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Archive for the ‘Trivia’ Category

Portrait Of A Lady (3)

Posted by D. M. F. on December 19, 2007

•…Continued from Portrait of a Lady (2).

Myth: The Mona Lisa was originally of a wider dimension.

colonnade.jpgOn the rocks. It has been the belief that the Mona Lisa was made smaller through tampering, not when it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911, as some would think, but long before that. Unlike Rembrandt’s Night Watch, which was also reduced in size at some point, Leonardo’s lady may have been substantially affected by the alteration. According to the apocrypha, when the painting left the artist’s hands, it had columns on both sides, which made plain that the subject was seated on a balcony and not among the rocks, as is now seen. Part of the panel comprising the columns at both sides would seem to have been cut away for some still undetermined reason, causing even Walter Pater, the writer-critic who gave the most famous description of the Mona Lisa, to make an apparent error. The elimination of the columns has highlighted the mystery of the background and contributed to the allure of the painting, though the effect is one that Leonardo might never have intended.

However, art historians like Martin Kemp insist the painting width.jpghas not been altered, and that the columns depicted in alleged copies of the original were added by the copyists themselves. In 2004-05 an international team of 39 specialists confirmed Kemp’s view after undertaking ‘the most thorough examination of the Mona Lisa ever’. They discovered that the frame covered an unpainted strip around all four edges of the panel, leaving the gessoed, or painted, portion untouched. The bare strip (called the ‘reserve’), which was likely to have been as much as 20 mm originally, was apparently trimmed at some point in order to fit the frame, but the gessoed area has remained pristine. Because of the buildup of paint around the edges of the gessoed area, the experts concluded that the reserve could not have been caused by a removal of paint or stripping of any part of the original masterwork.

Myth: The Mona Lisa is the most valuable painting in the world.

The lady shows her worth. The Mona Lisa is widely perceived as Leonardo’s greatest work, but not many critics agree. Those who are enraptured at the outset eventually grow weary of it, some even finding the subject “faintly repulsive.” More lasting respect is paid to The Last Supper, which is seen as a complex psychological panorama compressed in very limited space.

value.jpgOne would think the Mona Lisa has a financial worth matched only by its fame. In fact, Guinness lists the painting as the most valuable in the world, based on an assessment of $100 million in 1962. The honor is of dubious merit, however, since the appraisal was made for an insurance coverage that was never taken. As a practical matter, those that have gone through public auction—e.g., Van Gogh’s Irises, which sold for $53.9 million in 1987—are financially more valuable because of their proven market performance.

Moreover, the $100 million has already been surpassed in terms of actual dollar price by three other paintings: the Adele Bloch-Bauer I by Gustav Klimt, which was sold for $135 million (£73 million), the Woman III by Willem de Kooning, which sold for $137.5 million in November 2006, and No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollock, which sold for a record $140 million also in November 2006. The least that could be said for the Mona Lisa, however, is that until and unless it is decided to place this French-owned Italian classic on the bloc, its real value will never be known. If it is any consolation at all to the lady’s millions of admirers, $100 million in 1962 is approximately $670 million in 2006 when adjusted for inflation using the US Consumer Price Index.

And the billionaire connoisseur who is lucky enough to snag the Mona Lisa at $670 million will be getting himself a bargain—with a painting that, in the strictest sense, is not even an original! While he will be buying the piece that can be seen hanging proudly in the Louvre, he will be paying for the four versions of the item that Leonardo painted in succession, all co-existing with and inseparable from each other. Modern x-ray studies have shown that under the visible facade of the ‘Louvre ouvre’ are three more layers, each painted over by Leonardo because he wasn’t satisfied. The Mona Lisa that smiles mystically at the viewer these days is the maestro’s fourth and final rendering of the lady from Naples.

• All non-textual materials are from Google Images.


Posted in Art & Artists, Color, Culture & Civilization, European History, Fallacies, Medieval Period, Misconceptions, Mona Lisa, Mysteries, Renaissance, The Human Body, Trivia | 3 Comments »

Portrait Of A Lady (2)

Posted by D. M. F. on December 14, 2007

• …Continued from Portrait of a Lady (1).

Myth: Mona Lisa’s smile was posed.

smile2.jpgThe smile becomes her. According to art historian Giorgio Vasari, who wrote in 1550, Leonardo’s model for the Mona Lisa could not bring herself to smile as the painter wanted. It was agreed to put her in the right mood by hiring musicians and jesters to perform while she was being painted. Aided by Leonardo’s coaxing and happy banter, the technique succeeded in eliciting the beautiful expression that graces the now celebrated painting.

A spiced-up version of the story claims the smile had something to do with the only romance in Leonardo’s life. It is said that Leonardo as a young man fell in love with the real Mona Lisa and made her his mistress. At the time he was starting on her portrait, she was in the throes of an unhappy marriage and was so distressed that she couldn’t smile. During the project, however, their illicit romance blossomed and she repaid Leonardo’s affection with her famous expression. Of course, this version ignores the fact that, being gay, the only relationship Leonardo could have had with a lady was of the platonic kind.

Both tales are now considered myth largely because of the finding that Renaissance artists did not paint directly from live subjects. They first made a sketch, or cartoon, from which they developed the paintings later in their studios. It is believed Leonardo made his master sketch of the Mona Lisa in Florence before taking it to Milan c. 1504, and then transferred it to a panel in preparation for the painting. The costume, the veil, and the background landscape were later added to complete the picture. There may have been a ‘sitter’ for the sketch, but the absence of one for the painting seems obvious from the fact that Leonardo spent a leisurely seven years or more to develop the Mona Lisa, something he could or would not have done had he depended on a live model.

Leonardo’s sketch is noteworthy for showing an unsmiling Mona Lisa, a further indication that the nuanced expression was painted only later. The smile may not have been entirely a product of Leonardo’s imagination, but copied from other sources. Experts point out that this kind of furtive smile on paintings was not uncommon during Leonardo’s time, and was nothing unusual even for his lesser contemporaries. Quite likely, it was from the master Andrea del Verocchio, to whom Leonardo and many of his colleagues were apprenticed in the early days, that the technique was learned. It has been established at least that Leonardo did not originate Mona Lisa’s ‘sitting’ posture but lifted it from other images of the seated Madonna, which were wide spread at the time.

That Mona Lisa’s smile was not posed is vehemently disputed by others, who note ‘the indisputable fact that her smile has exercised no less powerful a fascination on the artist than on all who have looked at it for the last four hundred years. From that date the captivating smile reappears in all his pictures and in those of his pupils. As Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is a portrait, we cannot assume that he added on his own account such an expressive feature to her face—a feature that she did not herself possess. The conclusion seems hardly to be avoided that he found this smile in his model and fell so strongly under its spell that from then on he bestowed it on the free creations of his phantasy’.

Myth: The most masterfully rendered part of the Mona Lisa is her smile.

The lady shows her hand. Most lay people hands.jpgregard the beguiling smile on the Mona Lisa as a singular stroke that only someone like da Vinci could have fashioned. To them, it’s the “most perfect” part of the painting hands down (no pun intended).

However, experts believe the real mark of perfection in the Mona Lisa is not her smile, nor even her face, but the right hand she lays across her waist and on her left hand. It is opined that not one of Leonardo’s imitators, past and present, has been able to approximate the soft and exquisite quality of that quietly positioned appendage.

We are advised nonetheless not to confuse the sense of perfection with which Leonardo imbued certain parts of his masterpiece—e.g., the hand, the gaze, and the smile—with his sense of the beautiful. The Mona Lisa as a whole is arguably Leonardo’s ‘most perfect’ work, yet his most beautiful painting of a woman’s face is that of the angel in the Madonna of the Rocks.

Myth: An imperfection on Mona Lisa’s face is her lack of eyebrows.

brow.jpgWanted: one very sharp eyebrow pencil. Mona Lisa’s face is criticized for being marred by an imperfection, caused by Leonardo’s alleged failure to paint eyebrows on his subject. Fortunately, art historians assure us that Mona Lisa was painted as she would have appeared in those days—with no eyebrows. Renaissance fashion in Florence called for ladies to shave them off, as they were considered unsightly. Some sources claim that, for modern viewers, the missing eyebrows add to the slightly semi-abstract quality of the face.

On the other hand, it is claimed Mona Lisa’s missing eyebrows may not have been deliberate on Leonardo’s part. In October 2007, Pascal Cotte, a French engineer and inventor, claims he discovered with a high-definition camera that Leonardo da Vinci originally did paint eyebrows and eyelashes. Blown 24 times by an ultra-high resolution, Mona Lisa’s face revealed a single brushstroke of a single hair above the left brow. Cotte says this suggests ‘Leonardo painted the requisite eyebrows, as he had on his other portraits of women, but they were eroded by time or have been inadvertently erased by a poor attempt to clean the painting’. Incidentally, there is historical support for Cotte’s finding in Vasari’s writing, in which he praises Leonardo’s beautiful sitter for her elegant eyelashes and realistically painted eyebrows. Ironically, because Vasari’s claim conflicts with the apparent lack of a detail in Leonardo’s painting, the writer has been accused of ‘fabricating his description of the Mona Lisa, which apparently he had not seen in person, or of confusing it with another painting’.

The presence of eyebrows is not the only detail in the Mona Lisa that has been uncovered through scientific scanning. A reflectography made in 2006 has revealed that Mona Lisa’s hair is actually attached at the back of the head to a bonnet or pinned back into a chignon and covered with a veil bordered with a sombre rolled hem. Until then, all the layman could perceive was her hair hanging loosely down on her shoulders, a style that, in Leonardo’s time, was common with unmarried young women or prostitutes. This would account for the belief of some that Mona Lisa, far from being the reputable wife of a nobleman or merchant, was a courtesan or, at the least, an unmarried professional model.

Myth: The Mona Lisa has eyes that will follow you everywhere.

Making eyes at no one. Expect a guideeyes.jpg at the Louvre to say that Mona Lisa’s mouth and hand are not the only points of interest in the painting. Watch out for her eyes as well, because they have a knack of following you as you move around the room. Her gaze seems to be fixed on the observer wherever he is, as if to welcome him to some silent communication. The trick, however, is not unique to that painting, nor is it limited to the works of the masters. Any portrait that rests on a flat surface and has only two dimensions will give the same result. The eyes of a subject in such a portrait will give the illusion that they are looking at you from every angle, because they are just so many points fixed on a plane and will be precisely the same points seen at any angle they are viewed from. If the eyes are pictured or drawn as looking directly at you when you are in front, they will be seen looking at you when you move to either side; and if the eyes are represented as looking in some other direction the observer cannot place himself in a position so they will appear to look at him.

The same experience may be obtained from viewing motion pictures. The audience at the extreme left side of the theater sees exactly the same scenes, and the same positions of the characters, as are seen by those on the extreme right side. In real life, it is the third dimension—depth—that discloses new lines and hides others when the viewer shifts locations, thereby offering a new perspective.

• To be continued…

• All non-textual images are from Google Images.

Posted in Art & Artists, Color, Culture & Civilization, European History, Fallacies, Medieval Period, Misconceptions, Mona Lisa, Mysteries, Renaissance, The Human Body, Trivia | 1 Comment »

Portrait Of A Lady (1)

Posted by D. M. F. on December 11, 2007

mona-lisa.jpgIn the late 19th century, the Baedeker guide called it ‘the most celebrated work of Leonardo in the Louvre’; still, artists copied the Mona Lisa only half as many times as certain works by Murillo, da Correggio, Veronese, Titian, Greuze and Prud’hon. Not until the 20th century would it assume the ranking it has since enjoyed as the most famous painting in the world. But fame often breeds controversy, and in the case of the Mona Lisa, fame would bring almost every feature of this masterwork—from its name to the manner of its creation—under the speculative gaze of professionals and amateurs alike. Today what seems to be the only sure thing about the Mona Lisa is its authorship by Leonardo. In this essay are some popular traditions about Leonardo’s lady and the alternative theories and beliefs—many no less debatable—that may in time replace them.

Myth: Mona Lisa has always been the name of da Vinci’s painting.

This titled lady was no dame. Leonardo’s famous painting is popularly called the Mona Lisa, andleonardo.jpg rightly so, as this was the nickname of the lady who, we are told, sat for it. In professional circles, it is formally known by its descriptive title ‘Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco del Giocondo’.

However, neither title seems to have been used at the beginning of Leonardo’s project. The picture was commissioned as the Madonna Lisa, after the full first name of Mona Lisa. Later, probably on Francesco’s initiative, it became the matronly La Gioconda, or La Joconda, which was first mentioned in 1525 in a heritage list of the painter Salai, Leonardo’s student and heir. It is believed Mona Lisa didn’t catch on until the finishing stages, or even later, after the painting had already left Leonardo’s hands.

Myth: The real Mona Lisa was a Florentine woman named Lisa Giocondo.

She was no lady, she was his wife. From the custom of nomenclatures at the time, La Gioconda suggested that the subject was married to a man named Giocondo. It would be written in subsequent centuries that Mona Lisa was born in Naples c. 1480 and married in her early twenties. She became the third wife of a Florentine nobleman or merchant known as Francesco di Bartolommeo del Giocondo.

Francesco allegedly commissioned the painting for himself or for his wife. But according to Pallanti, since Leonardo’s father was a close friend of del Giocondo, it was equally likely that “(the) portrait of Mona Lisa, done when (she) was aged about 24, was…commissioned by Leonardo’s father himself for his friends as he is known to have done on at least one other occasion.” This would be one explanation why Leonardo never turned over the finished work to Francesco but kept it with him almost until the day he died.

Bruno Mottin of the French Museums’ Center for Research and Restoration offers scientific evidence that the transparent gauze veil worn by the smiling lady is a guarnello, typically used by women while pregnant or just after giving birth. In the light of other evidence obtained in 2004 suggesting that the painting dated from around 1503 and commemorated the birth of the Giocondos’ second son, there seems to be more than circumstantial proof that Leonardo’s model was indeed Francesco’s wife. Recent research from Italy purports to show that Lisa Gherardini was a prolific mother of five children, including two daughters who became nuns. However, this finding has been dampened somewhat by the unconfirmed report that Francesco was old and impotent and would not have allowed Lisa to pose for a portrait while carrying a child that was not by him.

There are other indications controverting the belief that Mona Lisa was the lady Giacondo. For instance, during the last years of his life, Leonardo spoke of a portrait ‘of a certain Florentine lady done from life at the request of the magnificent Giuliano de Medici’. Art experts say this portrait was possibly that of Constanza d’Avalos, duchess of Francavilla, a patroness of Leonardo and mistress of Giuliano de Medici. D’Avalos, coincidentally, was also nicknamed ‘La Gioconda’. There is no real evidence, of course, that this portrait was the Mona Lisa, and the assumption must be that the master was talking about one of the two other portraits he did of women in his time.

At least ten other prominent women of the 16th century, not to mention various courtesans and prostitutes, have been linked to the Mona Lisa, including Isabella d’Este, Isabela Gualandi, Cecilia Gallerani and Pacifica Brandano. Maike Vogt-Lüerssen believes the woman behind the famous smile is Isabella of Aragon, the Duchess of Milan. She bases her deduction on Leonardo’s 11 years as the court painter for the Duke of Milan, and on the pattern on Mona Lisa’s dark green dress indicating that she was a member of the house of Sforza. Maike sees the Mona Lisa as the first official portrait of the new Duchess of Milan, and places the painting in 1489 rather than 1503.

Myth: The Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of Leonardo.

john-the-baptist.jpgCherchez l’homme! Some art historians have even gone beyond the gender barrier in their pursuit of the real Mona Lisa. Thus, it has been suggested that Leonardo’s mysterious poser was the same male model he used for St. John the Baptist, which shows an uncanny resemblance to La Gioconda. Another suggestion is based on an anonymous statement linking the Mona Lisa to an image of Francesco del Giocondo himself—perhaps the origin of the controversial idea that the Mona Lisa is the portrait of a man.

The most surprising revelation yet is that the Mona Lisa might have been a self-portrait of the artist. Dr. Lillian Schwartz of Bell Labs posits this theory based on the results of a digital analysis of the facial features of Leonardo’s face and that of the famous painting. When merging the mirror image of a Leonardo self-portrait with an image of the Mona Lisa using a computer, the features of the faces align perfectly. Cynics throw water on the theory, however, saying the congruence of the two images can be explained by other reasons, viz., (1) both portraits were painted bymorph.jpg the same person using the same style; (2) the drawing on which the comparison is based may not really be a self-portrait; (3) as Sigmund Freud surmised, the Mona Lisa depicts the artist’s mother Caterina, accounting for the resemblance between artist and subject, and further explaining why Leonardo kept the portrait with him wherever he traveled until his death; and (4) the resemblance is purely accidental. As Wikipedia puts it, being ‘an artist with a great interest in the human form, Leonardo would have spent a great deal of time studying and drawing the human face, and the face most often accessible to him was his own, making it likely that he would have the most experience with drawing his own features. The similarity in the features of the people depicted in the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist may have resulted from Leonardo’s familiarity with his own facial features, causing him to draw other faces in a similar light’.

• To be continued…
• All non-textual materials are from Google Images.

Posted in Art & Artists, Color, Culture & Civilization, European History, Fallacies, Medieval Period, Misconceptions, Mona Lisa, Mysteries, Renaissance, The Human Body, Trivia | 9 Comments »