Lisa or Caterina : Who was Mona

00:00 Sun 17th Mar 2002 The AnswerBank

Q. So, what's new

A. A respected German art historian, Magdalena Soest, reckons she's discovered the true identity of Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait - and the world's most famous painting - the Mona Lisa. Now housed in the Louvre in Paris, the picture was painted between 1500 and 1506. It was a favourite of Leonardo himself, and the identity of the wearer of the 'mystic smile' of the song has intrigued people for over 500 years.

Q. So, who is it

A. Ms Soest thinks it is a picture of Caterina Sforza, one of the most celebrated Italian women of her day, and something of an icon to modern feminists.

Q. Who was Caterina Sforza

A. Caterina was the illegitimate daughter Galeazzo Maria Sforza. The Sforza family ruled the Duchy of Milan between 1450 and 1535. Rising from peasant origins, the Sforzas became condottieri - mercenary leaders - and used this military position to become rulers in the Duchy. They governed by force - and have thus often been compared in their methods to the M�dici in Florence - but under their rule the city-state flourished and expanded.

Caterina was born 1462 or 1463. She left for Rome after her father's death and married Girolamo Riaria, lord of the cities of Imola and Forl� and a nephew of Pope Sixtus IV . When the pope died in 1484 the Riarios failed in a bid to install their own candidate, though Riaria and Caterina seized control of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome during the turmoils surrounding the papal succession. In Forl� it was Caterina who issued justice, especially after the revolt in 1487 in which her husband failed to do anything. After Girolamo was murdered in 1488, Caterina ruled Imola and Forl� until she lost them to Cesare Borgia in 1499. Caterina was also involved in a plot to poison the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. She was then captured and imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo for one year. Caterina died in Florence in 1509 at the age of 46.

Something of a celebrated beauty, she was equally celebrated for her courage and known as 'the Virago'. In all, she married three times - her second husband was Giovanni de'M�dici - had 11 children and countless lovers.

Q. What's the evidence for Lisa being Caterina

The new theory is based on a comparison between the Mona Lisa and a portrait known to be of Caterina painted by Lorenzo de Credi in 1487. Caterina would have been 25 at the time - so 15 years younger than she would have been in da Vinci's painting - but there are enough similarities in the physiognomy and general demeanour to lend credence to the theory. Ms Soest has been formulating her ideas over the last 5 years, and has undertaken extensive research in comparing between facial features such as the nose, hair, lips and cheek structure in order to arrive at her conclusion.

The findings were reported in the German newspaper Bild Zeitung, which reproduced the two portraits side by side. Magdalena Soest says of her findings: 'I wholeheartedly believe that Caterina and Mona Lisa are one and the same person. My studies over the last five years have led me to believe that there is no better explanation.' And people are taking her seriously.

Q. Why do we call the painting the Mona Lisa, then

A. Because up to now the accepted identity of the subject in the picture has been that of Lisa del Giocondo, known as Monna (the Italian contraction for Madonna) Lisa or la Gioconda, which is also the alternative name for the painting.

Q. What do we know about Lisa del Giocondo

A. Not a great deal, though her husband was something of a bigwig in Florentine society. She was born Lisa Gherardini into the petty nobility on Tuesday 15 June 1479. In 1495, when she had turned 16, her father married her to the 35-year old Francesco di Bartolomeo de Zanobi del Giocondo on the strength of a 170 florin dowry. By the time the picture was painted she had already given birth to one girl, already deceased, and two healthy boys.

Q. What other theories have there been as to the sitter's identity

A. Suggestions have ranged from unnamed prostitutes to da Vinci himself in drag, but la Gioconda has remained the most compelling until now.

You can see the Bild Zeitung comparison on Guardian Unlimited at http://www.guardian.co.uk/international/story/0,3604,667260,00.html

See also the answerbank article on the history of the Mona Lisa

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

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