May 2020 --

High Renaissance branding: Da Vinci's La Giaconda

     How do well known artists become immensely loved, hugely popular? What makes their works famous and valuable? Besides skill, passion, and dedication, an artist must acquire a mindset tuned to attracting the best commissions. Some artists achieve just as much fame independently as they do with appropriately assigned projects. Although popularity is linked to heritage and identity, anyone with the right mindset, skills, and drive can be an artist.

     However, it can be a challenge to keep up with competition and issues such as privacy and freedom of expression. It is enlightening to study artists of the past who had censorship issues. One such artist was a Renaissance creative and intellectual genius: Leonardo da Vinci, whose celebrated Mona Lisa was recently valued at six hundred and fifty million dollars. This discussion focuses on three main traits that contributed to the value of this portrait and catapulted da Vinci to stardom in the Renaissance art scene.

     In studying the life and times of Leonardo da Vinci, it becomes clear that his main conflict – like that of many other artists of his context – was censorship, pitted against his obligation to the Church – a vital patron. Despite hardship, da Vinci undoubtedly established a reputable name as an artist. One of the most significant attributes of da Vinci’s success was his aggressive branding style, which operated very much the way we brand our own businesses today. Everyone knows how essential branding is for the survival of economic highs and lows.

     Let’s start this review with a look at identity. With respect to da Vinci’s early training, we can see that heritage played a big role in career success: a wealthy notary father facilitated training. Apprenticeship themes in da Vinci’s High Renaissance context, 1452-1519, led him to integrate science and engineering with painting. Da Vinci trained with the master del Verrocchio, and studied geometry, Latin, and mathematics. By seventeen, da Vinci mastered theoretical training, technical skills, drafting, chemistry, metallurgy, plaster casting, leather work, mechanics, wood work, metal work, drawing, paint, sculpture, and modelling. Evidently, guild memberships were key to the development of Renaissance artists.

     Via storytelling, da Vinci revealed a type of branding instilled into his works that exuded a sense of intent emotion and mystery. Exploring, da Vinci once came upon a cave and was terrorized that a monster lurked inside. The young boy’s curiosity surpassed fear, and he continued to explore, sketched mountains and water. Da Vinci wrote about an incident where his father was given a shield by a customer to design. Da Vinci immediately painted a Medusa spewing flames so angrily that his father had to buy a new shield for the client. The Duke of Milan later purchased the boy’s shield for one hundred ducats, and da Vinci learned of his ability to brand and market his own art.

     Another early work further clarifies this sense of emotion and mystery: the masterpiece, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, 1480 reveals a resolution of the conflict between spirituality, self-identity, and scientific discovery. Mysticism was embedded into da Vinci’s dynamic, highly individualized style. The painting recalls ancient mysticism, and the earthy imagery seems to stress the painter as an analytical thinker. As in all da Vinci’s scenes, a love of nature is pivotal; emotion expresses inner conflict. Saint Jerome’s intense expression, proximity to land, and religious iconography reveal contemplative doubt and penitence. Da Vinci explores Christian themes through the Bible, yet pits science against religion. The Biblical character, Jerome, focuses on realism, doubting as he struggles for truth. In reality, da Vinci rejected the Church as omnipotent wisdom.

     As for the work in question, the Mona Lisa is a visual testimony to da Vinci’s novel medium and format – oil on panel -- as opposed to tempera and egg on fresco. Because these innovations were specific to da Vinci’s context, and marked the end of an artistic period, their appearance in da Vinci’s controversial portrait adds to its high value. As for portraiture, it was a highly feminized form, and one which males rarely tackled. The early work, Baptism of Christ, 1475, oil on wood, Uffizi Gallery, Florence, was begun in tempera and egg, and later retouched in oil.

    Despite da Vinci’s ability to brand art and relate it to personal experience, he did not break ties with the Church, which continued to oversee his development since tutelage under Verrocchio. Da Vinci’s genius featured a development of  Verrocchio’s sfumato technique – effect of light and shadow on objects. Therefore, individual style, technique, and clear expression all defined da Vinci’s creative identity and contributed to his success as a painter.
Church involvement in da Vinci’s public works brings a second important aspect of his work into sharp focus: market, and linked to market – patronage. Despite da Vinci’s growing demand in private sectors, painting did not offer any real competition, and so that diminished market. However, as we saw with the Medusa shield, absence of market did not mean that da Vinci lacked a capacity to acknowledge or meet the demands for private commissions. Once da Vinci did break loose as an independent painter, he excelled among his peers.

    Da Vinci’s placement as guild master at twenty, collaboration with the humanists Verrocchio, Ghirlandaio, Perugino, Botticelli, di Credi, and the Medici attests to his own elevated status as an artist. Da Vinci’s humanist circle also included Ludovico Sforza and Macchiavelli, who both supported his studies in engineering. Da Vinci’s final years were spent in France, in a home gifted by Frances I. Da Vinci was especially close to his royal patrons, Beatrice d’Este, wife of Ludovico Sforza, Milan leader during the French rule, admired da Vinci. Francis I was present when da Vinci took his final breath.

     After market, a third factor responsible for da Vinci’s success was his repeated application of a key interest – human anatomy – with content. Da Vinci’s heartfelt appreciation for the human anatomy in the Mona Lisa was due to a richly intense humanist culture. The portrait’s beautiful, fascinating subject, and her mysterious, old status and patronage caused the portrait to shake Europe’s social scene when discovered in the palace of Francis I decades later. The Mona Lisa, 1505, contributed to a high aesthetic value with respect to context: a New World Order. Lisa del Giacondo, 1479-1542, a Tuscan noblewoman, married into the honorable family of Gherardini of Montagliari. Her husband, Francesco, a silk merchant, commissioned da Vinci to paint the Mona Lisa. “La Giaconda’s” old money marked a new cultural norm emerging from times of disaster and decline: the norm featured civic duty rather than material wealth.

     The story of the prestigious Francesco Gherardini is alluring. Gherardini was elected in 1499, moved up to the signoria in 1512, and became a priori in 1524. The story of the prestigious Francesco Gherardini is alluring. When the Soderini government feared a Medici return to power, it imprisoned Gherardini; the Medici released him. But what happened to Lisa Giaconda during the time between her husband's imprisonment and his release? This is one of the greatest mysteries that still surrounds da Vinci's famous sitter. She may have sought refuge in the palace of Frances I. 

     The various mysteries that surround this magnificent portrait keep la giaconda’s spirit vibrant. What are they? One concerns the model; as several women posed for da Vinci, her identity was not immediately clear.
One thing was certain: the Mona Lisa’s novelty of format, material, and unique subject matter made for a rare, but true and popular portrait. Da Vinci skillfully wove his ancient medium of storytelling with the new High Renaissance elements of oil on panel, and portraiture. An illusionistic use of atmosphere and foreshortened space adds to La Giaconda's aura of virtue and mystery, as did her folded hands. This portrait exudes pure soul.
Another mystery surrounds the locale of the portrait’s setting. Its secrecy drew on how illusionism transformed a small space. The location was first believed to be a fictional spot near the Arno River, but was later discovered to be in Montefeltro, Marche, near two rivers.

     Da Vinci’s friendship with Luca Pacioli found its common ground in a fascination for numbers. Pacioli’s treatise, Summa de Arithmetica, included a summary of secret hand symbols. Were La Giaconda’s hands folded in such a way to convey a secret message? Mystery also surrounds its true patronage and changes of heart. Sadly, da Vinci never completed the Mona Lisa, and took it to France when he moved there. It is not clear if Gherardini changed his mind, or da Vinci himself ended the commission. One conflict probably evolved around a dispute over use of wooden panel versus the newer form, canvas.

     The High Renaissance style faded between Rafael’s demise in 1521, two years after da Vinci’s death, and the 1527 sack of Rome. Although da Vinci did accomplish great feats throughout his career as an artist, scientist, and engineer, the full scope of his artistic merit was never fully realized until the High Renaissance Style faded. Much of da Vinci’s mystery lingers due to his numerous unfinished works, such as the Mona Lisa.