Leonardo’s ultimate aim was to imitate nature by remaking nature, as opposed to slavishly copying natural forms. This would require a profound understanding of the relationship between the effects of natural appearances and the underlying causes that gave rise to their form. Equipped with this knowledge, Leonardo believed he could create forms equitable to those found in nature, many of which might be of great service to man.
According to Leonardo, painting was superior to sculpture, music and poetry.
The Mona Lisa embodies all of the powers of painting that ensure its superiority. Vast distance is conveyed by changes of colour and atmosphere – a method that was the sole preserve of the painter. According to Leonardo the beauty of colour requires great artistry not required of the poet or sculptor. The control of shadows, which so successfully model the forms of Mona Lisa are supplied readily to sculpture by nature but require scientific study and knowledge on the part of the artist.
Painting is superior because it serves the noblest sense, sight. The supremacy of sight over the other senses ensures that the impression the artist creates has a more lasting effect on the memory of the viewer than music or poetry. Time destroys the beauty and harmony of nature, but not the beauty created by the painter, which time preserves for a longer time.
The eye will take pleasure in painted beauty as much as it did in the living beauty and so painting can even take the place of the original that is destroyed.
In Leonardo's words
Painter, you should know that you cannot be good if you are not a master universal enough to imitate with your art every kind of natural form, which you will not know how to do unless you observe them and retain them in your mind.
Surprisingly little is known about this small panel painting, despite the fact that it is arguably the most famous painting in the world.
However, the sitter can be identified with some confidence as Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a prominent Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo (hence the painting is sometimes referred to as “La Gioconda”) who may have commissioned it to mark his setting up home and the birth of his son, Andrea.
The picture was begun in Florence around 1503-04, where it was seen by Raphael amongst others, but was probably not finished until much later – possibly as late as 1516, by which time Leonardo was working and living in France.