Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mona Lisa's Enigmatic Smile Cracked!

A manuscript expert at the University of Heidelburg, Germany (which, by the way, I will forever associate with Anatomie, the awesome slasher flick starring Franka Potente and Benno Fürmann) claims he has uncovered evidence which proves once and for all the identity of the model in what is perhaps the world's most famous painting.


In Giorgio Vasari's Lives of Famous Artists (Vite de' più eccellenti pittori, scrittori e architettori), he writes that Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) began work on this masterpiece in 1503, but "after lingering over it for four years" he set it aside unfinished. Da Vinci took the painting with him when he moved to the French court in 1516, and there he finally completed it three years later, shortly before his death.

Da Vinci's patron, King François I (1494- 1547), bought the painting himself and kept it at the Royal Château of Fontainebleau where it remained until Louis XIV (1638-1715) transferred it to the Palace of Versailles. It was moved to the Louvre after the first French Revolution (1789-1799).

But the painting's story doesn't end there: during his reign, Napoleon (1769-1821) had it hung for a time in his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace, and it would be removed from the Louvre twice more during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) and World War II (1939-1945) in order to keep it out of the grubby paws of those art-thieving Germans.

In 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen by the Italian-born Vincenzo Peruggia who was motivated by some combination of patriotism and greed. And finally, in 1956, it was vandalized in two separate incidents (one nutjob splashed acid on it and another struck it with a rock). It can still be found in the Louvre today, lying behind a plate of bulletproof glass, and it lives up to every bit of its hype.

Who's that girl?

In the Lives, first published in 1550, Vasari states that the model for Da Vinci's portrait of a female begun in 1503 was Lisa Gherardini (1479-1541?), the wife of wealthy Florentine textile merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Thus, in English we call the painting "Mona Lisa" ("Mona" or "Monna" is an abbreviaton of "Madonna," which means "Milady," and was a title used to address aristocratic women in Medieval and Renaissance Italy). In Italian, the painting is called "La Gioconda" which means the merry or playful woman (hence the smile) and is also a play on her husband's surname.

Incidentally, Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574) was himself a Renaissance man in every sense of the word. Besides being famous as the author of the Lives, he was also a painter (I am particularly fond of his frescoes depicting the Florentine victories over Pisa and Siena which flank the Salone dei Cinquecento) and an architect (he designed Florence's Uffizi as well as the super cool secret corridor which connects the Palazzo Vecchio with the Palazzo Pitti on the other side of the Arno river, running above the Ponte Vecchio).

Yet over the years, a lot of art historians have questioned whether Vasari really knew what he was talking about. It has been suggested that the woman depicted in the painting was one of dozens of other contemporary noblewomen, da Vinci's mother, or (perhaps most outrageously) Leonardo in drag.

Latest Sleuth Work

In 2004, Florentine scholar Giuseppe Palanti dug up new evidence in the city's archives which bolsters Vasari's original claim. It turns out Leonardo's father, Piero da Vinci, was a notary who authenticated several documents for Lisa's husband, Francesco del Giocondo. Moreover, the two men were neighbors. Palanti also established that Vasari too was personally acquainted with the del Giocondo family thus suggesting the source of his information.

And now it has been announced by the University of Heidelberg library that manuscript expert Dr. Armin Schlecter has discovered even more proof that Mona Lisa was indeed da Vinci's model. Some notes were scribbled in the margin of an old collection of Cicero's letters by Agostino Vespucci, a Florentine city official and acquaintance of da Vinci, in October 1503. In the notes Vespucci states that the Renaissance master was working on three paintings at the time, one a portrait of Lisa Gherardi. This contemporary source citing Mona Lisa as da Vinci's model is quite a breakthrough, and some art experts believe this question has by now been satisfactorily answered.

Is Mona Lisa pregnant?

Even with the mystery of her identity laid to rest, there are still other puzzles surrounding Mona Lisa. For example, some experts believe the model was pregnant or had just recently given birth when she sat for the painting. Laser scanning seems to show the traces of a veil (purportedly worn by expectant and newly-delivered mothers at the time) which has been obscured by the ravages of time. Others say that the model has an enlarged thyroid gland typical of pregnant women. This meshes with what we know about Mona Lisa as she gave birth to five children, and it is traditionally held that the painting was commissioned to celebrate the birth of her family's second son.

Why is she smiling?

A large part of Mona Lisa's allure comes from her enigmatic half smile. Some say that this smile embodies the "feminine mystique." Is she happy? amused? annoyed? mischievous? flirtatious? As Nat King Cole sings, "do you smile to tempt a lover Mona Lisa? Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?" Scientists have analysed Mona Lisa's face using emotion recognition software and elaborated on how our different impressions might be influenced by tricks of the light and other visual noise, but forgive me for believing that what was going on in the mind of this woman who lived over five hundred years ago will forever elude us.


Image of Mona Lisa taken from www.artchive.com


Amanda Fliger said...

AS usual, your posts are interesting, informative and extremely well-written. Thanks for giving me something awesome to ponder on this rainy hump-day!

Josie said...

curse them art stealin' Germans!
great post, Mige.

Meeg said...

Heheh. There really was a lot of art theft perpetrated by the Nazis.

nola32 said...

how the hell many movies were franka potenta and benno furmann in together? there was the one you mentioned and then 'the princess and the warrior'. is there something going on between these two that i should know about!?!?

ps- you like how i take a tiny little side note from your post and make that my whole comment? oh there was lots more i could have said but i opted to zone in on franka and benno. it's cus they're both so hot.

nola32 said...

ok, i can't resist. i have to disagree with you here. i don't think it lived up to the hype. yes, it's an amazing work of art, but i think that it get way more attention than it deserves. i was so disappointed when i actually saw it (perhaps that had something to do with the massive crowds and huge plate glass that it sits behind, though). i think that there are so many paintings that he did that were so much more enigmatic and beautiful, yet they are all overshadowed by the mona lisa.
did i ever tell you that i went to his house in amboise (where he finished it, lived, and died)? it's also where he finished his painting of st. john the baptist. the freakiest part about his house is his bedroom (the room in which he died). they have left it as it was. it's even his bed. i couldn't even stay in the room for very long. i'm not often a believer in such things, but i swear you could feel something in there. the room held some sort of sadness that was palpable. it was very creepy. the house itself though is stunning. it has this amazing back garden and an outdoor back walkway that lead from one part of the house to the other. they let you go into the room in which he worked and the light was stunning. when you see it you can really see that that particular place and light affected his work. it's very clear. it's a really cool place. if anyone's every wandering around in france and is thinking about visiting small placed in the countryside, i highly recommend amboise. you can visit his house (and he is buried there as well).

Meeg said...

I visited Vinci in Tuscany where he was born. I feel like they have a house there that could have been the house he was born in or something dubious like that.