The idea that Leonardo could be aroused by a woman at all is a bit of a surprise. This is not the image of him that has come down to us. Ever since Renaissance witnesses recorded that he loved to surround himself with beautiful young men, his homosexuality has been an open secret. This view of Leonardo is essentially true, but it does leave something out. All his life, the painter was passionately involved with women – on canvas, at least. It was not just that Leonardo liked to portray women (of his five surviving portraits, four are of women; the fifth is of a young musician). It has to do with the way he chose to depict women, the way he showed them to be fully rounded human beings. While earlier Renaissance artists had sculpted and painted profoundly characterful portraits of men, when they turned their attention to women, they seemed obsessed only with exterior beauty.
The Mona Lisa has captivated people for centuries because her smile is so elusive; from one angle, she seems to be smiling, but when you look directly at her lips, her smile appears to flatten. It’s really a clever visual trick, in which subtle blending of colors exploits our peripheral vision. It has always been thought that Leonardo took three years to paint his portrait of Lisa Gherardini, nicknamed La Gioconda, from 1503 to 1506. But evidence has surfaced that he actually took 16 years, and that he was still dabbing at her when he died in 1519. This would place the portrait in Leonardo’s late period, and would explain why it never belonged to Francesco del Giocondo, the sitter’s husband, even though he commissioned it.