I hate to say it, but if you don’t recognise this painting then there’s a distinct possibility that you were raised by wolves, because there’s basically no escaping da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s a painting that I’ve seen for myself, in the Louvre back in 2004, and perhaps because I know practically nothing about art (hence The Culture Project), I have to admit that I was underwhelmed.
For a start, she was way smaller than many of the other paintings I’d seen that day (77cmx53cm, about the size of a poster). Also, thanks to a palette that could be described as ‘variations on the theme of mud’ (see? Total Philistine) when seen up close it was kind of dingy looking. So, first the details, and then the big question: what’s so special about this painting anyway?
The Mona Lisa was painted by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1506, although he may have worked on it off and on up until 1517. It is painted in oils on a piece of poplar wood, and is currently held by the Louvre in Paris. The model for the painting was Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco Giocondo, and its French and Italian name (La Gioconda and La Joconde) is a play on words: she appears to be smiling (‘jocund’: happy or jovial), and her husband’s name was Giocondo. *groan*. Her English name comes from ‘Mona’, an Italian word meaning ‘ma’am’ or ‘Lady’ and her first name, Lisa.
What’s so special about it, anyway?
Several things, as it turns out. First of all, there’s the technique, ‘sfumato’, which da Vinci invented, and which means ‘like smoke’. It relates to the way the model is painted, without an outline, by using shading. Then there’s the background landscape: portraits at the time were painted with a simple background like the sky or the interior of a room, but the background to the Mona Lisa is a landscape, and not even a real one – it’s more like a fantastical dreamscape.
There’s the provenance: everyone likes a good story, and we know who this was, and when she was painted, and why (to celebrate the birth of the couple’s second son, Andrea).
There’s the rarity: only about 30 paintings (plus a lot of sketches and notes and things) by da Vinci are known to be in existence today, and some of them aren’t even finished, so she’s a one in a million painting.
There’s the theft: in 1911 an employee of the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia, hid in a broom cupboard and snuck out after closing to steal the painting because he believed it belonged in its (and his) native Italy. There was a massive search which lasted two years before Peruggia finally tried to flog the painting to the Uffizio Gallery in Florence. It was returned to the Louvre in January 1914, and Peruggia spent six months in prison and became a folk-hero to the Italians.
There’s the mystery: da Vinci was a genius, and quite eccentric. Many people believe that there are hidden codes and symbols in the painting. What are they? What do they mean? No-one knows for sure (no-one knows if they’re actually real or not), but there are plenty of people who are keen to find out.
There is, quite frankly, the hype: in 1867 an essayist named Walter Pater waxed lyrical about the Mona Lisa in an essay he wrote on da Vinci. This was in the days long before many of his readers were ever going to have the opportunity to see the painting, or even a decent facsimile, for themselves, and Pater’s words (‘…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, the mother of Mary…’ you get the idea) meant that this painting was suddenly on everyone’s ‘must see’ list where, as the queues the day I visited the Louvre attest, she’s been ever since.
And finally there’s the smile, which appears when you look at the eyes, but disappears when you look at the mouth – a very neat trick by a genius painter. It wasn’t the custom at the time to smile when sitting for a portrait (a neutral expression was easier to maintain for a sitting which could last for hours), but Mona Lisa is smiling. Is she happy? Sad? Trying not to fart? Much like Turner’s hare we may never know – and perhaps the not-knowing is the ultimate appeal of this painting.
Knowing all of this, I wish I could go back to Paris and see the Mona Lisa again, with more appreciative eyes, or travel back in time to my baffled twenty-something self and help her to understand just why the painting she’s looking at is so special. But instead I’ll settle for knowing now what I didn’t know then, and appreciate the Mona Lisa for her technique, her mystery, her history, and her subtle beauty.