La Donna Velata and the Mona Lisa—these two Renaissance ladies have graced the art world with their presences since the 1500’s. One painted by Raphael on canvas and the other painted by Da Vinci on paneling—they can both tell us a lot about the time in which they were painted and the way in which we now study art. Despite the fact that both paintings are well known, they can still provide a few entertaining surprises and interesting conversations in a classroom.
I thought that this blog’s second week in existence might be a good time to showcase my favorite painting: Lady with a Veil or La Donna Velata or La Velata by Raphael. Now, I know that it may seem like I am confused about the name, but actually I am talking about a single painting that happens to have several possible names. Even though I believe it is generally referred to as Lady with a Veil (at least in America), I have almost completely adopted La Donna Velata as it is much more successful as a search term. Don’t believe me—just try Googling Lady with a Veil and see just how many entries you get that have absolutely nothing to do with the Renaissance master Raphael. If you’re wondering why I would need to Google it frequently…when I teach introductory humanities, I like to show the students a lot of oil painting examples. Online versions (particularly high resolution ones) tend to be better than those on PowerPoints because they are easier to zoom in on all of the details. If you find a particularly good image, you can sometimes see the brushstrokes and even any cracks that age might have left in the painting’s surface.
But, I digress and should get back to the point of this article—the paintings. La Donna Velata is a painting that overlaps the creation of the much more famous Mona Lisa; and as such, it makes a great point of comparison when studying Da Vinci’s lady with the mysterious smile. I must confess that I think Raphael did a better job although I know that it is nearly a humanities’ sacrilege to doubt the consummate skill of Da Vinci. I just prefer the much brighter and clearer coloration on La Donna Velata, and I think that Raphael did a better job on his lady’s veil than did Da Vinci on the Mona Lisa. To be fair, however, I do believe that Raphael had an advantage in that he chose to paint on canvas rather than wood. If the Mona Lisa did not have to be varnished (or whatever outrageously expensive equivalent that the Louvre uses) to mitigate existing cracks and prevent further cracking in the wood paneling on which she is painted, her colors would undoubtedly be more vibrant. As for the veil, the blame for the weaknesses in the one that the Mona Lisa wears may well be also laid at the feet of that varnish. I am constantly amazed at the number of students that think that the Mona Lisa is in possession of a really terrible head of straight “helmet hair,” and I love to amaze them by zooming in and showing them that the lady actually has brown curls that have been covered with a black veil.
Another point that generally gets some comment from a class is the fact that the Mona Lisa is missing eyebrows completely. Don’t believe me—go and check—I’ll wait. The eyes are completely amazing (in my humble opinion, far more compelling than the more famous smile), but there is neither brow nor lash to be seen anywhere. While I make no claims to being an expert on the ladies’ fashions of the Renaissance, I somehow doubt that the fashion of the day dictated that a woman both shave her eyebrows and pluck out her eyelashes. Also, La Donna Velata has both eyelashes and eyebrows; and since she is a contemporary of the Mona Lisa, that seems to discount the fashion theory. This strange lack could have something to do with the fact that Da Vinci worked on this painting for something like 10-15 years. In fact it was with him when he died, and I’ve wondered if maybe he was unhappy with the brows and lashes, and took them off to adjust their look; and then he died before he could fix them. There’s some evidence that they’ve been painted over, and at least one researcher has blamed restorers at some point in the past for fixing cracks and changing the content.
As for the ladies themselves, we don’t know much about the subject of the Mona Lisa. Some people believe that she was the wife of a silk merchant, and there was an effort a while back to exhume a body to do a facial reconstruction; but the last time I checked, that effort had hit a snag. The History Channel occasionally suggests that she is a self portrait of Da Vinci in drag, but I am…less than convinced by their arguments (it always makes a class laugh, however). La Donna Velata has a much more interesting story—she is believed to be Raphael’s mistress (who was also a bakeress), at least in part because a nude version of her painting was hanging in his bedroom when he died.
In spite of the mystery behind these ladies—or maybe because of it—these two paintings have stood the proverbial test of time. They are as interesting as they are aesthetically amazing. Hopefully, they will be confusing and entertaining the art world (and introductory humanities classes) for another 500+ years.
If you want more info:
This article talks about the Mona Lisa’s eyebrows (or lack thereof):
PBS did a special on the La Bella Principessa painting that includes a possible look at what the Mona Lisa looked like when she was new (here’s both the dvd and the Amazon video/if you purchase either using this link, I’ll get a commission):