the other in the National Gallery in London, c. 1508), show this type of composition even more clearly. The
pyramidal composition is a variation on the triangular composition often seen in fifteenth-century
paintings; it gives the most important figure even greater importance by setting it higher than the other
figures and in the center of the work. By making the Virgin of the Rocks a more three-dimensional
composition, Leonardo set the group more naturally into the space of the painting.
The Mona Lisa is surely the most recognized portrait of the Renaissance. No one is certain who the sitter
was, and some art historians have suggested that this is an image of the nature of woman—not any
particular woman. When compared to earlier portraits, like Piero della Francesca’s portrait of Battista
Sforza, which was painted around 1470 (about thirty years before the Mona Lisa), you can easily see how
unusual Leonardo’s painting is. Both women are set before a distant landscape, but that is the only
similarity between the two works. Battista Sforza is dressed in elaborate brocades, she wears fine jewelry,
and her hair is interwoven with satin ribbons that rise into a complicated knot at the back of her head. She
is shown in profile, starkly pale and lifeless—indeed, this painting was probably made as a memorial to her
just after she died. On the back of the panel, an allegorical scene shows that Battista was a virtuous woman,
faithful to her husband and her religion.
Piero della Francesa, Portrait of
Battista Sforza, 1465-72.
Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa, c. 1503
The woman we call Mona Lisa, on the other hand, is seated in a three-quarter view, which was rarely used
for portraits of women at this time. The pose itself makes her appear more lifelike, but Leonardo went
further, softening the lines around her mouth and eyes so that we imagine them to be moving. He used
very dark shadows on her face and body that are softly blended like smoke—a technique called sfumato.
This shadowing helps viewers see Mona Lisa as connected to the background, rather than existing separate
from it. Leonardo avoided all the trappings of wealth and fashion and any other signs that might tell us
who Mona Lisa was or how virtuous she might have been.
For more information about the Mona Lisa, explore this feature on the Louvre’s website.