Literary Invention in the Mona Lisa:
Leonardo, Horace, and  Petrarch

Ross S. Kilpatrick

Celebrations for the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (La Gioconda, La Joconde: oil on panel, 76.8 x 53 cm.) were planned for 2003 at the Louvre. All the web pages, technical and popular books, articles, novels, reviews and television documentaries devoted to this one painting might not augur well for further discoveries, whether of date, authorship or composition, the sitter’s identity or smile, or the weird landscape behind her. Along with aesthetic, cosmological, sociological, Freudian and “self-portrait” theories, her smile has generated  diagnoses of pregnancy, hyperthyroidism, strabismus, Bell’s palsy, hypoplasia, toothache, loss of front teeth, and bruxism.

Kenneth Clark saw little purpose in philological analysis of this painting. Yet the stark  disjuncture between the smiling woman seated on a loggia, and the desolate, complex, detached landscape with bridge, road and waters, extending below and behind her toward distant Alps, might be interpreted as poetic invention, an approach Leon Battista Alberti commended to painters in his Della pittura (1435) for composing their istorie. Leonardo could have found a similar concordia discors of images in two poets he knew: in Horace’s Integer vitae (Ode 1. 22) and the two sonnets of Petrarch (Canzoniere CXLV, CLIX) it inspired. Both poets celebrated unswerving devotion to “sweetly-laughing, sweetly-speaking” sweethearts –  Lalage and Laura – vowing to adore and praise them in verse from the damp gloomy north to the sun-scorched deserts.

The Mona Lisa demonstrates superbly three great principles of Renaissance painting –  mimesis of nature, rational knowledge, and imagination. The other essential  guide for painters- was antiquity, and the poetic smile of Horace’s Lalage may interfuse in Leonardo’s “masterpiece, the revealing instance of his mode of thought and work” (Walter Pater) with Petrarch’s Laura, Dante’s Matilda and Beatrice, and Landino’s Ginevra de’ Benci.

John Gwyn Griffiths. “Leonardo and the Latin Poets.” Classica and Mediaevalia 16 (1955): 268-276.

Donald Sassoon. The Making of Mona Lisa. New York: Harcourt Inc., 2001.

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