Sunday, June 27, 1999
SINCE Leonardo da Vinci painted the portrait of a poised Florentine lady some 500 years ago, the ladys enigmatic smile has been a puzzle to innumerable viewers. Indeed that tight-lipped smile has given rise to hundreds of learned interpretations.
The Mona Lisa smile has been variously described as "more divine than human" or "worldly watchful and selfsatisfied", "deliciously tender, ardent, sad". The novelist Lawrence Durrell playfully dubbed it "the smile of a woman who has just eaten her husband". To the feminist Camille Paglia the smile conveys that "males are unnecessary".
Some say its simply the smile of a contented pregnant woman. Marquis de Sade (the word sadism comes from his name) found Mona Lisa full of "seduction and devoted tenderness". Freud tried to figure out the "the beautiful Florentine lady" in his book-length study Leonardo da Vinci, A Study in Psycho-sexuality. To him Mona Lisas expression must have resembled the lost, mysterious smile of the artists mother.
And in 1956, a young Bolivian threw a rock at the painting that inflicted a small scar on the elbow. Salvador Dali, the noted painter, theorized that the young man was "stupefied to discover a portrait of his own mother". His own mother, here! One possible response to the smile was an attack.
And the French artist, Luc Maspero, killed himself in the mid-19th century by jumping off a fourth-floor window, leaving a farewell note: "For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die."
One researcher has come with the explanation that the tight-lipped smile is to hide ugly, blackened teeth; presumably a result of mercury treatment for syphilis in those days. A Danish doctor finds that she must be suffering from palsy which affected the left side of her face; she has the typically large hands of such patients. Or was it strike that half-paralyzed her face; her right hand looks relaxed but her left hand is strangely tense.
Let alone the mysteriousness of the smile, the very identity of the painted lady has been the subject of endless speculation. Researchers have come up with the names of quite a few Florentine ladies. Leonardo, who otherwise kept voluminous notes about his works, makes no mention of Mona Lisa. And it could not have been a commissioned portrait; Leonardo kept the painting with himself until his death.
Trying to unravel the mystery, Lillian Schwartz, a computer graphics expert, has compared the computergenerated images of the painting with the painters selfportrait as reversed. She finds that the noses, mouths, foreheads, eyes, and brows in the two picture all line up. From this she surmises that Leonardo possibly started with painting some lady but later used himself as a model minus the beard.
The Mona Lisa is the most famous work in the whole history of visual arts. Famous for being famous, even Sistine Chapel or Venus do Milo pale in comparison. Andre Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, called the painting "the most subtle homage that genius has ever rendered to a living face".
No wonder, first time visitors to the Louvre Museum, straightway head for the hall where Mona Lisa stands displayed in a bullet-proof, air-conditioned showcase. In guide-operated groups or on their own, visitors edge their way forward to get the closest possible glimpse of the enigmatic smile, take pictures, even pose beside the painting if possible.
The rush of visitors to the painting the hall also sports several Titians and Tintorettos is so heavy, its now been decided to house Mona Lisa in a separate room. The move has been financed by a Japanese television network.
Some cleaning of the painting is also overdue; its covered by an ugly yellow varnish. But the museum authorities are somewhat chary in handling such a superstar. Any little misadventure could raise a huge public outcry.
Twice in its history, the painting was sent across the seas "the most famous single work of art ever to cross the ocean" once to USA and the other time to Japan. The painting symbolised French culture, though its an Italian work. The Mona Lisa travelled in a special suite in a luxury liner (air travel deemed unsafe) and was received like the head of a state. The displaying museums had long lines of visitors for days on end. In fact in Tokyo where 1.5 million people thronged to have a ten-second look, the hype approached hysteria.
What would be the monetary value of Mona Lisa? King Francis 1 of France had bought the painting for 4,000 gold ecus, around $1,00,000. But now the price is inestimable. Its another matter, no thief would be able to sell the painting; its too well-known for that.
The biggest heist in art history occurred in 1911 when Mona Lisa was actually stolen. An Italian employee of Louvre had managed to frisk it away, to help a master forger make copies. But later when the employee naively offered it for sale, he was promptly caught. Luckily the painting stayed undamaged during the two years it had remained with the thief.
Inevitably the commercial world wants to take full advantage of the pictures celebrity status. Ads industry is busy using Mona Lisa to sell everything from golf clubs to airlines, from food items to fashion articles. There are Mona Lisa T-shirts, posters, coasters, clocks, coffee mugs, even condoms. The latest one is a Giggling Mona Lisa Pillow, which squeals with glee when squeezed in the middle. Many restaurants and clubs also call themselves Mona Lisa.
Perhaps the funniest use
to which the Mona Lisa legend has been put: the New
Yorker (Feb 8, 1999 issue) carrying on its cover page
the picture of Mona Lisa; the head however is that of
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