Monday, February 19, 2007

Will The Real Mona Lisa Please Stand Up?

Louvre Mona LisaThere are press reports The Da Vinci Code is causing a problematic boom in art tourism to museums appearing in the novel and film. One recent report [19 Feb 07], titled “Roll Up, Roll Up, And Watch The Mona Lisa Weep - The World's Cultural Icons Are Blighted By Hordes Of Tourists” says staff at The Louvre are striking because of the overwhelming upsurge. The equivalent of the entire population of New York now crowds in each year, mainly in the tourist season starting at Easter. The connection made by The Da Vinci Code with religious conspiracy has amplified the potential security problem, the image appearing on the cover of book and film. The story adds the new fans are also often aggressive and disrespectful, and suggests that before disaster strikes the only solution might be to put a replica on view. Art historians recoil at the idea of replicas of paintings as it undercuts their entire ethos, but there have also been attacks on and thefts of, the Mona Lisa in the past, and it is now covered with bullet-proof glass. The irony is that the millions of visitors to the Louvre may not be seeing the original Mona Lisa anyway.

Art historians have found a 1584 reference to two similar portraits, one called the Mona Lisa and the other, La Giaconda. The one currently besieged by masses of tourists in the Louvre was the one that was bought by the French King in 1516, who kept it at his palace. In the wake of the French Revolution, it was moved from Napoleon’s bedroom to the Louvre to be put on public display. From there, it was famously stolen in 1911 so that undetectable replicas could be made for sale to private dealers. (Picasso was one of the painters questioned by police.) The conspiracy theory here is that the painting that was recovered two years later was one of the forgeries, but that the forgery was ‘authenticated’ for the sake of national honour - and the dollar value to tourism of ‘the world’s most valuable painting.’ (Other press stories have indicated that up to half the paintings on the art market may be forgeries, authenticated by greedy art dealers.)

Even if the Louvre painting was indeed by Leonardo Da Vinci, it still may not be the true, original Mona Lisa, but the other portrait, La Giaconda. The painting is famous for its half-smile, and is sometimes known by the compound name ‘Mona Lisa - La Giaconda’, which is translated as ‘The Smiling One’ (In Italian, giaconda means light-hearted, happy). This is slightly odd, because Mona Lisa was the actual title (Mona is just an abridgement of Madonna) and name of one woman (Lisa Gherardini), while ‘La Giaconda’ was the nickname of another, Costanza d'Avalos, the mistress of one of the famous Medici family. There are a pair of related, complicating arguments here. One is that Leonardo essentially painted self-portraits, and the other is that, like some modern rock singers, he aspired to creating an ‘angelic’ androgyne (both male and female) human form transcending gender identity. So his portraits of young men like John the Baptist can appear to be female, and his Mona Lisa may be, visually, an androgynous self-portrait in disguise. This of course offers an alternative, confounding explanation of a key moment in The Da Vinci Code - how one of the disciples in Leonardo’s The Last Supper appears to be female.The Isleworth Mona Lisa

In 1914, an English art connoisseur discovered in the home of an English nobleman another version, which he bought for a few guineas. After studying it, the collector, Hugh Blaker, claimed this was the actual or original Mona Lisa. His version was larger, and more closely matched a contemporary sketch done by the Renaissance artist Raphael, who saw the work in progress in Leonardo’s studio in 1504. It was unfinished – Leonardo rarely finished any of his paintings – and perhaps later touched up by others. The Raphael sketch and this Mona Lisa both have the woman sitter framed by Grecian columns [see b&w image] not seen in the Louvre version. It also showed the same woman, in the same pose and dress, but younger, indicating an earlier version, evidently abandoned. Kept in Hugh Blaker’s Isleworth art studio, it was nick-named “The Isleworth Mona Lisa.” (Isleworth is a west London district where artists like Turner and Van Gogh once had studios.) It was bought by American art collector Henry Pulitzer, who championed it as the true Mona Lisa in a 1960s book, Where Is The Mona Lisa? (Dan Brown tried to claim the ‘London Mona Lisa’ was commissioned as the ‘original’ was too full of symbolism - but like his other claims, it doesn’t fit the known facts. Laurence Gardner, who trained as an art conservationist, outlines in his The Magdalene Legacy the history of the painting in its various states and versions.) Adding to the problem is the existence of various copies in other museums, some of which may be pre-1914 copies of the Isleworth Mona Lisa, as they show the Grecian columns. (The counter-argument the Louvre version had its columns later trimmed off has been disproved by recent examination.) There are major vested interests in both camps, and Pulitzer for his part has been keeping his version in a Swiss vault, so the security and overcrowding problem at the Louvre is likely to get worse until it too is inevitably removed from public view for its own safety.