In early 2007, a rash of stories appeared in the international media about the discovery of the “true” identity of the Mona Lisa. The excitement was linked to the publication of a marginal note in an early printed edition of Cicero’s Epistulae ad familiare (printed in Bologna, 1477) now in Heidelberg University Library (catalogue nos D7620 qt. /inc. (GW 6821) – and available online as are many fantastic historical resources. This note had first been published by Armin Schlecter in his entry on the edition in an exhibition catalogue of Heidelberg’s incunabula in 2005, but had not been widely noticed at that time. [Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg ed., Die edel kunst der truckerey. Ausgewählte Inkunabeln der Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg. Ausstellungskatalog, Heidelberg 2005, Nr. 20 and fig. 8]. Earlier this year, Schlecter also published an exhaustive discussion of this book and its marginal annotations in an article freely consultable online – “Ita Leonardus Vincius facit in omnibus suis picturis: Leonardo da Vincis Mona Lisa und die Cicero-Philologie von Angelo Poliziano bis Johann Georg Graevius”, IASL Online, [29.04.2008].
The annotation that has caused all the excitement was written on p. 11a of the book, alongside a section of Cicero’s text – “Apelles perfected the head and bust of his Venus with the most elaborate art, but left the rest of her body in the rough” [Nunc ut Appelles Veneris caput & summa pectoris politissima arte perfecit: reliquam partem corporis incohatam reliquit]. I read the Latin note as meaning “Apelles the painter. Thus Leonardo da Vinci does in all his paintings, as is the head of Lisa del Giocondo and of Anne, mother of the Virgin we will see what he will do in the Hall of the Great Council he now made an agreement with the gonfaloniere [Piero Soderini]. 1503, October”. [[Apelles] pictor. Ita leonar/dus uincius facit in omnibus suis / picturis. ut est Caput lisę del giocondo. et annę matris uirginis / videbimus quid faciet de aula / magni consilii. de qua re conuenit / iam cum vexillario. 1503. 8bris”]
This discovery is one of the most significant finds in Leonardo studies of recent years. To some extent, this is through confirming what we already know. Vasari’s Life of Leonardo was formerly our only source for Lisa del Giocondo being the subject of a renowned portrait by Leonardo. This contemporary reference both confirms that Vasari was correct, and confirms the date of 1503, that has generally been accepted as the start date of this portrait. Some sceptics may still point out the painting in the Louvre is not necessarily the same one as Leonardo started in Florence just over five hundred years ago, but I would guess that the majority of art historians will accept this compelling evidence for the date and identification.
It is more problematic to identify the St Anne described here with the several versions of the subject Leonardo made. It may be, as Schlecter argues, that this refers to the painting of the Virgin and Child with St Anne that Vasari says later went to France, but this needs more investigation. The “videmus quid faciet” could either be linked to Vespucci’s discussion of this painting, as Schlecter supposes, or possibly to the discussion of the Hall of the Great Council. At any rate, the note here further supports the argument put forward by Alessandro Cecchi of the centrality of Piero Soderini, the Florentine gonfaloniere a vita, in the commission for the decoration of the Great Council Hall.
The writer of the annotation, Agostino Vespucci, was well-placed to observe Leonardo’s activities in Florence. An assistant to Niccolo Machiavelli, the second chancellor of the republic, Vespucci’s name comes up as a scribe for the work Leonardo did for the government during this year, most notably his inspection of the Florentine fortress, La Verrucca, in June. It was Vespucci, too, who wrote the description of the Battle of Anghiari translated from Leonardo Dati’s Trophaeum Anglaricum that appears in the Codex Atlanticus. In late 1503, he was working as secretary to Antonio Tebalducci Giacomini,the commissioner in Romagna, potentially significant as Leonardo’s 1501 St Anne cartoon has been connected with the Tebalducci Giacomini St Anne chapel in the Annunziata. Leonardo’s place in a network of men at the centre of military affairs in Florence in the early 1500s would perhaps make him come readily to Vespucci’s mind (more on this in my article “Missed Deadlines and Creative Excuses: Fashioning Eccentricity for Leonardo and Michelangelo“).
Perhaps the most suggestive part of this new find, however, is the insight it gives us into perceptions of finish in early cinquecento painting. It is significant that Vespucci interprets the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo as being completed, despite the fact that part of the painting lack finish, are left “inchoate”. It could be that the fashion for display of drawings and unfinished works in Florence in the early sixteenth century were perceived by some of the educated elite, such as Vespucci, as referring to the practice of Apelles as noted by Cicero. In other words, could leaving works “unfinished” in itself be taken as a sign of artistry?