The great Leonardo da Vinci, a leading figure of the Italian Renaissance, created the woman with the enigmatic smile and the eyes that seem to follow the viewer as he walks to the right side of her portrait. Indisputably the most famous painting in the world, it has, unfortunately, been over-exposed in countless reproductions. Nevertheless, the portrait's mysterious power over the imagination of millions of viewers is inexplicable by formal means; however, Walter Pater's famous invocation provides one explanation:
"She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampyre she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave...."
Further, Pater equates her with Helen of Troy, and with St. Anne, the mother of Mary.
While da Vinci observed some of the formal techniques of Flemish portraiture with the half-turned pose and dress, he breaks from traditional portraiture in which the sitter is defined within a clear contouring line. Instead, da Vinci's lady, the wife of an influential Florentine merchant, Francesco del Giocondo (even this is debated), sits amid a melting contour which leads the viewer's eye around the figure, thus igniting the imagination. Da Vinci also introduced new qualities that lend the figure life: ambiguity of mood, the illusion of movement and of time. In short, Leonardo breathed life into his intriguing woman.