Giocondo.”  While the subject in Giorgio Vasari’s textbook was instead “Lisa Gherardini.”  During the 30 years between when Vasari moved into the home of the Vespucci family in 1524, no Lisa del Giocondo could be found in Florence.  Therefore, Vasari made the assumption the painting must be of Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of Francesco del Giocondo.  The problem with this assumption is ladies during the Renaissance did not take the surname of their husbands.  It was a presumption Leonardo had been erroneous about the name of his most famous and celebrated subject. 

    Leonardo when asked who was in the sketch he had made of Isabella in Venice, stated her name correctly as Isabella d’Este.  Rather than assigning her the surname of her husband incorrectly as Isabella Gonzaga.  However, Giorgio Vasari unable to find anyone in Florence by the name of Lisa del Giocondo, instead assigned the painting to the subject of Lisa Gherardini.  A young lady who had no relation to Leonardo, no interest in the arts and no means to pay someone as well sought after as the master Leonardo da Vinci. 


    At this time in Florence, Leonardo was working exclusively for heads of state, famous art patrons and enormous sums of money.  Unable to make sense of the subject Vespucci had been told, Giorgio Vasari made several assumptions.  Unwilling to contradict his source, Vespucci, Giorgio Vasari conveys Lisa del Giocondo, awkwardly describing in his book Leonardo’s subject as the Lady Lisa (in Italian the “Mona Lisa") wife of Francesco del Giocondo.  Creating a misunderstanding that would last nearly 500 years. 

    The two Florentine men, contrary to the initial assumptions made in 2005 when the margin note was found in Germany, did not collaborate each other’s story.  Vespucci was the source of information for the much younger Vasari, who never met Leonardo nor ever saw the painting.  Secondly, the two Florentine men offered two different names for the subject in the painting, Lisa del Giocondo and Lisa Gherardini.  Because no one by the name of Lisa del Giocondo could be found.


    So, the question remains what was meant by the subject Agostino Vespucci had been told?   Since, Vespucci admits in his writings that face in the painting was not yet recognizable, why was Vespucci told “Lisa del Giocondo” a fictitious subject that could not be found?


    Leonardo was famous for many things, from his backwards writing to his love of wordplays.  Unable to express himself in the climate of his time, he often disguised this thoughts and ideas from the public and the judgement of the outside world.   When Agostino Vespucci was inspecting the studio of Leonardo on official business for the Republic of Florence, it is apparent as with many of his ideas Leonardo did not feel comfortable disclosing the subject in the portrait.  Therefore Leonardo employed his love of wordplays and offered Agostino Vespucci the subject “Lisa del Giocondo.”  Which is why in the five decades between the margin note in 1503 from Agostino Vespucci and the book created by Giorgio Vasari in 1550, no one named Lisa del Giocondo could be found. 


    Leonardo speaking in Italian, was misunderstood by Agostino Vespucci to say “Lisa” when instead he had been told “L’ Isa.”  This would make much more sense, causing the subject Leonardo offered to become “L’ Isa del Giocondo.”  An Italian phrase meaning “The Isa of /la Joconde.”  The subject told Agostino Vespucci was in fact correct, hidden in a wordplay by Leonardo.  “The Isa of La Joconde,” conceals both the real subject’s name, Isa(bella) and the original title of her portrait, La Joconde.  Which is both in the style of communication of Leonardo and once again an accurate understanding of who he was painting in his portrait.     



Italian    =    English

L'                     The

Isa                   Isa

Del                 of La 

Giocondo       Joconde


    Which is why, in the five decades between Agostino Vespucci hearing the wordplay and Giorgio Vasari publishing his book.  Neither men could find anyone named "Lisa del Giocondo."  Unable to find a subject with the name Lisa del Giocondo.  Vasari assigned the portrait instead to Lisa Gherardini.  Unlike the real subject, Isabella, a renowned art patron and rare lifelong friend of Leonardo.  Isabella showed both the ambition and the financial means to commission a portrait from the master Leonardo.  The sketch Leonardo makes of Isabella while living in her castle precedes and mirrors the portrait La Joconde to follow, in style, facial composition, size and famous hand gesture.  

    Lisa Gherardini, Vasari’s subject was not an art patron.  No correspondence was ever found to connect Lisa Gherardini to the master, Leonardo.  No images of Lisa Gherardini have ever been found to suggest Leonardo ever captured her visage or that she looked anything like the lady in Leonardo's famous portrait.  She did not have the financial means to support such a lavish commission nor did show an interest in the arts. 

    Leading to the obvious conclusion that Leonardo did in fact employ one of his famous wordplays, when questioned by the city official.  And that Leonardo’s one confidant in a lifetime of keeping his subject secret from the public, was not the city inspector scrutinizing his studio and making a passing remark in the side margin.  If Agostino Vespucci had known anything about the portrait, the title, the subject, the history of the commission, he may not have been fooled by the artistic genius making a joke of the question and creating a word play, in Italian known as a Gioco di Parole.  

Lorenzo de' Medici, Andrea del Verrocchio and Orsino Benintendi, 1478/1521.

     Portrait of Leo X with two            Cardinals, Raphael, 1517.

Portrait of King Francis I, 
Joos van Cleve, 1532-1533.

Eleonora Gonzaga, 
Titian, 1536-1538.

Cosimo I de' Medici, Bronzino,1545.   

Self-Portrait in a Circle of Friends at Mantua, Rubens,1602-1604.

Self-Portrait, Father Pierre Dan,1636.

Palace of Fontainebleau.   

(Detail) Portrait of Isabella d'Este, Leonardo da Vinci, 1500.  (Detail) Leonardo da Vinci, Francesco Melzi, 1515. 

Heidelberg University Library.

Margin Note by Agostino Vespcucci, 1503. 

The Virgin and Child with St. Anne, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503.

Self- Portrait, Giorgio Vasari, 1566-1568.

Portrait of Isabella d'Este, Leonardo da Vinci, 1500. 

Florence, Italy. 

Notes from the Forster Codex, Leonardo da Vinci, late 15th- early 16th century. 

La Joconde, Leonardo de Vinci, 1500-1516.

Portrait Medal of Isabella d'Este, Giovanni Cristoforo Romano, 1495-1498.

The Triumph of the Virtues, Andrea Mantegna, 1502.

La Joconde, Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1516. (Overlay) Portrait of Isabella d'Este, Leonardo da Vinci 1500.