Understanding The Misnomer "Mona Lisa"


        The misnomer “Mona Lisa” originates from the Florentine author and artist Giorgio Vasari in his published text from 1550.  There are significant problems with the subject Vasari proposes.  First, Vasari was not a contemporary of Leonardo nor did he ever see the painted portrait.  Causing Vasari to describe the finished painting and the history of the painting inaccurately.  Second, Vasari’s subject and her family were not patrons of the arts, leaving little reason to believe they would have commissioned the painted portrait.  Third, Vasari’s subject contradicts official government records from Florence from the renaissance, housed in Florence today.


        First, Vasari was not a contemporary of Leonard da Vinci.  Vasari was born in Arezzo a town 50 miles away from Florence in 1511.  By the time Vasari moves to Florence in 1524 Leonardo is already deceased and the painted portrait is housed in the Palace of Fontainebleau in France.  The portrait was owned by the French King Francis I and was not on view for public display. 


        Therefore, the question arises where did Vasari get his information?  Until recently this was a complete mystery.  However in 2005, Dr. Armin Schlechter, a lecturer and librarian at the Heidelberg University discovered the source of Vasari’s information.  When he noticed a margin note in an incunable recorded in the university’s library.  Hand written by Agostino Vespucci, a Florentine government employee, was a notation from 1503.  Claiming one of the paintings in the studio of Leonardo da Vinci was of “Lisa del Giocondo.” 


        This is the only other record claiming a similar subject as Vasari’s text from 1550.  Illuminating the original source of information for Vasari.  At the age of thirteen, Vasari moves into the home of Agostino’s relative, Niccolo Vespucci in 1524.  Here he learns what he believes to be a story about the subject of Leonardo da Vinci.  When in fact, unwittingly he has been the recipient of one of Leonardo’s famous wordplays. 


        Adding to the improbability, Vasari is told the subject is “Lisa del Giocondo” by Agostino Vespucci.  However, in the decades between the relaying of the story and the publishing of Vasari’s book in 1550.  Giorgio Vasari could not find anyone in Florence with the name “Lisa del Giocondo.”  So he assumes Leonardo was incorrect about the subject’s name and uses the subject Lisa Gherardini instead. 


        In his book he avoids contradicting his source Vespucci, by awkwardly describing the subject as the Lady Lisa, wife of Francesco del Giocondo.   In Italian Lady Lisa was written as Mona Lisa, giving rise to the misnomer “Mona Lisa.”  The fact that ladies during the renaissance did not take the surname of their husband was entirely ignored by Giorgio Vasari in order to force fit the subject into his textbook, interchanging “Lisa del Giocondo” with a subject by the name of Lisa Gherardini. 


        Since the author never meet Leonardo da Vinci nor ever saw the painted portrait, there are not only errors in his presumption of the subject, but in his description of the portrait.  In his book, Vasari claims Leonardo abandoned the portrait after four years, leaving the portrait imperfect and as a result unfinished.  This contradicts the physical evidence, namely the finished masterpiece found in the Louvre today. 


        The portrait Leonardo called “La Joconde” was clearly completed.  It is the most exquisite, soulful and treasured portrait in history.  The portrait contrary to Vasari’s account, was never abandoned, the painted portrait was perfected and Leonardo carried the portrait with him everywhere he traveled for the rest of his life.


        Secondly, the family of Lisa Gherardini and Francesco del Giocondo were not art patrons.  There is no evidence the family collected art nor commissioned a portrait from Leonardo da Vinci.  Art was an expensive hobby and the pastime of rulers, often for the purpose of propaganda. 


        Leonardo is known to have worked for the Medici family, the rulers of Florence before they were expelled from power in 1494.  Leonardo worked for the Sforza, rulers of Milan.  Accepted the commission for the portrait of Isabella d’Este, ruler of Mantua.  He agreed to paint for the King of France, Louis XII.  Worked for the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI.  Before moving to Florence in 1503, when he was working for the Republic of Florence and Agostino Vespucci made the notation of “Lisa del Giocondo.” 


        In 1506 Leonardo moved back to Milan where he finished the portrait of Isabella and inherited a generous sum of money from his late father’s estate.  After the Medici regained power in 1512 and acquired the position of Pope, Leonardo moved to Rome to work for Pope Leo X.  In his final years, Leonardo was sent to work for the French King Francis I, who after Leonardo’s death became the owner of the famous portrait, La Joconde.  Housing the magnificent painting in the private gallery at his Palace in Fontainebleau.


        The family of Francesco del Giocondo never showed an interest, nor the capacity to hire someone as valuable as Leonardo da Vinci.  In addition, Leonardo did not work for anyone that was not a head of state, powerful art patron or wealthy ruler.  Neither party had the inclination to engage in the commission Vasari claims.  His account of this unlikely subject moreover disputes the official historical records of Florence. 


        Third, during the high renaissance in Florence extensive tax records were kept of each family and are still found in Florence today.  Including the incomes and expenditures of each year.  In the financial records of the family of Lisa Gherardini and Francesco del Giocondo, there is no mention of the expenditure of the portrait created by Leonardo.  There is no indication, according to official government records in Florence that a painting was ever commissioned by the family.


        Collaborating this account are the state records of Leonardo da Vinci in Florence.  There is no record in the official tax report by Leonardo that he was commissioned for the portrait by the Gherardini or the Del Giocondo family in Florence at any time.  There is no financial record of a commission of the famous portrait in Florence at all.


        Vasari unable to find anyone with the name “Lisa del Giocondo,” he substitutes a subject by the name of Lisa Gherardini.  Printing this inaccurate assumption in his text from 1550.  He contradicts the historical caliber of Leonardo’s patrons.  In addition to altering the subjects name to fit his agenda, Vasari incorrectly describes the painting which he never saw.  Furthermore, Vasari’s subject conflicts with official records currently found in Florence, declaring neither Lisa Gherardini nor the family of Francesco del Giocondo ever commissioned the portrait from Leonardo da Vinci. 


        Giorgio Vasari simply did not know the subject in the portrait nor her real name.  He did not understand the history of the painted portrait.  He did not know Leonardo da Vinci, and never even saw the painting himself.  Instead in his published textbook from 1550, Vasari inappropriately expands upon a misunderstood wordplay heard from Agostino.  Elaborating on a fantastical tale once heard as a child in the home of Niccolo Vespucci.  

Self- Portrait, Giorgio Vasari, 1566-1568.

Heidelberg University Library.

      Margin Note by Agostino                  V
espcucci, 1503

La Joconde, Leonardo da Vinci,                 1500-1516.

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

  The Palace of Fontainebleau,                     France.

              Florence, Italy.

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