Portrait of Mona Lisa (1479-1528), also known as La Gioconda, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo; 1503-06 (150 Kb); Oil on wood, 77 x 53 cm (30 x 20 7/8 in); Musee du Louvre, Paris

This figure of a woman, dressed in the Florentine fashion of her day and seated in a visionary, mountainous landscape, is a remarkable instance of Leonardo's sfumato technique of soft, heavily shaded modeling. The Mona Lisa's enigmatic expression, which seems both alluring and aloof, has given the portrait universal fame.

Reams have been written about this small masterpiece by Leonardo, and the gentle woman who is its subject has been adapted in turn as an aesthetic, philosophical and advertising symbol, entering eventually into the irreverent parodies of the Dada and Surrealist artists. The history of the panel has been much discussed, although it remains in part uncertain. According to Vasari, the subject is a young Florentine woman, Monna (or Mona) Lisa, who in 1495 married the well-known figure, Francesco del Giocondo, and thus came to be known as ``La Gioconda''. The work should probably be dated during Leonardo's second Florentine period, that is between 1503 and 1505. Leonardo himself loved the portrait, so much so that he always carried it with him until eventually in France it was sold to François I, either by Leonardo or by Melzi.



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From the beginning it was greatly admired and much copied, and it came to be considered the prototype of the Renaissance portrait. It became even more famous in 1911, when it was stolen from the Salon Carré in the Louvre, being rediscovered in a hotel in Florence two years later. It is difficult to discuss such a work briefly because of the complex stylistic motifs which are part of it. In the essay ``On the perfect beauty of a woman'', by the 16th-century writer Firenzuola, we learn that the slight opening of the lips at the corners of the mouth was considered in that period a sign of elegance. Thus Mona Lisa has that slight smile which enters into the gentle, delicate atmosphere pervading the whole painting. To achieve this effect, Leonardo uses the sfumato technique, a gradual dissolving of the forms themselves, continuous interaction between light and shade and an uncertain sense of the time of day.


















               C H A N N E L


Mona Lisa's Identity Confirmed by Document

Rossella Lorenzi, Discovery News


Jan. 16, 2008 -- The mystery over the identity of the woman behind Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa" painting has been solved once and for all, German academics at Heidelberg University announced on Tuesday.

Mona Lisa is "undoubtedly" Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, according to Veit Probst, director of the Heidelberg University Library.

Conclusive evidence came from notes written in October 1503 in the margin of a book.

Discovered two years ago in the library's collection by manuscript expert Armin Schlechter, the notes were made by Florentine city official Agostino Vespucci, an acquaintance of Leonardo da Vinci, in an edition of letters by the Roman orator, Cicero.

In his annotations, Vespucci wrote that Leonardo was working on three paintings at the time, including a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo.

"All doubts about the identity of the 'Mona Lisa' have been eliminated," the university said in a statement.

Vespucci's notes also "establish more precisely the year the painting was done," the university said.

Until now, the only other source to have identified the sitter in Leonardo's masterpiece as Lisa Gherardini, was the 16th century painter and art historian Giorgio Vasari.

In his work "Lives of the Artists," Vasari named Lisa Gherardini, the wife of the wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo as the subject of the portrait and concluded that the portrait was painted between 1503 and 1506.

But doubts about Vasari's attribution have always abounded since he was known to rely on anecdotal evidence.

The work is unsigned, undated and bears nothing to indicate the sitter's name. Attempts to solve the mystery surrounding her famous smile as well as her identity have included theories that she was the artist's mother, a noblewoman, a courtesan, even a prostitute.

There have also been theories that the sitter was happily pregnant, or affected by various diseases ranging from facial paralysis to the compulsive gnashing of teeth.

"The German finding confirms that Vasari is indeed a reliable source," Giuseppe Pallanti, the author of two books on the "Mona Lisa," told Discovery News.

Pallanti was the first historian to identify the sitter in Leonardo's portrait as Lisa Gherardini, following 25 years of research.

"Indeed, I found documents showing that Leonardo's father -- a local notary, Ser Piero da Vinci -- and Lisa's family were neighbors, living about 10 feet away from each other in Via Ghibellina," Pallanti said. "Leonardo met a pregnant Lisa in 1500 in Florence. In December 1502 she gave birth again."

According to Pallanti’s research, Lisa Gherardini, a member of a minor noble family of rural origins, was born on June 15, 1479, in a rather ugly house in Via Sguazza in Florence.

In 1495, when she was 16 years old, she married the merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Ser Francesco was 14 years her senior and had lost his first wife, Camilla Rucellai, the previous year.

The girl moved to Del Giocondo's house, located in today's San Lorenzo market quarter. Though the house was big and beautiful, the surroundings were less than ideal. Prostitutes populated the area, which was a sort of Renaissance red light district.

In that house, Lisa gave birth to five children: Piero, Andrea, Giocondo, Camilla and Marietta.

Pallanti was also able to reconstruct Lisa's last years. She died four years after her husband's death on July 15, 1542, at age 63, and was buried in the convent Saint Orsola.


E.H. Gombrich, "The Story of Art":

"There is another work of Leonardo's which is perhaps even more famous than '
The Last Supper'. It is the portrait of a Florentine lady whose name was Lisa, 'Mona Lisa. A fame as great as that of Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa' is not an unmixed blessing for a work of art. We become so used to seeing it on picture postcards, and even advertisements, that we find it difficult to see it with fresh eyes as the painting by a real man portraying a real woman of flesh and blood. But it is worth while to forget what we know, or believe we know, about the picture, and to look at it as if we were the first people ever to set eyes on it. What strikes us first is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her. Even in photographs of the picture we experience this strange effect, but in front of the original in the Louvre it is almost uncanny. Sometimes she seems to mock at us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile. All this sounds rather mysterious, and so it is; that is so often the effect of a great work of art. Nevertheless, Leonardo certainly knew how he achieved this effect, and by what means. That great observer of nature knew more about the way we use our eyes than anybody who had ever lived before him. He had clearly seen a problem which the conquest of nature had posed to artists - a problem no less intricate than the one of combining correct drawing with a harmonious composition. The great works of the Italian Quattrocento masters who followed the lead given by Masaccio have one thing in common: their figures look somewhat hard and harsh, almost wooden. The strange thing is that it clearly is not lack of patience or lack of knowledge that is responsible for this effect. No one could be more patient in his imitation of nature than Van Eyck; no one could know more about correct drawing and perspective than Mantegna. And yet, for all the grandeur and impressiveness of their representations of nature, their figures look more like statues than living beings. The reason may be that the more conscientiously we copy a figure line by line and detail by detail, the less we can imagine that it ever really moved and breathed. It looks as if the painter had suddenly cast a spell over it, and forced it to stand stock-still for evermore, like the people in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Artists had tried various ways out of this difficulty. Botticelli, for instance, had tried to emphasize in his pictures the waving hair and the fluttering garments of his figures, to make them look less rigid in outline. But only Leonardo found the true solution to the problem. The painter must leave the beholder something to guess. If the outlines are not quite so firmly drawn, if the form is left a little vague, as though disappearing into a shadow, this impression of dryness and stiffness will be avoided. This is Leonardo's famous invention which the Italians call 'sfumato'- the blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination.

"If we now return to the 'Mona Lisa', we may understand something of its mysterious effect. We see that Leonardo has used the means of his 'sfumato' with the utmost deliberation. Everyone who has ever tried to draw or scribble a face knows that what we call its expression rests mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. Now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is really looking at us. Her expression always seems just to elude us. It is not only vagueness, of course, which produces this effect. There is much more behind it. Leonardo has done a very daring thing, which perhaps only a painter of his consummate mastery could risk. If we look carefully at the picture, we see that the two sides do not quite match. This is most obvious in the fantastic dream landscape in the background. The horizon on the left side seems to lie much lower than the one on the right. Consequently, when we focus on the left side of the picture, the woman looks somehow taller or more erect than if we focus on the right side. And her face, too, seems to change with this change of position, because, even here, the two sides do not quite match. But with all these sophisticated tricks, Leonardo might have produced a clever piece of jugglery rather than a great work of art, had he not known exactly how far he could go, and had he not counterbalanced his daring deviation from nature by an almost miraculous rendering of the living flesh. Look at the way in which he modelled the hand, or the sleeves with their minute folds. Leonardo could be as painstaking as any of his forerunners in the patient observation of nature. Only he was no longer merely the faithful servant of nature. Long ago, in the distant past, people had looked at portraits with awe, because they had thought that in preserving the likeness the artist could somehow preserve the soul of the person he portrayed. Now the great scientist, Leonardo, had made some of the dreams and fears of these first image-makers come true. He knew the spell which would infuse life into the colors spread by his magic brush."

        (E.H. Gombrish, The Story of Art, Phaidon, London, 1995 reprinted 1999)


Who's that woman hidden up his smock?

Psychoanalyst Darian Leader sees a zone of emptiness wherever he looks as he examines the modernist era in Stealing the Mona Lisa

Hepzibah Anderson
Sunday March 3, 2002
The Observer

Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing
Darian Leader
Faber £9.99, pp177

Leonid Brezhnev may have seen in the Mona Lisa nothing but 'a plain, sensible-looking woman', but as an icon she is among the most recognisable ever; the embodiment of classical art, her perfect features and riddling smile adorn postcards, tea towels and chocolate boxes the world over.

Yet as this book insists, it was her disappearance that secured her celebrity, and the hordes of tourists that daily converge on the Louvre are as nothing compared to the thousands who queued to see not the painting, but the empty space left by its robbery back in 1911.

Darian Leader is a psychoanalyst; here, though, he heads fearlessly off into the realm of art theory, using the theft as a neat springboard for reflections on why we look at art and what we see - or don't see - when we do.

One summer's morning early last century, an Italian housepainter, Vincenzo Peruggia, strolled into the Louvre, exiting a short while later with the Mona Lisa hidden in his voluminous white smock. Despite Peruggia having left a large thumbprint at the scene, it took the Parisian police two years to retrieve the painting and make their arrest. All that time, the canvas was stashed in a trunk at Peruggia's lodgings, where postcard reproductions stood propped up on the mantelpiece.

In this and sundry other peculiar details, Leader finds rich pickings, making thumbnail diagnoses as he goes. Hundreds of readers wrote in to L'Echo de Paris, for instance, insisting that the Gioconda must still be in the Louvre, hiding behind another painting. Cartoonists depicted her cavorting around Paris, finally freed from her frame. Blinkered by their assumptions about high art, Louis Lepine and his detectives imagined the priceless painting installed in its own apartment, kept in style like an expensive mistress, and it never occurred to them that the thief could be one so humble as Peruggia.

We never find out Peruggia's motive since Leader's prime interest in the theft is as 'the perfect crime of the modernist era', an idea he explores in a narrative fraught with digressions - some illuminating, most artfully obfuscating. He pronounces on everything from why we munch popcorn in the cinema to what lies behind that Hammer Horror feeling that a portrait's eyes are following us, rallying a predictably Zeitgeisty selection of evidence from The Full Monty to the paintings of LS Lowry.

The book's subtitle asks what it is that art stops us from seeing, and it's not giving anything away to reveal that the answer is nothing - a Lacanian nothing, that is. Leader trained under French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and his theory of a 'zone of emptiness' underpins much of Leader's thinking.

Although he roams from cave paintings to Picasso, what Leader often means by art is conceptualism (the book's dedication hints at why so many of his examples are works by Sarah Lucas). When we stand before a work and ask 'Is this art?', we are, he concludes, responding to 'the special, sacred space the artwork inhabits', something art can evoke but that must ultimately remain invisible. Just as with Magic Eye pictures, the harder you work to make sense of Leader's writing, the less likely you are to get there.

Leader tempers many of his observations with judicious wit, which is just as well since with mothers and penises looming so large throughout, it's hard not to hear the mocha-rich tones of Frasier Crane. Perhaps, when Leader posits the theory that the Mona Lisa's smile - 'a strange mixture of tenderness and contempt' - was brought about by Leonardo exposing himself, a similar smile is playing on his lips, too. Or perhaps not.

Stealing the Mona Lisa lacks the breezy charm of Leader-as-agony-uncle, and too often his thinking is mired in the plodding language of flip charts. Ultimately, this book is destined to frustrate, for while some of it is perfectly plausible, it is no more so than a hundred other interpretations. As Leader himself lets slip: 'Art, after all, is about making, not communicating.'


Stealing beauty

What's behind the Mona Lisa? Alfred Hickling on two studies of our responses to art: Stealing the Mona Lisa by Darian Leader and Pictures and Tears by James Elkins

Saturday April 20, 2002
The Guardian

Stealing the Mona Lisa
Darian Leader
190pp, Faber, £9.99

Pictures and Tears
James Elkins
272pp, Routledge, £14.99

When the Mona Lisa went missing in 1911, it took 24 hours for anyone to realise that it wasn't there. The first attendant to spot the space on the wall assumed it had been taken down to be photographed. Another thought its removal was a security precaution. A third was discovered beneath a parasol, asleep. The alarm was finally raised by a painter who arrived to make a copy of the world's most famous portrait and discovered four empty pegs.

The motive for the theft was never fully clear. The culprit, a penniless house-painter named Vincenzo Perugia, had strolled out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa under his smock and taken the bus home. When he finally exposed himself by offering the panel to a Florentine art dealer two years later, it appeared that the scheme was rooted in a muddled sense of patriotism. Perugia believed he was returning Napoleonic loot, unaware that Leonardo had transported the painting to France for presentation to Francis I.

But if Perugia's escapade was far from the perfect crime, it could be interpreted as the perfect work of modern art. Fifty years later, Robert Rauschenberg would rub out a drawing by Willem de Kooning and exhibit it as "Erased De Kooning". Perugia bequeathed the Louvre an empty space that could have been entitled "Missing Mona Lisa". Hordes of spectators, Franz Kafka among them, thronged to observe the space where the painting had been. Mona is back now, of course, smiling wanly through a carapace of yellowing varnish and bullet-proof glass. But the empty space behind her still exists - conceptually, at least - in the minds of psychologists, whose inclination is to look for what can't be seen.

James Elkins has traced the propensity of artworks to elicit tears throughout the ages, and wonders if we have developed into such emotional arthritics that we will weep copiously over the schmaltziest books and movies, but remain stoically dry-eyed in front of paintings. Darian Leader uses the theft of the Mona Lisa as a springboard for a discussion about what is missing in art. Both utilise their armoury of psycho-tools to demonstrate that images are a veil disguising subconscious phenomena we'd rather not see. It sets Elkins off on a vain hunt to find one art historian who has cried in front of a painting, and Leader on a mission to expose the Mona Lisa's willy.

In his bestselling Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post?, Leader steered a lucid course between the facile platitudes of self-help manuals and the encrypted jargon beloved of professionals. But his conclusions on art - which are basically Freud's, as one might tell them to a beginner in the pub - can seem a little quaint and even perverse. Leader points out that Freud invariably turned to art whenever he faced a clinical impasse. A year before the Mona Lisa was stolen, Freud published a short book about Leonardo in which he advanced the theory that the Mona Lisa's smile evoked "the bliss and rapture which had once played on his mother's lips as she fondled him". Few art historians or psychoanalysts take this seriously any more, but Leader writes that Freud's slim study contains the embryonic formulation of several important psychoanalytic concepts, "as if he needed the encounter with the artist to get things moving".

Leader manipulates this argument into an analysis of what it is that great art stops us seeing - which, in Freudian terms, is always the great unseen of the genitals. Putting words into the infant Leonardo's mouth, Freud recalls a time when he fondly believed his mother to have a penis like his own, and had to deal with the subsequent trauma of discovering otherwise. In a splendid paradox, Leader moulds this evidence to fit his theory that the power of art is contained by what it conceals: "It is not that we look for something that society forbids us from seeing, but that we look for something that, since it doesn't exist, is strictly speaking impossible to see."

Elkins, a professor from the Art Institute of Chicago, starts out from similar territory. The opening chapter finds him in the Rothko chapel in Houston, Texas, dominated by vast blobs which leave him feeling "coddled, nearly smothered, in a smooth but impalpable softness". He is reminded that Rothko's paintings have often been compared to an infant's sense of its mother's breast.

The experience leaves the author dizzy and slightly despairing, but resolutely dry-eyed. In the past, Elkins posits, people broke down in front of paintings all the time. Stendhal was so overwhelmed by the treasures of Florence that he had a syndrome named after him. Even Diderot confessed to blubbing over a typically cynical confection by Greuze. Intrigued, Elkins fired off letters to the top brass of the art-historical establishment to inquire if anyone could recall being moved to tears, and received negative responses from them all.

"The emotional temperature of our response to art is plummeting towards absolute zero," Elkins concludes. "How coldly can we look and still claim we are looking?" As a withering attack on the whole structure of art academe, this has a point. But Elkins's endeavour rather falls apart when, halfway through the book, he gets religion. Both he and Leader argue that great art acts as a mysterious portal to the subconscious. Adopting the somewhat gothic-horror term coined by the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, Leader refers to it as "the Thing". Elkins has a different name for it: he calls it God. He tries to avoid saying so, admitting that "if readers saw the word 'religion' on page one, they would probably close the book". My recommendation, therefore, is that you enjoy the career-jeopardising pot-shots Elkins takes at his colleagues, then close it on page 149.


London Review



The myth of the Mona Lisa

She's a global icon, celebrated in songs, poetry and Pop Art. Yet, 500 years after Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa, we are no closer to unravelling the mystery surrounding the phenomenon. In the latest exclusive online essay from the London Review of Books, Charles Nicholl considers the enduring appeal of the world's most famous portrait.

Thursday March 28, 2002

Mona Lisa: The History of the World's Most Famous Painting by Donald Sassoon. HarperCollins, 350 pp., £16.99, 17 September 2001, 0 00 710614 9

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa may be 'the world's most famous painting' but almost everything about it is obscure. We don't know precisely when it was painted, we don't know for certain who she is, and as we stare at her puzzling features for the umpteenth time we are inclined to ask ourselves: what is it about her? It is that question, in all its historical and cultural ramifications, which is addressed in Donald Sassoon's elegant and comprehensive study of the Mona Lisa phenomenon.

"She is older than the rocks among which she sits", wrote the Victorian aesthete Walter Pater, poetically if not very gallantly. In more measured terms she is getting on for 500 years old. The Louvre, where she has sat for the last 200 or so, will be celebrating her quincentenary next year, though in doing so they are only guessing like the rest of us. According to a rather tenuous account of the painting in Vasari's Lives of the Artists (1550), Leonardo began the portrait after his return to Florence from Milan at the beginning of the 16th century, and worked at it, off and on, for four years: this has been translated for convenience to a date of 'c.1503-07'. Proponents of this date point to Raphael's sketch for his portrait of Maddalena Doni, which incorporates some characteristic elements of the Mona Lisa, and which may suggest that Raphael had seen a preparatory sketch for the latter, or perhaps a full-scale cartoon, during his own visit to Florence in 1505. Against this, there is anecdotal evidence (earlier and in some ways more authoritative than Vasari) which links the painting to Giuliano de' Medici, third son of Lorenzo il Magnifico. Leonardo's known relationship with Giuliano belongs to the years 1513-15 (and to Rome rather than Florence). Given Leonardo's circuitous working habits - his tendency, both personal and professional, to recycle a subject in various different versions - it is possible that both dates are broadly correct, and that the Mona Lisa is a cumulative portrait, begun around 1503 and completed, with a different face, more than ten years later. How it would have looked when he painted it is another unknown: her currently crepuscular aspect is the result of several centuries of protective varnish, tinged yellowish by oxidisation. As early as 1625, a viewer complained of the picture being 'so damaged by a certain varnish that one cannot make it out very well'. This is another aspect of the picture's obscurity - what the pro-restoration lobby would call its illegibility. She wears this veil of lacquer, with its thousands of tiny lesions or craquelures, and it will be a brave or foolhardy curator who dares remove the veil to see what lies beneath.

Though it now sounds indispensable, Mona Lisa was not used as a title for the painting until the 19th century. The source for the name is once again Vasari, who stated confidently that the woman in the picture was a certain Monna Lisa del Giocondo. ('Mona' or 'monna' is a form of address rather than a name: an abbreviation of madonna, literally translated as 'my lady' but as used in 16th-century Italy something more like 'Mistress' or 'Mrs'.) To Italians the painting is and always has been La Gioconda (and to the French, La Joconde or Gioconde). This may be a reference to the same Lisa del Giocondo, but the title has a perfectly plausible existence without her. Giocondo is an adjective, meaning 'jocund', so this traditional name for the painting could have originated as a purely descriptive title - the witty or playful one, the joker-lady, perhaps even the tease.

Vasari's 'Monna Lisa' certainly existed. She was Lisa di Antonio Maria Gherardini, born in Florence on 15 June 1479. She married Francesco di Bartolomeo del Giocondo in 1495, at the age of 16; he was a well-to-do businessman in his mid-thirties, already twice widowed. By 1503, the presumed earliest date for the portrait, she had borne two sons, and a daughter who had died in infancy. But is Vasari right that this otherwise obscure 24-year-old Florentine housewife is the woman whose portrait now hangs in the Louvre? No mention is made of her in other early sources; in fact some of them implicitly argue against her. The painter Gianpaolo Lomazzo, for instance, who knew Leonardo's executor Francesco Melzi, described the woman in the picture as a Neapolitan. (Lomazzo elsewhere throws a spanner in the works by describing La Gioconda and Monna Lisa as two distinct works: this is by no means impossible.) Another old tradition, that the Gioconda was a 'courtesan', does not tally at all with the historical Lisa. This idea was current in the mid-17th century, when Father Pierre Dan felt compelled to clear her name: she was, he insisted, "a virtuous Florentine lady, and not as some have said a courtesan".

Two scraps of documentation exist for the painting prior to Vasari's account. The first mention of it is by Antonio de Beatis, secretary to Cardinal Luigi d'Aragona, whose diary records their visit to Leonardo's studio in France in August 1517. There the ageing maestro showed them three paintings: two of these, the enigmatic St John the Baptist and The Virgin and Child with St Anne, are now in the Louvre; the third, which is almost certainly the Mona Lisa, was described by de Beatis (and, it is implied, by Leonardo himself) as the portrait of "a certain Florentine lady, done from life at the instigation of the late Magnifico Giuliano de' Medici". This has led to the dating controversy mentioned above, and to other candidates for the famous face. There is Giuliano's mistress, a young widow named Pacifica Brandino, who bore him a child in 1511 - the funereal black veil which covers the Mona Lisa's hair might allude to her widowhood. And there is the beautiful Isabella Gualanda, who was in Rome at the right sort of time; who is mentioned suggestively in de Beatis's diary on the day after his visit to Leonardo; and who turns out to be a cousin of Cecilia Gallerani, whose portrait Leonardo had painted (the Lady with an Ermine) in Milan in the late 1480s. Either of these women might plausibly have been painted at Giuliano's 'instigation', and the resulting portrait might have remained in Leonardo's hands when Giuliano became a married man, as he did in early 1515. However, neither of them was from Florence, which is required by de Beatis's diary entry (though Isabella Gualanda does fulfil Lomazzo's criterion by being Neapolitan). These trails tend to double back on themselves, and the rival claimants start to look pretty thin. As Sassoon drily observes, it is mainly the "paucity of evidence" which "keeps the experts divided".

The other early document, unearthed in the Milanese archives about ten years ago by Janice Shell and Grazioso Sironi, seems to strengthen the case for Vasari's Lisa. It is an inventory of the possessions of Gian Giacomo Caprotti, known as 'Salai' (or Little Devil), who was Leonardo's pupil and companion for nearly 30 years. This document, occasioned by Salaè's sudden death in January 1524, lists a number of paintings. Some of these have titles corresponding to known works by Leonardo, and the high values assigned to them suggest they were thought of as originals rather than copies. Among these is "a painting called La Joconda", priced at 505 lire. Whether this is the original or a copy, it shows that the painting was known as La Gioconda some years earlier than Vasari's identification of its subject as Lisa del Giocondo. This strengthens Vasari's case but does not prove it: he may be erroneously elaborating what was actually a descriptive title. (A small documentary curiosity which has not been commented on: in the original imbreviatura listing Salai's goods, the painting is not in fact referred to as 'La Joconda', but as 'La Honda'. Discarding the supernumerary Latin 'h', one arrives at the curious idea that the clerk who wrote this list thought the painting was called La Onda, or 'The Wave'. In a strictly chronological sense this is the painting's first known title.)

There are many other identifications. One line of argument is that the Mona Lisa began life as a portrait of the rich and capricious Isabella d'Este. Leonardo's black chalk drawing of her, probably done in Mantua in 1500, has something of the pose, and (if you turned her face from the profile) something of the look of the Mona Lisa. For Freud the famous half-smile was a recovered memory of Leonardo's mother; for others the painting is an idealised portrait representing no one in particular, or it is a depiction of chastity. All in all, it may be best to follow the example of Martin Kemp, whose 1981 study of the artist laconically captioned the painting Portrait of a Lady on a Balcony - though even this will not satisfy those denizens of the Mona Lisa websites and news groups who believe that she is really a man, and perhaps even Leonardo himself in drag.

No doubt the mysteries of her identity are an essential part of the appeal. The various solutions are self-cancelling: in a sense she has less identity now than she did a hundred years ago, when everyone cheerfully accepted the Vasari version. The face in the portrait is "indeterminate', Sassoon observes, and so becomes a 'terrain for infinite variations'. It is these variations which are the true subject of his book. He canters entertainingly through the painting's early years, but his main concern is with its transformation into a global cultural icon. An element in this was essentially a historical accident: the fact that the painting came to France with Leonardo in 1516, rather than staying in Italy, and that it ended up in the Louvre as a result. Why did gorgeous Leonardo ladies like Cecilia Gallerani and Ginevra de' Benci (both seemingly sexier than the sallow, broad-browed Gioconda) not catch the collective imagination as she did? One answer is that during the 19th century - the key period in her route to celebrity, according to Sassoon - the Gioconda was drawing the crowds in Paris, while Cecilia and Ginevra were languishing in private collections in Krakow and Liechtenstein.

The myth of the Mona Lisa was born out of 19th-century northern Europe's fascination with the Italian Renaissance in general, and Leonardo in particular. It was also, Sassoon shows, intimately bound up with the morbid Romantic fantasy of the femme fatale: that idea of an ensnaring, exotic, decadent belle dame sans merci which so exercised the contemporary male imagination. An important figure in the Gioconda's elevation to fatal status was the novelist, art critic and hashish-smoker Theophile Gautier. For him she was "this sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously"; her "divinely ironic" gaze intimates "unknown pleasures"; she 'seems to pose a yet unsolved riddle to the admiring centuries' and so on. As Sassoon hardly needs to add, Gautier was projecting onto the painting "images and fantasies haunting his own psyche". In a telling aside during one of his rhapsodies, he remarks: "she makes you feel like a schoolboy before a duchess." Another who quaked in her presence was Jules Michelet. The author of an immensely long official history of France, he, too, was drawn into this demi-monde of Gioconda worship. Looking at her, he wrote, "you are fascinated and troubled as if by a strange magnetism"; she "attracts me, revolts me, consumes me; I go to her in spite of myself, as the bird to the snake." Similarly, in the Goncourt brothers' journal for 1860, a famous beauty of the day is described as "like a 16th-century courtesan", who wears "the smile full of night of the Gioconda". Thus the Mona Lisa was co-opted into this chorus line of dangerous beauties, alongside Zola's Nana, Wedekind's Lulu, and Baudelaire's Creole belle, Jeanne Duval.

The famous paragraph by Walter Pater, first published in the November 1869 issue of the Fortnightly Review, was certainly influenced by this extended bout of Gallic swooning. In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 (1936), Yeats paid Pater's flagrantly purple prose the compliment of chopping it up into free verse, in which form it sits more happily:

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 the deep seas,
And keeps their fallen day about her . . .

Oscar Wilde ('The Critic as Artist', 1891) comments perceptively on this seductive Pateresque blarney - "the picture becomes more wonderful to us than it really is, and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, it knows nothing" - but the idea of the Mona Lisa's 'secret' continued to reverberate. In Forster's A Room with a View (1907), Lucy Honeychurch's sojourn in Tuscany gives her a touch of the Gioconda mystery: "he detected in her a wonderful reticence. She was like a woman of Leonardo da Vinci's, whom we love not so much for herself as for the things she will not tell us." Others reacted more sceptically, as in Somerset Maugham's story, Christmas Holiday, where a quartet of art-lovers "with reverence gazed at the insipid smile of that prim and sex-starved young woman". Iconoclastic young critics like Roberto Longhi poured scorn on the painting, and even Bernard Berenson - though hardly daring to question "a shaman so potent" as Pater - confessed to his covert dislike of this revered work: "she had simply become an incubus." When TS Eliot called Hamlet "the Mona Lisa of literature" he meant it in a negative sense: that the play was no longer seen for what it was, but had become, like the painting, a receptacle for subjective interpretations and second-rate theories.

The other life-changing event in the career of the Mona Lisa was her abduction from the Louvre on the morning of Monday, 21 August 1911. The thief was a 30-year-old Italian painter-decorator and petty criminal, Vincenzo Peruggia. Born in the village of Dumenza, near Lake Como, he had been in Paris since 1908, one of thousands of Italian immigrants in the city: 'les macaroni', as the French dubbed them. He had worked briefly at the Louvre, which was why he was able to get into the building unchallenged - and out again, carrying the Mona Lisa stuffed under his workman's smock. A police hunt ensued, but despite his criminal record, and despite having left a large thumb-print on the frame, Peruggia's name never came up. Among those suspected of involvement were Picasso and Apollinaire; the latter was imprisoned briefly, and wrote a poem about it. Peruggia kept the painting in his lodgings, hidden under a stove, for more than two years. Then, in late November 1913, he sent a letter to an antique-dealer in Florence, Alfredo Geri, offering to 'return' the Mona Lisa to Italy. He demanded 500,000 lire. The letter was signed: 'Leonardo Vincenzo', with a PO box number in the place de la Republique in Paris. On 12 December, Peruggia arrived in Florence, by train, with the Mona Lisa in a wooden trunk, "a sort of seaman's locker"; he checked into a low-rent hotel, the Albergo Tripoli-Italia on via Panzani (still in business, though now called - what else? - the Hotel La Gioconda). Here, in the presence of Alfredo Geri and Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi, Peruggia opened the trunk, revealing some old shoes and woollen underclothes, and - as Geri relates - "after taking out these not very appetising objects" he "lifted up the false bottom of the trunk, under which we saw the picture . . . We were filled with a strong emotion. Vincenzo looked at us with a kind of fixed stare, smiling complacently, as if he had painted it himself." He was arrested later that day. Efforts were made to turn Peruggia into a cultural hero - Gabriele d'Annunzio was as vocal as usual - but at his trial he proved a disappointment. He said he had first intended to steal Mantegna's Mars and Venus, but had decided on the Mona Lisa instead because it was smaller. He was imprisoned for 12 months; he died in 1947.

The theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa were, in Sassoon's view, the clinching of her international celebrity. Both unleashed a swarm of newspaper features, commemorative postcards, cartoons, ballads, cabaret-revues and comic silent films. These are the heralds of the painting's modern existence as global pop-icon. Marcel Duchamp's defaced Gioconda of 1919, saucily entitled LHOOQ (i.e. 'Elle a chaud au cul', or 'she's hot in the arse') is the most famous of the send-ups, though it is predated by more than twenty years by the pipe-smoking Mona Lisa, drawn by the illustrator Sapeck (Eugene Bataille). And so the way is open for the endless versions: for Warhol's multiple Gioconda (Thirty Are Better than One); for Terry Gilliam's animated Gioconda in the Monty Python title sequence; for William Gibson's 'sprawl novel' Mona Lisa Overdrive; for the classic citations in Cole Porter's You're the Top, Nat 'King' Cole's Mona Lisa and Bob Dylan's Visions of Johanna; for the spliff-smoking poster and the novelty mouse-pad. Personally I suspect that I first became aware of the Mona Lisa through the Jimmy Clanton hit of c.1960, which began:
'She's Venus in blue jeans,
Mona Lisa with a pony tail.'
This allusion seems to have escaped the net of Sassoon's compendious research, though its wonderful bubblegum blandness illustrates well enough the fate that has befallen this mysterious and beautiful painting.

Charles Nicholl is writing a biography of Leonardo da Vinci.


The Mona Lisa's Fame Examined
by Rob Hardy


The Mona Lisa may or may not be the most beautiful painting in the world, but it is certainly the most famous. How this came to be makes a great story in Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon, a remarkably inclusive and wide-ranging book. Witty and lucid, it is not only about the painting but about fashions and history, and the role chance plays in our search for objects of fame. 

What question gets asked most often by visitors to the Louvre? There is one that tops the existential query, "Where am I?" That question is, "Where is the Mona Lisa?" This reflects the importance of this particular icon. A famous cartoon in the New Yorker made the matter sharper. It showed a middle-aged American couple rushing into the Louvre and asking the guard: "Which way to the Mona Lisa? We're double-parked!" That's an exaggeration, but not much of one. According to Donald Sassoon's Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon (Harcourt), the crowd around the masterpiece, some illegally taking flash pictures, is like a crowd around a pop star complete with paparazzi. Sassoon has taken on the task of explaining how it is that this work has a reputation as The World's Most Beautiful Painting. That title, of course, is arguable, but it is certainly the most famous painting, and how this came to be makes a great story.

Of course Mona is good-looking, but that doesn't explain it. Leonardo painted other female portraits of handsomer women. Mona doesn't even have eyebrows. The book, nicely illustrated, shows Leonardo's St. Anne, Virgin, Cecilia Gallerani, and Lucrezia Crivelli, all of whom are more beautiful in either classic or modern terms. The smile on Mona's face, the most discussed aspect of the portrait, doesn't explain it. Leonardo's other portraits are just as expressive, and while we can tell that St. Anne and the Virgin are smiling at the child, the expressions on the faces of the other women are just as meaningful and worthy of speculation.

In fact, Sassoon explains, the intrinsic qualities of the painting, and no one can deny its merits, are not what have propelled it into stardom. It was never really without fame. In Leonardo's lifetime, it was highly praised. Vasari, his first biographer, raved about it, but never saw it; he may have been raving about a copy, for he specifically mentions the realistic hairs of the eyebrows. (Everything we know about the painting's history and subject comes from Vasari, and so his account has been questioned by those who want to give the portrait a richer history. It was Vasari who tells us that the lady was Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco Gioconda, but this makes her nothing but a Florentine housewife. Different arguments have been made that she was more of an aristocrat or was Leonardo' s lover.) Raphael copied what was then a novel pose, called "contrapposto," the body turned away with the head partially turned forward. For centuries, though, Leonardo's far more ambitious Last Supper was much better known and praised.

Mona began to rise in fame in the nineteenth century, when Leonardo's figure began to loom in importance to the romantics. Everyone knew before then that Michelangelo and Raphael were greater artists by any significant measure. They made more paintings just by objective count, and they were far more influential. There are extremely few Leonardo paintings, quite possibly because he was busy doing lots of other stuff. He wasn't really successful; his famous gadgets stayed on the page, unassembled, and his experiments failed. Even his Last Supper suffers from his being (as Sassoon jokes) "technologically challenged," because he mistakenly painted it in oils rather than traditional fresco, causing it quickly to go into ruin. In the romantic imagination of a century and a half ago, however, dreaming big and failing was heroic, and he looked the part, although his bearded, god-like visage is probably not the self-portrait everyone assumed. The result was a cult of Leonardo, something that had no precedent but which continues in its own way even today.

At the same time that the cult was developing, an enthusiasm for a particular type of female, the "femme fatale," was being born in the febrile mind of the poet Theophile Gautier. He imposed this vision onto Mona. Various young men agreed and wrote in the same strain. Most famous was Walter Pater, who wrote, "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." Pater's essay on Mona has lost influence now, but even Sir Kenneth Clark said, a few years after making Civilization, "Fifty years ago we all knew it by heart." If Mona had hired a publicity agent, she could not have achieved greater success.

After the romantics had cooled their excesses a little, Mona stepped into scandal. She was stolen. In 1911, an Italian painter-decorator who had been working in the Louvre removed the painting when the museum was closed. Staff, including the director of the National Museums, were sacked, and the museum closed for a week. When it opened again, Parisians showed grief over the loss by showing up to see the empty hooks that had held the painting in greater numbers than they had come for the painting itself. The scandal became politicized and even was an absurd focus of anti-Semitism. The stupid thief took the painting back to Italy, sought a reward for returning it home, and was arrested. Fictional stories about the theft of Mona Lisa were abundant ever afterwards, even to today. Sassoon has listed many of them, and an abundance of other pop Mona references, such as Nat King Cole's famous song.

When in 1919 Marcel Duchamp drew a beard and goatee on a postcard of her, and exhibited this naughty French postcard under a saucy title, he continued a trend of including Mona in popular art, something that Malevich, Dali, Magritte, and Warhol have all done as well. There are good send-ups and bad, some that expand our ideas of the realm of this icon, and some that are just gross. All get included in this remarkably inclusive and wide-ranging book. Witty and lucid, it is not so much about a painting as it is about fashions and history, and the role chance plays in our search for objects of fame.


The Mystic Smile
by Rochelle Gurstein

Post date: 07.15.02
Issue date: 07.22.02

Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon
by Donald Sassoon
(Harcourt, 337 pp., $30)

One of the most extraordinary but least remarked upon features of paintings and sculptures is their persistence as actual, physical objects from other times and places. When we come face-to-face with the Mona Lisa in the Louvre today, we are in the presence of a portrait of a flesh-and-blood woman named Lisa Gheradini (Monna being a contraction for mia donna, or "my lady"), the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant named Francesco del Giocondo (which is why the Italians have always called the painting La Gioconda), painted in oil on wood between 1503 and 1507 by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the three greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance. We rarely pause to reflect on how miraculous it is that this object, this fragment of a world that disappeared hundreds of years ago, continues to exist in present-day Paris. Where other once-celebrated works of art also linger on as physical entities into our own time--museums are brimming over with statues and paintings of Venuses and Apollos, Madonnas and Christs, by masters of ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art--most of them no longer speak to us, or we no longer know or care enough about them to hear what they might still say. So even though they occupy the same physical space as we do, they are hopelessly stranded in their own time and place; the gap that has opened up between their world and ours can no longer be bridged.

But not the Mona Lisa. In starkest contrast to the fate of most art, it has transcended such spatial and temporal limitations. This transcendence can be measured quantitatively: the picture draws an astounding 5.5 million visitors to the Louvre each year. Such is its fame that when visitors enter the gallery that is its home (and home, too, to beautiful paintings by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto), they find their path blocked by a crowd of fellow tourists who angle with one another for the best viewing spot. The art lover who longs to fall under the spell cast by the Mona Lisa's legendary smile is inevitably pained to find the picture encased in a bulletproof glass box, the glare of which makes viewing an ordeal. He or she is surprised, even disappointed, by the small scale of Leonardo's masterpiece, which measures a scant twenty inches high and fourteen inches wide. As for the tourists who rarely set foot in a museum but know that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world and have been constantly bombarded by reproductions of it in postcards, advertisements, posters, T-shirts, and knickknacks, what do they see? Their immediate reaction is fairly uniform: they take out their cameras and start shooting. (Never mind that flash photography is expressly forbidden by the Louvre. No guard dares enforce the rule.)

From the moment that the Mona Lisa was first seen by Leonardo's contemporaries, it has been an object of admiration and fascination. The most important early commentator on the picture was Giorgio Vasari, whose chapter on Leonardo in his celebrated Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568) established a tradition of viewing the Mona Lisa. In one particularly memorable paragraph, Vasari praised above all else Leonardo's "divine" skill, his unsurpassed ability to "imitate nature," which was held during the Renaissance to be the highest office of art. Vasari, himself a painter, was enraptured by every aspect of Leonardo's depiction of the beautiful face, describing in lavish detail the eyes, the lashes, the brows, the skin, the nose, the lips, the cheeks, and the "pit of the throat," which appears so "natural" that the viewer "cannot but believe that he sees the beating of the pulses." Such is the portrait's "perfection" that it makes even "the boldest master tremble and astonishes all who behold it, however well accustomed to the marvels of art." And the smile, which Vasari described as "so sweet that while looking at it one thinks it rather divine than human"? He furnished a rather prosaic explanation: concerned that the lady might become bored during long sittings, Leonardo hired singers, musicians, and jesters to entertain her.

La Gioconda, as the painting was known well into the nineteenth century (La Joconde in French), did not achieve fame only because Vasari, the first and most influential art historian, was dazzled by its extraordinary likeness to nature and wrote a beautiful (if now historically questionable) paean to it. Almost immediately, the distinctive pose of crossed hands and turning body became an exemplar of portraiture. Indeed, it was imitated so often by Leonardo's contemporaries that it came to be known as the Gioconda pose, and among the most famous artists to employ it was Raphael. His Portrait of Maddalena Doni (1505), Lady with a Unicorn (1506), and La Muta (1507) all assume the easy naturalness of La Gioconda and were painted just after he had visited Florence and seen the work of Leonardo. But it was not only the innovative composition that was widely admired. Painters from all over Europe paid tribute to the perfection of Leonardo's art by making copies and derivations of the portrait itself. We know of sixty extant works painted before the eighteenth century.

For close to one hundred years after Vasari, however, the painting that astonished Leonardo's contemporaries and set a new style in portraiture was seldom mentioned by writers, and few engravings were in circulation.


This temporary neglect was most likely due to its location at Fontainebleau, in the private and largely inaccessible collection of Francois I, Leonardo's last patron, who had acquired the painting sometime during the 1530s. It came back into public attention in the middle of the seventeenth century, when a catalogue of the works at Fontainebleau described the Mona Lisa as "first in esteem, a marvel of painting." Throughout the rest of the century, whenever the painting was discussed, it continued to be lauded, following Vasari, for its startling fidelity to nature. But during the eighteenth century its fortunes again began to suffer as Louis XV dispersed the royal collection to obscure places. The Mona Lisa was relegated to the dark offices of the Directeur des Bâtiments (the Keeper of the Royal Buildings).

The painting was saved from further obscurity only as a consequence of the French Revolution, when it was moved to the newly formed Louvre Museum in 1797. For a few years Napoleon claimed the Mona Lisa and hung it in his bedroom in the Tuileries, but in 1804 the Louvre reclaimed it and installed it in the Grande Galerie. Yet even in its new public location Leonardo's portrait was largely overlooked or mentioned only in passing. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the works for which Leonardo was admired, even worshipped, were The Last Supper, which was already in a state of irreparable deterioration, and The Battle of Arghieri and the equestrian statue executed for Lodovico Sforza, both of which no longer existed.

How, then, did the Mona Lisa come to occupy its unparalleled place in the pantheon of Western art? The discovery of Leonardo the scientific genius, coupled with the nascent myth of Leonardo the artistic genius whose perfectionism prevented him from bringing but a few works to completion, was the first crucial step in the artist's deification. Early in the century, Goethe set the tone when he spoke rhapsodically of Leonardo's "universal genius." But it remained for literary men of the next generation, who were mesmerized by a new Romantic image of women as femmes fatales, enticing but dangerous, to apotheosize the Mona Lisa. Although many writers associated with the art-for-art's-sake movement in France and England paid enthusiastic tribute to the painting, Théophile Gautier and Walter Pater are now best known for launching it on its modern path to what is now inelegantly called "iconicity."

They had left the aesthetic universe of Vasari far behind. Appreciation for an artist's gift for imitating nature, no matter how extraordinary, seemed a rather paltry pleasure in the eyes of these highly refined aesthetes, whose single aim in life was, in Pater's famous words, "to burn always with [the] hard, gem-like flame, to maintain [the] ecstasy" that came from impassioned engagement with works of art. Such an elevated, if extravagant, ideal of art demanded a new kind of criticism that would match, and even surpass, the intensity of the impressions that a painting evoked in the sensitive viewer, and the aesthetic critic responded with ardent prose poems of his own. This kind of criticism amounted to a kind of worship, an abdication of reason for feeling, a surrender to the object of a cult; and it is no wonder that proper Victorians thought such a view of art and criticism immoral and irreligious. They were appalled by what they perceived as its decadence.

But a younger generation was inflamed with the desire to see whether they could experience the kind of rapture described by Gautier and Pater before paintings such as the Mona Lisa. And what did they see? Gautier wrote of the "strange, almost magic charm which the portrait of Mona Lisa has for even the least enthusiastic natures." What was most "irresistible and intoxicating" was the expression,

wise, deep, velvety, full of promises ... the sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners in a violet penumbra, mocks the viewer with such sweetness, grace, and superiority that we feel timid, like schoolboys in the presence of a duchess. So the head, with its violet shadows, half-perceived as through a black gauze, makes you dream for hours, and pursues you in memory like the motif of a symphony.... Repressed desire and desperate hopes struggle painfully through a luminous shadow. And you discover that your melancholy springs from the fact that the Joconde received, three centuries ago, the confession of your love with the same mocking smile that she still wears today.

As Roy McMullen observed in his exhaustive study Mona Lisa in 1975, "This is the world of Poe's tales, of Baudelaire's substitution of one sensation for another, and of Wagnerians listening with their heads in their hands."

This world of luxurious aestheticism has long become alien to today's dulled sensibility, just as the image of the Mona Lisa as mocking seductress had become difficult to see for modern eyes, long accustomed to graphic photographs and X-rated movies. (Though the ideal of a solemn, mindless enthrallment in the presence of art survives, in a degraded way, in today's rock audiences.) But for viewers of the second half of the nineteenth century, the lady really was "irresistible and intoxicating," and writer after writer tried to capture the exact nature of her spell. The most influential attempt, at least in English, was Pater's, which appeared in a chapter on Leonardo in his pathbreaking book The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873).

In an incantatory paragraph, Pater portrayed the Mona Lisa in language that eclipsed Gautier's rhapsody and would relegate Vasari to history. Indeed, this single passage so completely formed the imagination and the vision of art lovers who read it that no one--from Oscar Wilde to Bernard Berenson to Kenneth Clark--could speak of the Mona Lisa without uttering in the same breath that he, like everyone else of his generation, had committed Pater's luminous words to memory. Pater was captivated by the "unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it"; but as a classicist he imbued the image of the femme fatale with a timeless aura, seeing in the portrait a "presence ... expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire." For Pater and for all those who knew his words by heart, "strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions" were "deposited cell by cell" upon the beautiful flesh of Mona Lisa's face. The portrait expressed nothing less than the incarnation of eternal womanhood:

All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias.

The long serpentine sentence that followed struck many readers as poetry in a new, highly resonant key. Pater, the Oxford don, did travel in the same aesthetic universe as the French poets Gautier and Baudelaire and the English poets Browning, Rossetti, and Swinburne (especially Swinburne, whom he knew personally). What Pater once wrote about Coleridge could be said with equal justice about their sensibility and his own: that he "represents that inexhaustible discontent, languor, and homesickness, that endless regret, the chords of which ring all through our modern literature." (This was the same sensibility that rediscovered Botticelli and made a cult of his wan, unearthly female figures rivaling that of the Mona Lisa.) Pater's distinctly modern style was canonized forty-two years after his death by Yeats in what at first glance appears to be an eccentric gesture: he rearranged Pater's sentence as free verse and placed it first in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 so as to underline what he called its "revolutionary importance":

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,
Was 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 hands.

Just as Pater's style was a harbinger of modernity, so, too, was his vision of the Mona Lisa, and he ended his fantastic reveries with the statement that "Lady Lisa" was "the symbol of the modern idea." Whereas a number of his contemporaries took Pater to task for his overly subjective writing, accusing him of using Leonardo's masterpiece as a mirror for his own feverish imaginings, others, most famously Wilde in "The Critic as Artist" (1890), judged the passage as "criticism of the highest kind" on the grounds that "it treats the work of art simply as a starting-point for a new creation." While this sort of outrageous aestheticism is to be expected from such a self-conscious provocateur as Wilde, he was on to something far more serious when he continued: "It is the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvelous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives, and a symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive."

Bringing the Mona Lisa back to life by these highly aestheticized and erudite means had an ironic outcome: Pater's rhapsodic vision, endlessly repeated word for word in art criticism, novels, and poetry of the day, quickly degenerated into a cliché and an object of satire, and within a few decades it seemed thoroughly dated. So it is no surprise that some sensitive souls began to chafe under what they felt was Pater's increasingly tyrannical hold on their imaginations. One response was Marcel Duchamp's infamous drawing of a moustache and a goatee on a postcard of the Mona Lisa with the obscene title (when read aloud in French) L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), which made explicit the aesthete's sublimated erotic longings. But for those who self-consciously followed in Pater's way, Duchamp's iconoclasm was out of the question. The connoisseur's inwardness and exquisite sensitivity would never allow for such vulgarity. If the Mona Lisa were to be repudiated, it would have to be on aesthetic grounds.

In Bernard Berenson's reappraisal of Leonardo in 1916, we have a firsthand account of the connoisseur's reckoning with Pater's Mona Lisa. The essay begins with what had by then become a set piece, in which Berenson recounts how, as "a youthful aspirant for artificial paradises," he spent "the hours of long summer days trying to match what I really was seeing and feeling with the famous passage of Walter Pater, that, like so many of my contemporaries, I had learned by heart." It is significant that he describes Pater's influence in terms of the "powers of a shaman"--"an affair of mesmerism, hypnotism, and suggestion"--for it sets the stage for his eventual disenchantment that came with sustained looking at the picture: "What I really saw in the figure of `Mona Lisa' was the estranging image of a woman beyond the reach of my sympathies or the ken of my interests, distastefully unlike the women I had hitherto known or dreamt of, a foreigner with a look I could not fathom, watchful, sly, secure, with a smile of anticipated satisfaction and a pervading air of hostile superiority."

Berenson confessed that at first he tried to quell his doubts by forcing himself to appreciate the many excellent formal qualities of the painting. But in the end the very layering up of thoughts and feelings, of mythological and symbolic associations introduced by Pater--what Berenson called the "over-meanings"--led him to depreciate the Mona Lisa. The many beautiful intimations that for Wilde had made the portrait breathe again had a stifling effect upon Berenson, who felt overwhelmed and distracted by them. All the overcivilized hyperbole made the sought-after experience of "ecstasy"--that "immediate, instantaneous, and unearned act of grace" which he held to be the essence of "the aesthetic moment"--impossible for Berenson. He had made his name as a connoisseur of Italian "primitives," and had little sympathy with Leonardo, whose paintings appeared excessively intellectual and mechanical to him.

What is more, Berenson had come to appreciate art from other traditions, with unexpected consequences: his aesthetic horizon was enormously expanded at the same time that the enigmatic and bewitching qualities of the Mona Lisa began to seem less and less unique. So when Berenson gazed at Leonardo's masterpiece, he saw "nothing in her expression that is not far more satisfactorily rendered in Buddhist art," just as he could find "nothing in the landscape that is not even more evocative and more magical in Ma Yuan, in Li-Long-Men, in Hsai Kwei." A gap now opened up between the new-style connoisseurs and the nineteenth-century aesthetes that was almost as wide as the one that had separated Pater's world from Vasari's world.

Whereas Pater's sensibility was literary and associative in the extreme, Berenson's sensibility was more visually acute and exacting, for he was entranced with the sheer experience of looking. Berenson knew that "the aesthetic moment" was the fruit of "a long and severe training," but he thought it was "unaware of what preceded it" and was "completely isolated, not to be modified and not to be qualified." (Today, following Kant, we call this autonomous aesthetic experience.) Yet Berenson's sensibility, because it disdained flights of imagination and reverie, did not exercise the same powerful hold over art lovers as Pater's, and it remained confined, at least initially, to a coterie of connoisseurs and art historians. Still, that Berenson could, as he put it, "expose and bring down" what had come to be known as "the greatest achievement of artistic genius" reveals the fragile nature of artistic fame, and especially of fame wrought from the hypnotic effusions of an influential writer. The status of any work of art, it turns out, is secure only to the extent that it continues to speak directly to later viewers.


The Mona Lisa has somehow managed to do this. Even Freud was intrigued by the famous smile, and tried to interpret it in his Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality (1910), which added yet another associative dimension, this time having to do with the unconscious longings of the artist: the Mona Lisa's smile was actually the mysterious smile possessed by Leonardo's own mother. Throughout the twentieth century, the portrait continued to fascinate art historians, writers, poets, artists, and spectators. Indeed, by 1950 the Mona Lisa had been reproduced so often and had acquired so many interpretive layers that E.H. Gombrich worried aloud in The Story of Art whether anyone could still see it with "fresh eyes." Gombrich advised his readers "to forget what we know or believe we know about the picture and look at it as if we were the first people ever to set eyes on it."

And if this were possible, what would we see? Gombrich presented the painting through Vasari's eyes (without ever naming him): "What strikes us first is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive." But when it came to the smile, it was still Pater's vision that reverberated: "Sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile." Except for a few such remarks, however, Gombrich had no interest in evoking lyrical associations. His account was concerned with formal analysis and Leonardo's place in art history, the knowledge of which would overcome the distance that separated works of the Italian Renaissance from the uninformed modern viewer. But even Gombrich could not resist closing with a tribute to the portrait's aesthetic power: Leonardo "knew the spell which would infuse life into the colors spread by his magic brush."


Fifty years later, in a world flooded with ever more reproductions of the Mona Lisa but sorely lacking in aesthetic sensibility--whether of the Vasari, Pater, or Berenson kind--one wonders what the tourists streaming into the Louvre need to forget in order to see the painting with "fresh eyes." Perhaps something about the smile or about the artist's repressed longings; but if Donald Sassoon is right, they come to the painting not with any particular aesthetic aspirations or expectations but rather to gawk at a "celebrity" whose status is based exclusively on the fact of its being well-known. After all, this is the painting that traveled to the National Gallery in Washington and then to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1963 and was mobbed by more than 1.6 million people in two months, and made another triumphal tour in 1974, first to the Tokyo National Museum and then to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and was mobbed again by an astounding two million more people. (In Tokyo, it was estimated that each viewer got about ten seconds before the painting.)

Thus Sassoon is not exaggerating when he describes the scene at the Louvre--crowds of fans, flashing camera lights--as the kind of "commotion" typically associated with "a renowned personality from the world of cinema, television, fashion, or music, or a member of a major royal household." It is the aim of his book to understand this phenomenon. And the beginnings of this distinctly modern way of seeing a work of art as a celebrity can be traced back to 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. Sassoon finds this event so significant that he devotes an entire chapter to it.

While the theft is largely forgotten today, it generated enormous publicity at the time, since mass-circulation newspapers, which were also a new phenomenon of the early twentieth century, were always hungry for sensational events and printed story after story about it. People who ordinarily cared little for art were inundated both with countless images of the painting and tales of its many legends, the enigmatic smile always occupying center stage. The publicity so excited curiosity that when the Louvre re-opened after a week-long investigation, thousands of people--many of whom had never before set foot in a museum--stood on line to view the vacant space previously filled by the Mona Lisa. For the first time in its career, the painting left the rarefied air of royal collections, fine-art engravings, and the refined imagination of aesthetes and entered the world of entertainment: commemorative postcards, photographs, cartoons, ballads, waltzes, silent films, music halls, and theaters all took up, often with a good deal of humor, the Mona Lisa's disappearance.

The painting's fame was further enhanced two years later, when Leonardo Vincenza, a decorator-painter and self-avowed Italian patriot, attempted to sell it to a Florentine antique dealer, leading to his arrest and the painting's recovery. Vincenza confessed that he had walked out of the Louvre unnoticed with the small portrait hidden under his workman's smock because he had briefly worked at the museum. For a fleeting moment, there was the question of whether the Italians would surrender their patrimony to the French. As compensation to the Italian people for their impending loss, the painting was exhibited in Florence, in Rome, and then, for two days, in Milan, where an estimated sixty thousand Italians desperately vied for a final glimpse of "their" painting. Upon its triumphal return to Paris, it was mobbed. And so the Mona Lisa once again began appearing in popular songs, postcards, cartoons, and even greeting cards, and the mass-circulation press excited public curiosity with endlessly detailed reports of all the events, the painting's now-famous image prominently displayed on front pages everywhere.


For Sassoon, the "kidnapping," as he calls it, and the innumerable ways in which the Mona Lisa has subsequently been exploited by popular novels, poems, children's books, songs, satirical postcards, avant-garde art, movies, television, and most significantly advertising and merchandising, provide the key to understanding its celebrity status. His aim is to "examine how a product of `high culture' became an object of popular consumption"; and this project first occurred to him, as he explains in the preface, when he was "researching the history of cultural markets." That Sassoon came to this complicated and vexing episode in the history of taste and sensibility by chance, and that he thinks of it primarily in socio-economic terms, is what distinguishes his study from the many others that have come before it. As a social historian whose earlier books include One Hundred Years of Socialism, he believes that such an undertaking does not require "special insights into the Meaning of Art or the Soul of Man" or, for that matter, "a particular artistic sensibility."

Sassoon might mock such "special insights" and "artistic sensibility," but without them he is lost. When he reviews the well-known historical sources of the painting's fame--its aesthetic innovations and provenance, along with the myth of Leonardo the genius and the cult of the Mona Lisa as femme fatale--his account neither revises nor deepens the thoughtful accounts already provided by George Boas's The Mona Lisa in the History of Taste (1940), Roy McMullen's Mona Lisa: The Picture and the Myth (1975), or A. Richard Turner's Inventing Leonardo (1993), to name only a few. Instead, Sassoon's accumulation of pointless details and digressions turns what was a historically sound and intellectually compelling narrative into a muddle. And without a deep grounding in aesthetics or intellectual history, his account fares no better when trying to explain the portrait's shifting fortunes. Sassoon is thus reduced to saying of the Mona Lisa's transfiguration into a femme fatale: "Threatening women are so much more interesting than tranquil housewives"; or of Gautier's influence: "He was in the right place at the right time"; or of Pater's: "This Oxford aesthete, in love with the past, was at one with the Zeitgeist"; or referring to Berenson's devaluation of Leonardo not in aesthetic terms as a harbinger of modern, formalist connoisseurship and art history, but instead as one response to the painting's theft from the Louvre.

When it comes to what is original in Sassoon's account--how the painting has become "a global icon"--his method of endlessly amassing information, the only criterion being some connection to the Mona Lisa, no matter how insignificant, tangential, or tenuous, sheds very little light on this pernicious and destructive strain in modern life. If we are to understand the means and the consequences of the merciless commodification of art, we will need interpretation and criticism, taste and judgment. Instead Sassoon provides boring plot summaries of novels, short stories, movies, and plays, as well as countless lists: lists of artists who have used the image; lists of singers who have performed songs referring to her smile; lists of merchandise, of advertisements, of every last thing that bears the name or the image of the Mona Lisa. Sassoon demonstrates in tedious detail that we live in a world where what avant-garde artists once dared to do as an act of iconoclasm--use the Mona Lisa as an object like any other--is now routinely accomplished by advertising and merchandising. But he is silent about the consequences: not only is there something callous and even cruel, aesthetically and morally, about using exquisite objects meant for higher purposes as marketing ploys, there is also something world-destroying in it, for neither the work of art nor aesthetic feeling can survive such brash treatment unscathed.

And Sassoon himself contributes to the painting's further trivialization by repeatedly calling it an "icon of popular culture," as if there were no difference between the "divine" Leonardo's "marvel of art" and real icons of popular culture such as Mickey Mouse. His end "product" is a collection of all manner of Mona Lisa memorabilia: Vasari and Pater and Duchamp and Warhol are here, but so are Nat King Cole, a letter from a sixteen-year-old girl to the Louvre, Erico Baj's The Revenge of Mona Lisa, computer mouse pads, and "Mona Lisa-Cu375" (an intra-uterine device). All too often the book has the suffocating feel of a matron's living room stuffed to the gunwales with her "collection" of knickknacks based on her love of bumblebees or frogs--that is, when it does not simply read like a print-out from a computer search under "Mona Lisa." (Sassoon informs us that as of October 2000, there were 93,800 Web pages on "Mona Lisa" and another 2,110 on "Joconde." What sort of learning is this?) And after 275 pages of undigested facts culled from a twenty-page bibliography, Sassoon delivers the stunning historical news that "nothing has a single cause," "nothing is static." That is his last word on the puzzle of the Mona Lisa's unparalleled fame.

The Mona Lisa has survived periods of neglect. Yet over and over again particular aesthetic qualities have captivated art lovers who have dreamed of being transported by the painting of a woman who smiles. In those times when taste and sensibility (and, later, imagination) have been cultivated and valued, the extraordinary beauty of the Mona Lisa has closed the temporal and spatial gap that might otherwise have alienated later viewers from it. Today, when museumgoers are as accustomed to looking at flat, lifeless, mediated images of art on television and computer screens as they are to looking at animal corpses submerged in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, the anticipation--let alone the experience--of the manifold pleasures of beauty has receded into the distance. In these changed circumstances, it is celebrity and commercialism that keep the Mona Lisa alive, but only by running saline solution rather than blood through her veins. The Mona Lisa may be the most "popular" painting in the world today, but it remains to be seen whether it can survive such popularity, or whether, like other mass-marketed celebrities of the twentieth century, the portrait that stunned generations of art lovers will eventually lose its place to the next new thing.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

Jed Perl serves up a survey of this season's juiciest art books

Circa 1950
Retrospectives of Barnett Newman, Joan Mitchell, and Edwin Dickinson help to reconcile these artists' irreconcilable visions

Both Sides Now
Stephen Holmes on a curious reinterpretation of Tocqueville.

Saint Gerhard of the Sorrows of Painting
Gerhard Richter and the collapse of the Museum of Modern Art.

Fifty-Third on Thirty-Third
MoMA's new home in Queens misses the essence of museumgoing.

Threads of History
Alan Taylor on dispelling a myth believed by sentimentalists, feminists, antimodernists, and evolutionists


The Sydney Morning Herald

Woman behind that smile

June 19, 2004

A private art historian with a passion for the Renaissance believes she has uncovered the identity of the Mona Lisa and the heartache behind her sad and mysterious smile.

Seventeen years of research, beginning in Germany, have led the Adelaide historian Maike Vogt- Luerssen to believe that the Mona Lisa is the lovesick former Duchess of Milan, Isabella of Aragon, and not the wife of a Florentine silk merchant, as has been believed.

Ms Vogt-Luerssen is an amateur historian whose research has been been published in German in her book Who is Mona Lisa? In Search of her Identity.

She has also published books on women in the 15th and 16th century, everyday life in the Middle Ages and Lucrezia Borgia.

She says the clues to the Mona Lisa are in the painting itself and in other paintings, diaries and records from the time.

Apart from the wan smile and absence of jewellery, the Mona Lisa is wearing heavy, mournful garb; Isabella of Aragon's mother died the year before Leonardo da Vinci painted his most famous work. At this time the duchess was a woman of 17 years who had recently wed her handsome but dissolute husband, Gian Galeazzo II, Maria Sforza, the Duke of Milan.

Visible on the bodice of the Mona Lisa's plain brown dress are symbols of the connected rings of the house of Sforza and below them connected knots and strings representing the connection between the dynasties of Visconti and Sforza, which she had married into. Ms Vogt-Luerssen says this narrows her down to a group of eight women.

She located significant portraits of the relevant women - Caterina Sforza, who had pale reddish hair; Bona of Savoy, who was Isabella's mother-in-law; her children Anna-Maria, Angela, Ippolita, Bianca, Empress Bianca Sforza and Beatrice d'Este. The Mona Lisa portrait of Isabella of Aragon fitted this context, she said.

Ms Vogt-Luerssen believes she has found sadness and joy in the background of Isabella of Aragon that further illuminates the masterpiece.

"Why is she looking so sad? . . . She married at the end of 1488 when she came to Milan but she had a big problem. She married her cousin, a beautiful man but he was a drinker, and he had problems with impotence."

She says diarists at the time wrote of a wonderful lady, the Duchess of Milan, who was always crying because her husband beat her. But she was also close to Leonardo da Vinci, the painter at her court for 11 years, who remained a friend, and possibly more, for most of her life. Da Vinci never sold the work, although it was coveted at the time as a superior piece. He took it with him to France, where he died.

"This was a love story," she says. "But it was most difficult because she is high and mighty and Leonardo was a painter. It wasn't allowed."

The widely accepted theory of the identity of the Mona Lisa is that is it La Gioconda, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant who commissioned the painting as an act of love. She was named as the subject of the painting by the Louvre early last century.

Ms Vogt-Luerssen discounts that theory, saying the Louvre made its own guess, to appease public curiosity, based on a written description of a portrait described in 1550 by an Italian Renaissance art historian, Giorgio Vasari. "They didn't know who it was so they took the first description they could get hold of and said this could fit, but it you look closely it does not fit," she says. "Everything the Louvre says is without proof and there were always art historians who opposed this."

A comparison between the Mona Lisa and Vasari's description of a portrait of La Gioconda reveals discrepancies. His references to it as an unfinished work, the descriptions of pale red circles around her eyes, eyebrows with separate hairs delineated from the skin and a pulse beating at her throat are not evident in da Vinci's Mona Lisa.

Experts such as Chris Marshall, senior lecturer in fine art at the University of Melbourne, are unfamiliar with Ms Vogt-Luerssen's work and remain unconvinced of her views. Dr Marshall says the La Gioconda theory may still hold because Vasari wrote his description in the mid-1500s, working from memory. By then, the original of the La Gioconda portrait was already at Fontainebleau in the possession of King Francis of France.

But by using symbols employed in Renaissance portraiture to denote background and heritage, Ms Vogt-Luerssen has found what she believes are other pictures of Isabella of Aragon that connect with and reveal some physical similarity with the Mona Lisa painting.

She says a black and white Bernardino Luini painting in Washington marked "Woman Unknown" and bearing some similarity to the Mona Lisa shows Isabella holding a weasel - the symbol of her father, Alfonso of Aragon - and wearing a cross that bore the symbol of her new husband, the Duke of Milan.


Smile, please

It's the most famous painting in the world and a must-see for anyone visiting Paris. But most people fight through the crowds to spend a mere 15 seconds in front of it - just long enough to grab a snapshot. So why do they bother? To find out, Amelia Gentleman spent a day with the Mona Lisa

Tuesday October 19, 2004
The Guardian

Objectively, this is a very bad tourist experience. At least at the Eiffel Tower, the other highlight of travel-brochure Paris, you get the excitement of the lift and an incredible view. Here you get one small, dark picture surrounded by a jostling crowd of hundreds.

It is hard to see how anyone can genuinely enjoy looking at the painting in these circumstances, which probably explains why most people don't. A few seconds, a few photographs and the line moves on. The speed with which the majority of visitors deal with this tourist obligation is astonishing. And yet, unless they have anarchist tendencies, no first-time visitor to Paris would consider skipping it.

The Mona Lisa remains the most famous painting in the world. This year the crowds lining up to see it have grown thicker than ever, with the influx of millions of new Chinese tourists into Europe. A day spent in the room where the picture hangs reveals much about the global tourist industry - illustrating which countries are doing well enough economically to allow their middle classes the chance to visit France. It casts only scant light on why people still bother to come in their thousands to pay homage to the painting.

If you starting queuing well before the Louvre's doors open at 9am, and walk briskly through a network of long galleries that stand between the entrance hall and the first-floor room where the painting hangs, you can reach the Mona Lisa at about 9.09, before anyone else. For a short few minutes it is cool and quiet. A guard is rearranging the crowd barriers in the centre of the room with careful precision.

Four Chinese tourists are the first visitors at 9.11. They arrive, visibly delighted, and begin to examine the picture, holding their hands up to shield their eyes against a sun which isn't there. They take a few pictures of the painting and then of each other in front of the painting. Their delight lasts for about 50 seconds, after which they hurry off.

The rumble of dozens of approaching feet is already audible by 9.14, as dozens of people make their way rapidly down the grand gallery, rushing past Caravaggios, Bellinis, Raphaels and a few other da Vincis, guided by the Mona Lisa signposts. By 9.20 there is a group of 28 people standing in front of the painting and fathers are already having to hold their children above the crowd so that they can see.

"People come because she is famous. Period," says Pete Brown, a retired businessman from Iowa, with some irritation. "But you want my opinion honestly? I'm not overly impressed."

At 9.30 the crowd has grown to about 47. Mobile phones are used to take pictures. Children show their parents how to use the equipment. The noise of the clicking of shutters, the buzzing of zooms whirring in and out, the satisfied pips of the machinery signalling its readiness, becomes overwhelming. Some couples kiss as they walk away, happy that another part of the Paris experience has been completed. At 10.14 the mass of people is 12 rows deep; 15 minutes later there are so many people elbowing from behind that it becomes uncomfortable to stand at the curved wooden barrier by the front of the picture.

"She must be one of the ugliest women in the world," a teenager mutters.

Waiting to see the Mona Lisa has all the thrill of standing in an airport check-in queue. The crowd pushes forward, cattle-like and unquestioning, performing a ritual they know they have to go through with in order to complete a pre-ordained tourist experience.

By midday the room is seething with visitors, the line heaves towards the front, a slow, weary museum trudge, and around 70 more people file in every minute. Caged in a box of bullet-proof glass, the picture looks unimpressive under the harsh institutional lighting. Winking dots of red and orange reflected camera eyes dance across the canvas and every few seconds the Mona Lisa's face is obscured by another flash.

"I don't know why they keep coming," Stephane, a security guard who has worked for the Louvre for the past two years, says. "It's a nice painting, but there are many more interesting pictures elsewhere in the museum. People don't look at it anyway. They come in, take a picture and leave. It takes 15 seconds."

"People no longer study it. It is no longer a painting, but has become a symbol of a painting," says Darian Leader, author of Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us From Seeing. Looking at the visitors from the front of the crowd, about half have their faces pressed into a camera. Those at the back arch onto tiptoes, hold their arms far above their head and take a picture, paparazzi-style.

You have to feel sorry for Salvator Rosa, whose pictures hang to the left and the right of the Mona Lisa. No one spares a glance for the enormous Heroic Battle, 1652, to the left, with its dramatic portrayal of carnage. There must have been a time when this would have been the more obvious crowd-gatherer, but a sequence of quite random events has transformed the Mona Lisa over the past century into a celebrity painting.

Before the 1789 revolution, scarcely anyone had access to it. Then, with the creation of the Louvre, it was for some time kept in the curator's bureau, away from the hordes, and valued much less than Leonardo's Virgin and Child with St Anne. But as the romantic poets of the 19th century began to be obsessed with the femme fatale, the Mona Lisa was seized on as an ideal of womanhood, her smile and the eyes venerated. The confusion over quite who she was increased her allure.

Donald Sassoon, author of Becoming Mona Lisa - The History of the World's Most Famous Painting, points out that such was the profusion of religious paintings of saints, famous royals, skinny Dutch women and obese Rubens females, that there weren't that many other paintings of unknown, beautiful women to choose as the object of male fantasies.

Then just as the painting was gaining mass recognition, it was stolen in 1911, at a time when popular newspapers were booming. The image was reproduced globally as the search began. Such was the painting's new significance, that people lined up to stare at the empty space where the picture had been hanging. The story of the theft and its rediscovery inspired dozens of books and films. Then came the lampooning of the work by Marcel Duchamp, the appropriation of the image by surrealists, pop artists, and finally by the advertising industry.

Art historian EH Gombrich says the picture has become so worn out by all these references that it's almost impossible "to see it with fresh eyes". But the reality is that in the Louvre, you cannot really see the painting at all for the far more practical reason that there are too many other people in front of it.

Some visitors are quite open about their frustration. "The Mona Lisa is probably the single most disappointing piece of work in the entire world," Guy Kress, an experimental psychologist from California, says. "The picture everyone has in their minds is much larger and brighter." It is true that the poster reproduction in the museum shop is a much bolder image. With this fresh in your mind, the original looks dour and gloomy.

Moonkyou Kim, a tour guide with a group of 16 tourists from Seoul, taking a 10-day whirlwind tour of Europe with 24 hours in France, says the anti-climax is palpable. "People aren't very happy when they see it. It's too small. They don't believe it's the original." But of the 51 people approached randomly over the day, the majority still say the picture is wonderful and they are thrilled to have seen it. Despite the crush and the inconvenience there is for many a reluctance to question the value of the experience.

To doubt that the Mona Lisa is worth seeing is a bit like asking whether it's worth coming to Paris at all. The Mona Lisa is a key part of the Paris package, and one of the reasons why you come to France, why you come to Europe. For most tourists this moment will be a critical part of their memory of France as a whole. To come here and not be amazed or delighted is in some way to admit that the whole Paris experience is somehow not as great as it's cracked up to be. Most people know this is illogical, and yet they buy into it anyway. "When you come to Paris for the first time, you have to see the cliches. You can't be too proud," Oded Hauptaman, an opthamologist from Melbourne says.

Among the thousands who process past throughout the day, there are very few who pause to look hard. Takuya Sejima is an exception, stopping for over 30 minutes, holding his hand up towards his eyes at different angles, using his museum plan to help measure different sections of the painting, making notes. Next to the rushing masses, his behaviour looks eccentric, verging on the insane. An 18-year-old art student from Tokyo, he wants to assess why daVinci made the left hand so much larger than the right hand, and so out of proportion with the face. "It's marvellous. It's difficult to express why in words," he says.

Later the tourists become wearier, their legs heavier, more prone to squabbling with their partners. The number of tour groups dwindles. The number of French visitors increases. Leading away his small group of French art enthusiasts, Bruno de Baecque explains: "People invest a lot of hope into the prospect of seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time. It becomes a quasi-sacred experience. They're ready to suffer considerable discomfort to extract some pleasure from the experience. No one can really know if they're disappointed. I tell people to try to enjoy the thrill of seeing the painting surrounded by crowds."

By 9.30pm there are only about 10 people left in the room, and for the first time all day there's time to really examine the painting. But as closing time approaches, guards shoo the remaining visitors away so that only Mohamed Elabdi, the night cleaner, remains sweeping away the mound of rubbish discarded over the day at the foot of the painting.

After 30 years in France, he saw the painting for the first time three days ago when he started this new job with the Louvre. "It's hard to hard to understand what the fuss is about," he says. "But the way that the eyes follow you around the room as you work is disconcerting."  


The Mystery of Mona Lisa's Smile Linked to Flickering Eyes


Sandra Blakeslee, New York Times


Monday, November 27, 2000


For nearly 500 years, people have been gazing at Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of the Mona Lisa with a sense of bafflement.

First she is smiling. Then the smile fades. A moment later the smile returns only to disappear again. What is with this lady's face? How did the great painter capture such a mysterious expression and why haven't other artists copied it?

The Italians have a word to explain Mona Lisa's smile: sfumato. It means blurry, ambiguous and up to the imagination.

But now, according to Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neuroscientist, there is another, more concrete explanation. Mona Lisa's smile comes and goes, she says, because of how the human visual system is designed, not because the expression is ambiguous.

Livingstone is an authority on visual processing, with a special interest in how the eye and brain deal with different levels of contrast and illumination. Recently, while writing on a book about art and the brain, an editor advised her to learn more about art history. "I got a copy of E.H. Gombich's 'The Story of Art' in which he basically said, 'I know you've seen this painting a hundred times but look at it, just look at it.' And so that's what I did."

In staring at the picture, Livingstone said she noticed a kind of flickering quality. "But it wasn't until later when I was riding my bike home that I realized what it was," she said. "The smile came and went as a function of where my eyes were." A scientific explanation for the elusive smile was suddenly clear. The human eye has two distinct regions for seeing the world, Livingstone said. A central area, called the fovea, is where people see colors, read fine print, pick out details. The peripheral area, surrounding the fovea, is where people see black and white, motion and shadows.

When people look at a face, their eyes spend most of the time focused on the other person's eyes, Livingstone said. Thus when a person's center of gaze is on Mona Lisa's eyes, his less accurate peripheral vision is on her mouth. And because peripheral vision is not interested in detail, it readily picks up shadows from Mona Lisa's cheekbones.

These shadows suggest and enhance the curvature of a smile. But when the viewer's eyes go directly to Mona Lisa's mouth, his central vision does not see the shadows, she said. "You'll never be able to catch her smile by looking at her mouth," Livingstone said. The flickering quality - with smile present and smile gone - occurs as people move their eyes around Mona Lisa's face.

The actress Geena Davis also shows the Mona Lisa effect, Livingstone said, always seeming to be smiling, even when she isn't, because her cheek bones are so prominent.

"I do not mean to take away the mystery of Leonardo," Livingstone said. "He was a genius who captured something from real life that rarely gets noticed in real life. It took the rest of us 500 years to figure it out."

It is also not clear, she said, why other painters have not copied the effect more often. To make a good counterfeit Mona Lisa, one would have to paint the mouth by looking away from it, she said. How anyone can do that remains a mystery.


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