Mona Lisa is not Mona Lisa: On Da Vinci’s Life, Sexuality, and Inspiration.
In this article I will take you deep inside Leonardo’s life, psychology, sexuality, and art. Aside from trying to establish the real identity of Mona Lisa and what she meant for Leonardo, I will also reveal who was the model Da Vinci used for St. Anne, who he used for his Christ (Salvator Mundi), and suggest that two paintings currently not attributed to Da Vinci have been likely painted by him (at least in part). I will provide you with plenty of visual evidence in support of my theory.
My work is not academic, it was originally published on my Instagram in five posts that are less detailed and accurate. I am just an obscure Italian artist with no reputation to defend, which gives me freedoms others can’t easily take. This doesn’t mean I haven’t been diligent in my research: to my best knowledge the historical reconstruction I present here is accurate.
We all recognise Leonardo as a great genius but we seem to struggle to understand him as a man and an artist. Let’s make this effort.
1. The Naked Mona Lisa
It all started when I saw this painting, Monna Vanna, also known as «Naked Mona Lisa», which to my eyes was a work by Leonardo, attributed in recent times to a certain Salai (although it is accepted that Leonardo contributed at least in part to it).
Salai was a disciple of Leonardo, son of a farmer who worked on Da Vinci’s family land. Leonardo took him home when he was just ten, as his servant, and they lived together for the rest of Da Vinci’s life. Salai is a nickname Leonardo gave him which stands for «little devil» (he was apparently ill-tempered as a child). His real name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti.
I am not sure why this Naked Mona Lisa, whose preparatory sketch was recently recognised as Leonardo’s, is attributed to Salai. No known signed painting from Salai exists (apart from one exception I will discuss later), no record of art commission for him was ever found, and when at the French court with Leonardo he was registered as «servant» and receiving 1/4 of the salary of the other «gentleman» who was always by Leonardo’s side, Francesco Melzi, who joined the Italian master at the age of 14.
2. Leonardo’s Sexuality
What we know for sure about Leonardo’s sexuality is that when he was a young artist working for Verrocchio someone anonymously denounced him for sodomy (big deal at the time) along with other guys. It ended up in nothing, for bureaucratic reasons perhaps facilitated by the influence of the father of one of the guys (Tornabuoni, connected to the Medici family). We also know that Leonardo never married and never seem to have manifested interest in women.
Freud wrote a book about Leonardo in which he analysed a recurrent dream the artist claimed to have since birth. In this dream there was a bird of prey (a «nibbio») coming to his cradle and using its tail to open his mouth and ramming its tail inside of it. Freud’s interpretation: it was a dream about oral sex, with the tail symbolising a penis.
Freud went deeper than that and also saw in that bird of prey a symbol of divine motherhood, going as far as suggesting that Leonardo had a strong drive to be a mother. Leonardo was indeed a motherly figure for his disciples, when they were sick he would be by their side, personally taking care of them.
Some believe that his love for Salai was just platonic. Religious sources in particular don’t seem to like to associate an artist who could deliver such heavenly beauty with sex, especially if homosexual.
The sketch from Leonardo below, found in 1991, kind of smashes their puritan view. The subject is Salai posing like St. John Baptist (for which he was the model) with an erected penis.
It is widely recognised that Leonardo, often surrounded by young, beautiful, and androgynous guys, chose his disciples based on their aspect rather than their skills.
Vasari describes Salai as «a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted» and Melzi as «very beautiful and very much loved young man».
Was Vasari being sarcastic and subtly alluding to Leonardo’s sexual preferences? It appears that few decades after the death of Leonardo, at the time Vasari wrote, the gossip about his sexuality was stronger than today.
In 1563 Giampaolo Lomazzo (quoted by Vasari in his chapter about Leonardo) wrote an imaginary dialogue between Leonardo and Fidia in which Leonardo praises homosexual love. Lomazzo also makes Leonardo speak about Salai «who more than anyone else in life I loved, and I loved many». Fidia asks directly whether he sodomized Salai, to which Leonardo replies: «Yes, and so many times! Consider that he was a very beautiful young man aged 15”.
I think it’s probable that Leonardo, after being accused of sodomy, became more prudent in living his sexual life (although as seen there was very explicit gossip about him not long after his death).
Leonardo must have decided that the best way to live his love and sexual life freely was to take home some young guy he fancied as his searvant/scholar, infusing in him his wisdom and sense of beauty, shaping him into becoming a great mirror for him, and a perfect lover. Or at least I believe he had a similar ambition, possibly inspired by the Ancient Greek ideal of love between teacher and student (in real life I suspect that the guys, Salai in particular, had considerable power over him).
It’s hard for me to understand how today there are still people not accepting Leonardo’s homosexuality. And those who accept it (the majority to be fair) tend to minimise its importance.
As I’ll try to show Leonardo’s love for Salai was not a small detail to hide under the carpet, it was at the foundation of his art and therefore essential to better understand some of his works.
3. A Spiritual Love
The love Leonardo had for Salai was in my view beyond homosexual. I believe he saw in his pupil an incarnation of divine beauty, the more dark, sensual, and mysterious side of it.
What I am suggesting is that Leonardo, when painting a sacred figure, used Salai as his model in more occasions, also for females, because Salai connected him to that mystery.
Lot has been speculated around the mysterious figure of St. Anne in Leonardo’s cartoon (now in London’s National Gallery) but to my knowledge it has never been suggested that she could have been modelled after Salai.
In the comparison above between St. Anne and Salai the resemblance of the face is striking. That character speaks of the mystery of the divine, which in Leonardo’s mind as I suggest was associated to his beloved Salai. He was his gateway to sacred beauty.
To reinforce my theory that St. Anne is in reality Salai I made a further comparison between his face and other versions of St. Anne made by Da Vinci.
Going back to the previous picture, notice how both characters have a finger pointing upwards, which is a recurrent theme in Leonardo’s works. The general consensus is that it has a religious meaning (i.e. coming of Christ, heavenly will), which I dispute. If it truly had a conventional religious meaning for Leonardo, then he was quite a blasphemous man for associating it with an erected penis.
Leonardo was not an artist that would paint something just to please conventions, plus that gesture was rather unconventional in art. We know he was into riddles and hidden messages, it must have had a special meaning for him.
For what I observed (please correct me if I am wrong) the few characters Leonardo ever painted with the finger pointing upwards all look like Salai, exception made for one of the apostles in the last supper (possibly St.Thomas), but that was an earlier work.
I suggest that in Leonardo’s mind the secret meaning of that finger pointing upwards could have been: «I am an angel coming from the sky, I am a messenger of divine beauty and love, I am Salai».
4. Leonardo’s Muse
In my elaboration below I compare Salai (left, as St. John) with a sketch for the Naked Mona Lisa recently attributed to Da Vinci (right). Her figure perfectly coincides with the Naked Mona Lisa I showed you earlier, currently attributed to Salai.
We consider Salai as painter who could produce remarkable works but as previously said no signed painting nor record of art commission for him was ever found.
One painting signed Salai actually exists, a Christ figure that recently emerged. It was purchased by Caprotti (same surname as Salai), an Italian entrepreneur who donated it to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana before his death. Mr. Caprotti from Esselunga («Long S») fiercely tried to convince the Pinacoteca that the author of that Christ was in reality Leonardo and not his namesake but they didn’t believe him. After all the name Salai is painted on a corner, why doubting the authorship?
Let’s go back to the pic. Look at the face of that Christ you can see emerging in the middle, it’s the one from Caprotti’s Christ. Doesn’t it look a lot like Salai? According to Pinacoteca Ambrosiana that is the face of Salai, so we should be safe in this interpretation.
What a powerful personality this Salai must have had, painting a portrait of himself as Jesus Christ! Don’t you find it strange that an artist with similar mastery and ego is mostly remembered for his lovely curly hair of which Leonardo was fond?
There is obviously another explanation: Leonardo painted that Christ, at least in part, and used once again Salai as model for his sacred figures. The reason why it’s signed Salai might be that Leonardo needed to justify his constant presence and their graceful dynamic, therefore he led some people to believe that Salai was an artist from his school (which he was but differently from Melzi it’s dubious that he ever produced anything masterful).
Signing some work as Salai, even if the quality of the work was mostly dependant on Leonardo’s hand, was a good cover. Let’s not forget that if their homosexual relation was proved they would have been sentenced to death. Vasari’s memories seem to support this version when he says that Leonardo «taught him (Salai) many things about art, and some works which in Milan are attributed to Salai were in reality retouched by Leonardo».
Like Mr. Caprotti I see Leonardo’s hand in that Christ, which to my knowledge is the only existing work signed Salai. If there are works from Leonardo’s disciples where the Master’s hand is most likely to be present, those are the ones from Salai because he was his favourite lover (and probably not a great painter).
But there is more. Let’s have a look at Salvator Mundi, attibuted to Da Vinci, which I compare here to Caprotti’s Christ. It’s evident that Salvator Mundi was also modeled after Salai, which to my knowledge no one has suggested so far.
5. Mona Lisa is not Mona Lisa
On the picture below you can see a comparison between Salai as a young man and Mona Lisa. Also in this case the resemblance is striking: same nose and same mouth, and also the eyes and the shape of the face are similar. It is so evident that I am far from being the first to suggest that Mona Lisa in reality is Salai (although I reached this conclusion independently and only later discovered that others were suggesting it).
We call it Mona Lisa because Vasari mentioned it as a commission from the husband of Lisa Gherardini. But if you ask Louvre whether the painting they have is Mona Lisa they will tell you they cannot be sure.
The portrait of Lisa Gherardini was probably left unfinished (as reported by Vasari) and subsequently lost, although according to Vasari it reached the king of France. It wouldn’t be the the only painting from Leonardo that disappeared there, also his Abduction of Proserpina and Leda Standing vanished.
It is today accepted by most critics that Leonardo painted two Mona Lisa: a younger one (Isleworth or Earlier Mona Lisa), and the Louvre one. I believe there is at least a third one, the Naked Mona Lisa I have shown at the beginning. They all were modelled after Salai, but I don’t exclude that Salai’s face was mixed with Da Vinci’s.
It is uncertain whether the Louvre painting was commissioned by anyone, it is something Leonardo brought around with him and Salai most likely inherited.
There is an historical witness, Antonio De Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi of Aragon, who reports their meeting with Leonardo in France on 10 October 1517. The old Da Vinci showed him three paintings:
One of certain Florentine lady, painted from the model, at the request of the late Magnificent Guiliano de’ Medici, another of St. John the Baptist, young, and one of the Madonna with the child sitting on the knees of St. Anne, all three being of a rare perfection and thoroughly finished.
The first painting De Beatis mentioned is very likely to be what today we call Mona Lisa. Leonardo told him that it was commissioned by Giuliano de’ Medici but there are no other historical records supporting this claim. Plus, if it was commissioned by one of the Medici family, why was it in Leonardo’s hands along with the other two paintings?
Those three masterpieces that have been shown in France all have something in common if we follow my interpretation: they all use Salai as a model. Before his death, Leonardo most likely gave those paintings to Salai. There are records of Salai giving four paintings to the king of France few months later (before June 1518) receiving a huge amount of money in return. They must have been the paintings De Beatis saw, as a matter of fact after Leonardo’s death they were all with the King of France.
In Leonardo’s will, written one year later, there is no mention to those paintings that for sure were with him two years earlier. Salai didn’t inherit much from Leonardo compared to Melzi, which seems strange considering how strong was their bond. But as mentioned Salai made a fortune for himself the year before thanks to those masterpieces. I suggest the reason why Leonardo gave them to Salai was because in his mind they belonged to him more than anyone else because he was the muse and subject for Mona Lisa, St. John, and St. Anne.
What we call Mona Lisa is in my view the most powerful expression of the divine Leonardo was capable of, achieved through minimal use of symbolism and gesture, infusing in one enigmatic dark lady the wholeness of a feminine Trinity in which the child was Salai (perhaps also Leonardo), the mother was Leonardo, and the more mysterious witchy side (which Christians in their patriarchal version of the Trinity call Holy Ghost) was again Salai. This vision brings my mind back to Leonardo’s cartoon. It’s like Mother Mary and St. Anne (who almost appear as one body with two heads) completed their fusion and absorbed also Baby Jesus to become one: Mona Lisa.
Through Salai Leonardo was able to achieve a miraculous unity which is what makes Mona Lisa (which Leonardo kept on evolving as a subject throughout his life) one of the greatest achievements in art.
I don’t think Leonardo rationalised it exactly in these terms, that’s my psychological and spiritual interpretation of it five centuries later. But I think it’s safe to assume that the subject which today we call Mona Lisa had particular artistic and spiritual value for him. He developed it for a couple of decades (see earlier and naked versions) and kept it for himself along with St. John and St. Anne, all as suggested based on Salai. We are speaking of some of the greatest paintings of his time, Leonardo would have had no problem in selling them to kings, but he preferred to keep them.
Leonardo didn’t care much about fame and fortune, he was more concerned with knowledge and perfection in art. He was a man who would buy caged birds just to free them and chose not to eat meat centuries before vegetarianism and animal rights became a topic in the west (not even saints were doing that at the time). He lived his sexuality freely in an age in which he could receive a death sentence for it. He was an enlightened man who lived by his own natural philosophy and didn’t follow conventions.
While I accept that my interpretation is in some points quite original, all the evidence I have shown should strongly suggest that Salai was for Leonardo more than a lover: he was his muse. Sacred subjects like St. John, St. Anne, Christ, and Mona Lisa (I consider her the most spiritual of the pack) appear to have been all based on him, irregardless of gender.
Salai may have not been a great painter himself but he indirectly had a profound influence on Leonardo’s art. Without him Mona Lisa may have never been painted.
Appendix: Why Mona Lisa cannot be Lisa Gherardini
Different sources confirm that Leonardo have worked on the portrait of Lisa Gherardini around 1503, which in my view is not conclusive evidence that either the earlier or Louvre’s Mona Lisa are based on her. I would add there are serious reasons to doubt it. First of all, all sources mentioning Lisa Del Giocondo’s portrait report it as unfinished, while here we have finished paintings. Secondly, why would he do an aged version of Lisa Gherardini a decade later? There is no evidence suggesting that he went back to paint her again. And why is there a naked version of her, in which her body appears as quite masculine?
If that is Lisa Gherardini, Leonardo must have been truly obsessed with her for working on all those different versions of her through the years. Was he? Records suggest that he did the portrait of Lisa Gherardini just because he needed money but once he got the Anghiari commission he couldn’t be bothered about it and left it unfinished.
The idea that Leonardo painted an aged Lisa Gherardini based on his anatomical studies and his theories about aging, or that (as Isacsoon proposes) the secret of her smile is all the corpses he dissected, sounds to me a bit too forceful and rationalistic. Artists achieve their highest peaks through human passions and love, through their muse, not through a cold rational process. As I have shown Salai was very likely to be Leonardo’s love and muse, which makes my theory provide once again a simple explanation: Mona Lisa aged because also the model she was based upon aged. Leonardo had a model who was always next to him: Salai.
The Earlier Mona Lisa seems to have been painted around the time Leonardo was working on the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, which is perhaps the strongest argument in support of the identification.
Vasari describes the portrait of Lisa Del Giocondo this way:
The eyebrows, through his having shown the hairs spring from the flesh, here more close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the flesh, could not be more natural.
Which eyebrows was he talking about? Neither the Earlier Mona Lisa nor the Louvre one have hairy eyebrows, in the Earlier one they are just a barely visible thin line in which no hair can be recognised. In the original Italian text Vasari says they were in part “folti” (“thick”).
How could Vasari be so impressed by a detail that simply doesn’t exist, not even using a lot of imagination? The only explanation is that he was talking about another painting. This detail appears to me as strong evidence that neither the Louvre Mona Lisa nor the Earlier Mona Lisa are Lisa Gherardini (or any other Lisa, we gave her this name based on an assumption).
Who commissioned the Earlier Mona Lisa? My answer to this is: nobody. Leonardo painted her out of his own initiative, as for St. John, St. Anne, and the Louvre Mona Lisa. All paintings he was keeping for himself, all using Salai as a model according to my theory. Even in France, when he showed them to De Beatis and the Cardinal, he had no intention to sell them, he was just looking for sponsorship. He separated from them just before dying and gave them to Salai.
The reason why Leonardo was keeping those paintings, according to my theory, is that they had personal and spiritual value for him because of Salai. He probably considered them among his best artistic achievements, or at least the best in his possession since they are the ones he showed to the Cardinal and De Beatis to represent his art. He could have easily sold them and earn a lot of money, like Salai later did, but he didn’t want to.
If he was not keen of separating from some of his paintings for the above reasons, it is unlikely that he would have separated from the Earlier Mona Lisa too. Possibly it was with him in France, but only showed one of them to De Beatis. For sure it was not in Florence at the time Vasari wrote. The fact that Leonardo was vague and contradictory (at least in relation to Vasari’s account) about the Florentine lady he showed to De Beatis once again finds an explanation in my theory. Leonardo couldn’t explain the real nature of that painting and the value it had for him so he led people to believe she was a generic Florentine lady. A lady that kept obsessing him for more than a decade and that he was not up to separate from until right before his death, when he finally gave her to the person that, in his artist mind, she belonged to.
In conclusion, my impression is that the traditional theory that identifies Mona Lisa as Lisa Gherardini has important weaknesses. It is based on some historical mentions, but as I hope I have shown if we take Lisa Gherardini for granted we are forced to make a number of acrobatic historical assumptions. In my theory instead the story seems to flow without important contradictions, a lot of dots just seems to connect.
The only big gap that remains to be filled would be: where is the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the one with the hairy natural eyebrows? To this I don’t have an answer but it may well have been lost if we accept that it was left unfinished as records suggest (it wouldn’t be the only one that got lost).