In Praise of Leonardo da Vinci and his ‘Mona Lisa’: Pater’s Famous Description of La Gioconda


Walter Pater (1839-94) is now remembered primarily as Oscar Wilde’s tutor at Oxford, and for one or two famous paragraphs in his most important book The Renaissance. Here is Pater’s oft-quoted description of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, in which art criticism took off into the realms of poetry. Some might regard this as a “purple passage”, but the Victorians were uniformly enthused by it and considered it one of the most evocative examples of English prose.

“She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands.The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.” 

Click HERE to see the picture of the Mona Lisa again in an expanded version.

One cannot help wondering what Leonardo himself would have made of Pater’s bravura description of the Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile. Allow me to copy a few passages from my copy of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters (1550). Here he is speaking of Leonardo:

“. . . Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”

Renaissance Man


—  Leonardo, who bought birds in cages to set them free: “Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone’s affection. He owned, one might say, nothing and he worked very little, yet he always kept servants as well as horses. These gave him great pleasure as indeed did all the animal creation which he treated with wonderful love and patience. For example, often when he was walking past the places where birds were sold he would pay the price asked, and take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom.”

—  Leonardo, who never forgot a face:  “I must mention another habit of Leonardo’s: he was always fascinated when he saw a man of striking appearance, with a strange head of air or a beard; and anyone who attracted him he would follow about all day long and end up seeing so clearly in his mind’s eye that when he got home he could draw him as if he were standing there in the flesh. There are many drawings of both male and female heads which he did in this way.”

—  Leonardo and the Mona Lisa:  “For Francesco del Giocondo Leonardo undertook to execute the portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. He worked on this painting for four years, and then left it still unfinished…. Altogether this picture was painted in a manner to make the most confident artist—no matter who—despair and lose heart. Leonardo also made use of this device: while he was painting Mona Lisa, who was a very beautiful woman, he employed singers and musicians or jesters to keep her full of merriment and so chase away the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits. As a result, in this painting of Leonardo’s there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and all those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original.”

— From Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Leonardo da Vinci (trans. George Bull, 1965)

Lasha Darkmoon

Dr Lasha Darkmoon (b.1978) is an Anglo-American ex-academic with higher degrees in Classics whose political articles and poems have been translated into several languages. Most of her political essays can be found at The Occidental Observer and The TruthSeeker. Her own website,, is now within the top 1 percent of websites in the world according to the Alexa ranking system.

24 thoughts to “In Praise of Leonardo da Vinci and his ‘Mona Lisa’: Pater’s Famous Description of La Gioconda”

  1. Thanks for this refreshing interlude between unpleasant topics, Lasha! La Gioconda has always had my admiration! She is the standard by which beauty and grace are measured in art. (I have often thought that Leonardo might have captured this essence by accident of his great talent, rather than by original intent.)

  2. I don’t like this article as it’s a sneaky attempt to glorify the Christian culture of the hated White race. Why can’t you post something celebrating the achievements of paganism and of persons of color?

    Ms Darkmoon’s narrow focus on an untalented Italian artist no one has even heard of, a bearded guy who bought birds in cages and then let them fly free, makes me pretty angry. What is this? Is she into beards or what? Is she trying to plug beards? This could be a sneaky way of putting in a good word for Muslim terrorists. All those guys have beards, right?

    I keep a budgie in a cage myself. Rupert is his name. And I’m not gonna be so damn silly as to open the cage door and let Rupert fly off by himself. That’s cruel. He would be eaten by some big bird like a hawk right away. And he wouldn’t be able to find the right food to eat.

    So the way I look at it, this Leonardo character was a bit of a chump. He should have been reported to PETA for animal cruelty. If you buy a bird in a cage, it’s your duty to look after it. By letting it fly free, Leonardo was shelving his responsibilities to look after his pet properly.

    1. @ Angry Young Woman
      why the admn of this site didn’t put a big dash in front of your name or dots after it
      my guess is that you’re theirs
      any way Angry young horny need a good sauna and massage session with all the trimmings to relieve your tensions and frustrations

    2. so what is your major malfunction? are you too lazy to lift your head and enjoy the birds in the sky rather than in a cage ? talk about lazy , my friend was so lazy he married a pregnant woman .

      Yes, Leonardo was irresponsible man. But more respectful of parrots than of humans. He called people “consumers of food and producers of excrements.” Nothing of this kind was said of birds.

      “This could be a sneaky way of putting in a good word for Muslim terrorists.” -Terrible accusation, your imagination is inventive, refined and sophisticated, because all looks up side down. Since Leonardo had lived well before bearded guys came into being, to say “Muslim terrorists look like Leonardo” would be more correct.

    1. Leonard was vegan, ate no blood, but only lived 67 years.

      He handled heavy metal pigmented paints a lot.

      1. HP –

        YOU… posted the rumor..!! 🙂

        From YOUR link:
        “This paper will explore an aspect of da Vinci’s moral life that while not controversial, is also not widely known to the general public. I refer to da Vinci’s refusal to consume animals and his recognition of the cruelty of mistreating them.”

      2. HP –

        Yes, I do know the difference.. Maybe you do not. 🙂

        Which one of these below are you CERTAIN would NOT apply to Leonard..??

        Distinctions are sometimes made between several categories of veganism.

        Dietary vegans refrain from ingesting animal products. This means avoiding not only meat but also egg and dairy products and other animal-derived foodstuffs.

        Some dietary vegans choose to wear clothing that includes animal products (for example, leather or wool).

      3. Pat, vegans don’t eat milk and honey. Period.
        But then I’m not Certain Leonardo did, so you might be right, sorta..

      4. Milk we consume is a by-product of coddled cows maintained for that purpose. Honey is a wonderful, healthy circumstance of good environment for EVERY living thing. Either of those is a manifestation of PROSPERITY, as God’s gift. Do not disdain them. (I seriously doubt Leonardo did!)

      5. I bought raw milk and ‘free’ butter from a Seneca Indian young woman for years.
        Three dollars a gallon! She married and moved a couple of years ago. .

        My point with Pat, nitpicker that he can be, was I’m not Certain, I have never read of Leonardo singing the praises of milk and honey, but in his time milk and honey were obviously right at the top of the list of uber-healthy much desired foods so I’d have to guess he did eat these two wonder foods, ergo he was vegetarian, not vegan.

        Twas simply a simple attempt to nip Pat’s rumor in the bud. (;>)

  3. Leonardo da Vinci’s IQ is estimated at 220 ( Source : IQ facts and IQ of famous people). Though we have no way to verify this, he was certainly a universal genius and the embodiment of the Renaissance ideal of the uomo universale.

    It is a pity that he didn’t paint more instead of trying to invent all kinds of machines for which his time was not yet ripe and that were invented later on anyway. His greatest talent was in painting. Besides the Mona Lisa, I consider the Madonna of Litta and Saint Anna, the Virgin and the Child as his greatest paintings.

  4. It’s TOO painful a Tragedy Leonardo NEVER got to finish his HORSE. I bet Lasha would just LERV to “Fall Off” Leonardo’s HORSE, but alas, that’s ONE LESS HUGE HORSE FOR LASHA TO “FALL OFF” FROM, 🙁

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