Poetry News

Mona Lisa must have had the Arezzo bridge blues

By Harriet Staff

If you've ever wondered what the Mona Lisa is smiling about, Queen's University professor Ross Kilpatrick might have an answer. Hiding in the landscape behind her is the bridge from Petrarch's hometown of Arezzo and other clues that may indicate that Leonardo da Vinci was employing "invention"—the "technique of taking a passage from literature and incorporating it into a work of art," not of making flying machines.

Dr. Kilpatrick believes Leonardo is alluding to Horace’s "Ode 1. 22 (Integer vitae)" and two sonnets by Petrarch ("Canzoniere CXLV," "CLIX"). Like the Mona Lisa, those three poems celebrate a devotion to a smiling young woman, with vows to love and follow the woman anywhere in the world, from damp mountains to arid deserts. The regions mentioned by Horace and Petrarch are similar to the background of the Mona Lisa.

Kilpatrick notes that “The Mona Lisa was made at a time when great literature was well known. It was quoted, referenced and celebrated,” but he's also found plenty of other quotations in (relatively) more contemporary work.

Dr. Kilpatrick has been looking at literary references in art for the past 20 years. He has recently found references to the mythical wedding of Greek gods Ariadne and Dionysus in Gustav Klimt’s famous painting "The Kiss."

Originally Published: January 6th, 2011