The Mona Lisa: Painting beyond Portraiture

Martin Kemp

The Mona Lisa is an extraordinary painting; so much so that the small portrait of a bourgeois Florentine woman has been the subject of many myths and conspiracy theories. But Leonardo da Vinci expert Martin Kemp is keen to emphasise the very ordinary circumstances of the portrait’s commission and the sitter’s life.

Over the course of his career, Kemp has debunked many of the myths the iconic painting has given rise to and has helped to identify the people instrumental to its creation. But he also argues that the painting became more than ‘just a small portrait’ for Leonardo: the artist poured all he knew about science and the poetry of painting into the commission. How did this work change the way artists painted portraits for centuries afterwards?

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The legends, myths and projections into the Mona Lisa are both a blessing and a curse. They’re a blessing because it means that people engage with this picture in very diverse ways. It’s also a curse in that you get people who are insistent on finding something extraordinary in the Mona Lisa.

And one of the jobs I’ve been trying to do in my research is to say: this is a real picture, made by real people, in a real place and a real time.

We now know a lot about Mona Lisa and its circumstances, some documents known and some new. We know definitively that the picture was underway in 1503. Leonardo is back in Florence from Milan where he’d spent 18-19 years. He is re-establishing himself, and along the way he also undertakes this small portrait of Francesco del Giocondo’s wife: Lisa del Giocondo.

Now Lisa comes from the Garradini family, these are old gentry, they had a good name, but really had no money. Francesco del Giocondo, who she marries at the age of fifteen, is quite different. He’s new money. One of the puzzling things about Mona Lisa is that he got involved with it at all.  Why on earth did he take on this portrait of a bourgeois woman, even her husband wasn’t someone of great power. Leonardo’s young father is a rising lawyer in Florence, and he acted for Francesco del Giocondo.

You can imagine Leonardo’s father meeting Francesco, Lisa’s husband, Francesco, and just saying ‘Well, come on, it’s only a small picture, he could do it quite quickly’, and, anyway, for some reason he took it on. And Leonardo got engaged with this in a way that neither he nor anybody else could imagine.

It’s very nice to get this very closely textured sense of these people who are meeting each other, know each other, have relationships. These are ordinary people, they’re not legends, they’re not myths: they are like you and me.

In the Renaissance the words ‘science’ and ‘art’ meant different things, but here was a sense that painting is a craft, and Leonardo and some of his predecessors were saying it’s about the imitation of nature, we have to understand the rules of nature, we have to understand anatomy and optics and so on. This is a ‘scienza’, it’s a science. So, there’s this wonderful lateral thinking. And he couldn’t settle on one thing without thinking of something else.

Now if he was working on a painting and thinking about how hair falls and curls, he suddenly thinks about water and turbulence. He’s the greatest thinker by analogy, I think, that’s ever lived. Mona Lisa is a hymn to what I’ve called ‘the optics of uncertainty’. There’s no edges. We think we see an edge, we look at the mouth, we look at the eyes, we even look at the side of the face, there’s no definite edges in that. He employs the device called sfumato.

Sfumato becomes a signature style. The idea is that it’s indefinite, it’s smoky, it’s blurred. And it’s a way of drawing a spectator in, of teasing you, of making you think you’re seeing more than you are. It’s all ambiguous, and he says at one point: ‘The eye never knows the edge of any body’. So, you can never be absolutely certain where an edge is. You think of Mona Lisa in that context, the we strive to see it as being definite – the definite smile, definite look in the eyes, but Leonardo’s teasing us and it’s psychological and optical at the same time.

Scientific analysis shows that underneath the present painting there is a more orthodox portrait. And over the years it underwent this great evolution, and it became something into which he poured an enormous amount, for some reason he found it was a wonderful vehicle for what he knew about painting. It makes the transition from being a functional image to being a great declaration, in a way, almost a manifesto of what Leonardo thought painting could do.

Leonardo regarded painting as an expression of science, but he also looked at and loved the idea of the ‘fantasia’ of poetry. He has Dante and Petrarch in his library, and the poets from the Milanese court write about his pictures, so there’s a very strong interplay. The ‘beloved lady’ in the poems in always out of reach. She’s idealised to the point where she’s not available for our rather ragged desires. She becomes literally ‘on a pedestal’. And Leonardo is deeply affected by that. And the Mona Lisa is really the first portrait that rivals poetry in that respect.

The standard Renaissance portraits are women in profile, and if they do look they don’t smile, whereas Leonardo’s ‘beloved lady’ Lisa looks at us and smiles. That’s very, very naughty, very daring, but it’s a great tease; an ideal vision of the Beloved Lady as in the Renaissance poetry.

If you think of the great succession of portraitists, Velasquez, Rembrandt and so on, that aspiration to reveal somebody’s soul, that ambition, really was established by Leonardo. Mona Lisa reworked what we thought portraiture was about. The portrait continues to communicate, and still has that enormous human charge. And art at the end of the day is about human beings communicating their imaginative interchange with their predecessors, and nobody does that more compellingly than Leonardo. So, he’s still talking to us today.


AP Archive

Alamy Stock Photo

Bridgeman Images


Footage Farm



Hermitage Museum

Library of Congress

Louvre Museum

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The National Gallery, London

National Gallery of Art, Washington


Queriniana Civic Library of Brescia

The Royal Collection

SIPA Press

Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose


Uffizi Gallery



Original composition

Audio Network

9 Lives Music


Full list of images shown:



Marcel Duchamp, 1919

© Association Marcel Duchamp / ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

Bridgeman Images


The Mona Lisa (La Gioconda)

Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1505

Louvre Museum


Coloured Woodcut view of Florence

Plate from p. LXXXVII, The Nuremberg Chronicle, Anton Korberger, 1493

Reproduction: Bas van Hout, 2017


Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci

Francesci Melzi, after 1510

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


Perspectival study for The Adoration of the Magi

Leonardo da Vinci, c.1481

Uffizi Gallery


The superficial anatomy of the shoulder and neck

Leonardo da Vinci, c.1510-1511

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


The bones of the foot, and the muscles of the neck

Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-1512

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


Cats, lions, and a dragon

Leonardo da Vinci, c.1513-1518

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


Head of Leda

Leonardo da Vinci, c.1504-1506

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


Studies of flowing water, with notes

Leonardo da Vinci, c.1510-13

Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2018


Cartoon for The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne and Saint John the Baptist

Leonardo da Vinci, c.1499-1500

The National Gallery

CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)


Saint John the Baptist

Leonardo da Vinci, 1513-1516

Louvre Museum

© Musée du Louvre


The Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right

Leonardo da Vinci, 1510-1513

Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1951

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0)


La Colombina

Francesco Melzi or Leonardo da Vinci, c.1500-1520

Hermitage Museum


Image based on LAM analysis of Mona Lisa

© Pascal Cotte, 2015

SIPA Archive


Manuscript page with the beginning of Petrarch’s Canzone 323

Att. Antonio Grifo, c.1470

Queriniana Civic Library of Brescia


Portrait of Dante Alighieri

Attilio Roncaldier, 19th century

Bridgeman Images


Petrarch and Laura in a fresco in Arquà Petrarca

Unknown artist, 16th century

Digitized: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose, 2007

(CC BY 2.0)


Portrait of a Woman

Filippo Lippi, c.1445


© Foto: Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Fotograf/in: Christoph Schmidt

(CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)


The Lady with a Fan

Diego Velázquez, c.1630-1650


Saskia van Uylenburgh, the Wife of the Artist

Rembrandt van Rijn, c.1634-1640

Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington


The Virgin and Child with St Anne

Leonardo da Vinci, 1500-1513

Louvre Museum

© Musée du Louvre

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