Thirty-one years after Leonardo da Vinci’s death, Giorgio Vasari wrote Leonardo’s biography, from which the famous painting got its name: The Mona Lisa — or, as it’s known in Italian, La Gioconda, and in French La Joconde.
Before Vasari, the painting had been referred to as “a certain Florentine lady.” Later, in the collection at Fontainebleau, “a courtesan in a gauze veil.”
Leonardo’s panel is undated and unsigned, and although most portraits of that time included something to indicate the sitter’s family name or social status, no such emblem can be found in the Mona Lisa…. Some speculate that the Mona Lisa is not a portrait of one woman, but an artful composite of many, Leonardo’s idealization of all womanhood. Others suggest it may have been one of Da Vinci’s young male models in drag. Some even believe that the Mona Lisa is not a portrait at all, but instead what is known as a “finzione,” an invention of Leonardo’s extraordinary imagination (source).
According to Vasari, Leonardo devoted four full years to painting the Mona Lisa — which, however, covers only a fraction more than five-and-a-half square feet of surface.
Worthy of the painting itself is Walter Pater’s unforgettable description of the Mona Lisa:
“She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave.”