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Mona Lisa

Learn about the history and key elements of the Mona Lisa, one of the most famous paintings in the world. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

Video transcript

(gentle music) - We're in the single most crowed room in the Louvre but for good reason. This is the room that holds the Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci. Without a doubt, the most famous painting in the world. - Of course it's her smile that's so famous today and it certainly is a smile that doesn't clearly tell us what she's feeling. It's ambiguous. - And I think it allows people to read into it in any way that they prefer. - Sigmund Freud for example, saw a combination of maternal gaze but also a gaze that was that was flirtatious and I think I do see both of those aspects here. - This is a portrait of the wife of a Florentine merchant and as we look out at the see of people taking selfies in front of the Mona Lisa, it's good to remember that only the elite could have their portrait painted during the Renaissance. - This was an expensive proposition and of course, you'd have to go and sit for the artist many times so that he could capture your likeness. - Because they were expensive, they were reserved for kings and queens and the nobility. What we see during the Renaissance, is the growth of the merchant class and the fact that a wealthy merchant would hire Leonardo to paint his wife's portrait, is a reminder of the fortunes that are being made by traders, by bankers and others during the Renaissance. - Well, especially in the city of Florence, which was such an economic hub during the Renaissance and we know in the fact that the patron of this painting was a cloth merchant. - This painting has quite a number of innovations, but one of the most important is that it's a half length. Generally, portraits were bust, that is from the chest up. - This was an incredibly influential, new formula for the portrait. - If you think about the standard form of the portrait, before this with the figure in profile, bust length. It's a very static pose, very formal, very stiff, but as soon as Leonardo turned the head toward us, position the shoulders three quarter toward us also, and included the hands, suddenly, we had an image of a figure that was much more natural, someone who you could imagine having a conversation with. Portraits that included a background and that also included the hands did exist in the Northern Renaissance. But this is a new formula for Italy and will be tremendously influential with artists like Raphael and others. - Another very influential aspect of this painting is a technique that Leonardo employed which is known as Sfumato. That simply means smoke, and what it refers to is slightly hazy quality that Leonardo introduces. To remove the sometimes, sharp quality that existed in early Renaissance paintings, where each object looks too isolated. It's an atmospheric quality that creates a sense of unity throughout the painting. - And makes the figure appear to almost emerge out of the darkness. So we see that she's seated on a chair in a low jar, open portrait. And we see on either side of her what look like the base of two columns. We don't know if the painting was cut down and there were originally full columns on either side of her, but we do know that early copies of this painting do show those columns on either side of the figure. - There's a lot about this painting that we don't fully understand. This was a commission and yet Leonardo kept the painting, he never delivered it to the man who commissioned it and later in Leonardo's life when he moved to France, he brought the painting with him which is why it is now in the Louvre. One question which I think we should address, is why is this the most famous image in the world? - Well, it reminds me of another very famous image of a woman that is very ambiguous and mysterious and that's the woman with the pearl earring by Vermeer from more than a century later. Perhaps, our culture has some fascination with images of mysterious women. - I think that's probably an important part of it, but then I think fame grows on itself. In 1911, the painting was stolen and it was headlines around the world and that accelerated it's fame and it has become the subject of numerous other paintings, by artists diverse as Marcel Duchamp or Andy Warhol. This raises an important issue, here's a painting that was made for a private home, to exist in a domestic interior to celebrate a man's wife, or to celebrate a specific occasion, perhaps the birth of a child or the purchasing of a new home. But here it is instead, in a huge gallery with hundreds of people. A painting that exists in million of multiples around the world. It's such an unexpected fate for what Leonardo surely saw, as a relatively minor commission. (lively music)