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University of Heidelberg

Mona Lisa – Heidelberg discovery confirms identity

The discovery of a handwritten comment in a manuscript held by the library of Heidelberg University, allows the dating of Leonardo’s most famous painting and the identification of the subject as Lisa del Giocondo.

Incunabulum with handwritten comment about the Mona Lisa: Heidelberg, University Library, D 7620 qt. INC.: Cicero, Epistolae ad familiares, Bologna 1477, Bl. 11a
LupeIncunabulum with handwritten comment about the Mona Lisa:
Heidelberg, University Library, D 7620 qt. INC.:
Cicero, Epistolae ad familiares, Bologna 1477, Bl. 11a

Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of a young woman is recognised as the most famous painting in the world. The identification of the subject as Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, is based upon accounts by Giorgio Vasari (1511-74). His account of the artist’s life which first appeared in 1550 is the only source up to now to name the subject and which also allowed an approximate dating of between 1503 and 1506, which means this identification came nearly 50 years after the painting. There have been doubts up to this day about the validity of these comments, as Vasari is known for his anecdotal tendancies. Leonardo himself makes no mention of the Mona Lisa in his sketches and notice books.

Vague references from other sources dated 1517, 1525 and 1540 leave a lot of room for interpretation, and have led to the existence of various other theories about the identity of the subject. One possibility that has been discussed is the presentation of a fictional portrait, a pictorial representation of the ideal woman.

All doubts about the identify of the Mona Lisa have been dispelled by a discovery made by Dr. Armin Schlechter, whilst cataloguing a Heidelberg manuscript (Shelf mark D 7620 gt. INC). Together with a brief commentary it was noted in the catalogue for an incunabula exhibition of the University Library in May 2005.

The Cicero edition, published in 1477 contains a comment from the Florentine chancellery official Agostino Vespucci, who compared Leonardo with the great classical painter Apelles. He states that Leonardo was currently working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Vespucci’s notes in the margin from October 1503 permit an exact dating of the painting and definitely confirms Vasari’s comment from 1550 that the subject was Lisa del Giocondo.

It is to be expected that various publications about this discovery and its meaning for research into the history of art will follow.

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