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That Smile X’s Two

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Mona Lisa times two

Mona Lisa times two

It is fascinating to me that Mona Lisa’s smile captures art lovers and non-art lovers alike. If you are in Paris, you visit the Louvre and stand at her shrine. My brother was there twenty years ago, before she was stolen, or maybe just after her return? My memory is a bit faulty, the room was crowded but the lovely lady was accessible. He had a better view then my sister’s recent visit.

That day a sea of people was between her and the most famous of faces. The back of hundreds of heads was her main vision, all with upraised arms waving, cameras clicking, and Mona was isolated by heavy bullet proof protection and no flash allowed. Has anyone ever done a flash mob of that site?

The public’s fascination with her doesn’t appear to wane.  She never was my favorite lady. Until I met her in Pilgrim, a novel by Timothy Findlay she wasn’t even on the map of my awareness.

His novel suggests such a wonderful and gritty and helplessly unthinkingness of that slice of time. I was totally captivated, that Mona Lisa’s twin brother was the object of Leonardo’s affections; that her daring for independence necessitated dressing in her brother’s clothes to roam the world unfettered by her sex.

Well, I refuse to spoil the story.  But all of a sudden for me the painting was no longer just a dull over -varnished relic from the past, but a link in a story that will forever remain untold.

Did you realize there are over sixty representations of the Mona Lisa, all more or less replicas of the original? I don’t know how they are classified, as copies, forgeries, or student exercises; after all this was the major way of learning the craft of art, by imitation.

Just last year another copy of her was found. This one was “concurrent of the actual work of the master”. They were able to see that the changes and over-paintings matched the original. This is puzzling as changes were made over many years and Leonardo was thought to consider the Mona Lisa as an unfinished work.

So, growing curious, I looked up the painting of the Mona Lisa  in, The World of Leonardo 1452-1519. Written by Robert Wallace and the Editors of Time-Life Books, published in 1966.

This quote seems to be the definitive explanation on her longevity and world renown.

In no other of Leonardo’s paintings are the depths and haze of atmosphere more fully re-created than in the background of the Mona Lisa. This is aerial perspective at its finest. Yet it is the face that forever holds the eye, and has caused the work to be more often copied than any other-“this beauty, into which the soul with its maladies has passed!” wrote Walter Pater. “All the thoughts and experiences of the world have etched and moulded there… the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age… the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. 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 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; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes.” (1

This by the way would be a succinct description of the character she plays in Findlay’s book. I wonder if he intuitively understood and used her as a character that changes through the centuries, or was influenced by this particular description.

Leonardo arrived in France in 1517, having finished his last painting in Rome in 1515, the subject the St. John the Baptist.

The personal possessions which Leonardo had at Cloux were, when one considers the richness of his life and years, pitifully few…

Of his paintings, he had only three; the Mona Lisa, the St. Anne and that strange work of his late years, the St. John. Disturbing as it is this soft figure with the provocative smile must be accepted as Leonardo’s personal interpretation of the Baptist who traditionally was conceived as a fiery, gaunt ascetic. Certainly, in this curving, smiling pose, Leonardo expresses the quintessence of the eternal mystery which is so much a part of his work-the enigma of creation and of life itself. It is not difficult to imagine that, when the old man died, his eyes were fixed on that upraised finger and that enigmatic smile.(2

Mona and John share a striking likeness; at least as reproductions in an art book. It makes me wonder if Timothy Findlay had it right, Mona Lisa did have an almost identical twin brother.

(1 pg. 179 The World of Leonardo

Walter Pater 1839-1894 was an English essayist, critic of art and literature, and writer of fiction. He was “at the centre of a small but gifted circle in Oxford-he tutored Gerald Manley Hopkins…” from Wikipedia

(2 pg. 194 The World of Leonardo

About geri binks


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