BY COLIN BREZICKI
Special to the VOICE
She’s been worshipped, abducted and assaulted. She’s dwelt in palaces and in the hearts of kings and emperors. She’s toured the world and gone to the moon. She is likely the most famous, instantly recognized woman in history. Artists have been obsessed by her, and one even committed suicide because he couldn’t have her.
Her name is Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, sometimes referred to as La Joconde for her enigmatic smile.
She is Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
In real life she was an ordinary Italian woman of no great standing who married well, bore six children, three of whom died before she did at the age of 63. But that’s a whole other story that you can read in Dianne Hales’ enthralling new book, Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered.
She’s the Sphinx of beauty, according to one art critic.
“Lovers, poets, dreamers go and die at her feet,” a French curator wrote in 1861.
“A dangerous picture” was the opinion of a French historian. “I go to her as the bird to the serpent.”
In 1852 the artist Luc Maspero leapt to his death from a fourth floor window in a Paris hotel, leaving a note that said, “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die.”
Leonardo himself wrote that “the mystery of the universe was the mystery of Mona Lisa,” and he spent some sixteen years of his artistic life trying to fathom it.
In 1911 she was stolen from the Louvre by an Italian workman who believed she should be returned to her birthplace in Florence. During her absence, grief-stricken visitors to the Louvre lined up to view the empty space on the wall. For three years people randomly reported Mona Lisa sightings, like Elvis in our own day.
After she was found in Florence, and the thief duly arrested, her departure from Italy was attended by tens of thousands of Italians like it was a state funeral, and her arrival in Paris was celebrated like a coronation, again with over 100,000 people gathered to welcome her.
But during that three year disappearance something remarkable happened to her. She left France as a work of art hidden inside an overcoat, and she returned a celebrity.
Like Kim Kardashian, famous now for being famous.
She is now the most visited, instantly recognized and perhaps the finest portrait ever painted.
Such is her fame that inevitably some who finally get to see her “in the flesh” are disappointed. The portrait is small, and not all that good, they say. It’s kind of dark, she’s sort of plump, a little plain—no Paris Hilton, that’s for sure. But as also happens with celebrities, everyone wants a piece of her.
Today she is the queen of kitsch, “caricatured, cannibalized, morphed, manipulated, multiplied, and mocked in countless spoofs.” Artists have portrayed her wearing sunglasses, hair curlers, a burka, nose ring, Mickey Mouse ears, a Santa hat, and, of course, naked. She’s straddled a motorbike, skateboarded, skied, smoked a joint and performed X-rated activities.
Illustrators have “Monalized” other celebrity figures—Mao Tse-tung, Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinski and Barack Obama. Maybe she finally “arrived” when a Simpsons’ episode featured the “Moanin’ Lisa.”
She’s sold toothpaste, deodorant, cigars, rum, condoms, mouse pads, shower curtains and a vaginal replenishment product.
Her face has been reproduced in pasta, jelly beans, jewels and coffee mugs. And in 2013 NASA chose to transmit her face to the moon in its first test of a laser system.
Advances in our technology have led to some other absurdities.
An Italian con-artist named Siliano Vinceti claims to have located Lisa Giacondo’s grave and plans to complete a computer-generated 3D construction of the woman’s face, accurate to a margin of error of 5%, so that we can see exactly what she looked like.
Somehow, I thought Leonardo had already done that.
Leonardo himself was no stranger to science. His drawings show countless attempts to capture the bones, ligaments and muscles of the human arm, leg and torso. He personally skinned three cadavers so he could examine the anatomy for himself. He perfectly understood the bone structure of the human skull and captured it in his work.
These days we appear to have more diagnostics than imagination. Doctors who studied the painting have diagnosed deafness (causing the tip of her head and inquisitive smile), pregnancy (she has swollen fingers), an enlarged thyroid, high cholesterol and Bell’s palsy. One even suggests that the closed smile is the result of damaged teeth caused by mercury, a 15th century treatment for syphilis.
Emotion recognition software has calculated that the famous smile is 83 % happy, 9% disgusted, 6% fearful, 2% angry, and less than 1% neutral.
More useful technology preserves the painting from the ravages of time and climate conditions, and has repaired some of the damage done by vandals. Most fascinating are the results of X-rays, infrared photographs and ultraviolet fluorescent scans that show Leonardo worked endlessly on that smile. A computer generated relief map indicates that the shaded areas around her mouth and eyes have the thickest layers of paint, yet the countless touches of his fine silk brushes are so gentle that not a single stroke can be detected. “He was able to see the play of different feelings and responses to different stimuli on her face. The emotions, the intelligence, the obvious wit that he captured are what makes Lisa’s face so alive and so fascinating to us,” writes art historian Timothy Verdun.
Her smile is a specific human presence that was never achieved before, an elusive holy grail for artists who could never find it.
I was lucky enough to visit the Louvre back in the ‘70s, when you could walk right up to the painting and gaze at it for as long as you wanted. A silence prevailed that allowed you to wonder at her, and observe the mischief in her eyes, the coy turn of the head, the smile of course. With cameras prohibited back then she was the only picture in the room.
It’s mayhem in there now, like red carpet night at the Oscars, with cameras and phones flashing, as shouting crowds throng at the railing. Looking at the portrait seems less important now than getting a photograph of it. It’s a challenge to do either, with a forest of arms waving this way and that as phones are aimed for the immortal shot.
What must she think after four centuries of observing visitors who came to see her, now watching them come to see themselves?
Whatever she thinks, her expression doesn’t change. She remains inscrutable and silent, as before, but closed off now in a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled, bullet-proof casing.
Far from the madding crowd.
So who is she anymore?
Maybe Nat King Cole foresaw it all when he sang his tribute to her:
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa—
Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art? ♦