Leonardo's Mona Lisa vs. Michelangelo's David

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Leonardo’s Mona Lisa v. Michelangelo’s David
The Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci around 1503-6, is oil on panel. It is a three quarter portrait of a young, Florentine woman. She is sitting in a chair with her torso twisting around to face the viewer. Her hands are resting on the arm of the chair. Behind the woman in the background is a landscape very characteristic of many Leonardo paintings. The Mona Lisa was painted toward the end of Leonardo’s career. In contrast, the David created by Michelangelo around 1501-4, is a marble sculpture of the biblical hero David. The seventeen foot tall statue depicts a young man standing in contrapposto. Most of his weight is supported with is right leg, while his left leg is relaxed. He holds his sling over his left shoulder and a rock in his right hand. His torso faces forward while his head twists to the left with an apprehensive, determined expression.

Both of these works exemplify invenzione. Leonardo’s Mona Lisa has a mysterious expression and moves away from stylized features to show the true personhood of the sitter. Michelangelo’s David conveys the same intention by furrowing his brow and twisting his gaze off into the horizon to show a contemplative David just before he kills Goliath. Both works reveal the psychological complexities of each subject. The David epitomizes contrapposto, showing the pattern of opposing flexed and relaxed muscles throughout the sculpture to capture the moment between coming and going. Mona Lisa is in a seated contrapposto. The axes of her legs to her torso to her head shift subtly, twisting her in space, and giving the feeling that at any moment she could speak or get up from her chair.

These works help define paragone. The rivalry between painting and sculpture drove Leonardo to explore techniques to really accentuate form using light and dark or chiaroscuro. Similarly, in Leonardo’s portrait of Virgin and Child and St. Anne, the use of light and dark creates larger...
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