Mona Lisa

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE -

IfLeonar­do­daVin­ci­had­painted his Mona Lisa in the 21st cen­tury, he’d have net­ted a for­tune from mer­chan­dis­ing and re­pro rights alone. A snap sur­vey of my own shelves re­veals the face of Lisa del Gio­condo, an oth­er­wise un­sung mid­dle-class Floren­tine house­wife and mother, on sev­eral book jack­ets, a used Paris Mu­seum Pass and a jokey flip-book ti­tled C’mon Mona — Smile!

Leonardo’s 16th cen­tury portrait was ad­mired in his life­time; it was sub­se­quently among the most trea­sured pos­ses­sions of the French king Fran­cis I and Napoleon, who hung it in his bed­room. From here it passed to the Lou­vre. The Mona Lisa’s present life as the most egre­giously pi­rated paint­ing in his­tory did not, how­ever, be­gin un­til Au­gust 1911, when it was stolen by Vin­cenzo Perug­gia, an Ital­ian handy­man who be­lieved (er­ro­neously) that he was repa­tri­at­ing Napoleonic loot to his na­tive coun­try.

Nine­teenth-cen­tury de­vel­op­ments in print tech­nol­ogy and pho­tog­ra­phy made it pos­si­ble, as it hadn’t been be­fore, for re­pro­duc­tions of art to reach a mass audience. News­pa­per reports of Perug­gia’s theft turned a mas­ter­piece into a celebrity. At which point, you could say, the Mona Lisa be­came pub­lic prop­erty.

In 1919, Mar­cel Duchamp drew a mous­tache on a print of the paint­ing, ti­tling it L.H.O.O.Q. (which sounds like “Elle a chaud au cul”, or “She’s hun­gry for sex”). By defin­ing a re­pro­duc­tion of art as a mass-pro­duced “ready-made”, Duchamp opened the door for con­sumer goods, for any­thing ART

Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pal­lanti

Ox­ford Univer­sity Press, hdbk, 288 pages, €29.49

at all, to take the form of art. Mona Lisa shoes, socks, du­vet sets, tooth­brush hold­ers and con­dom pack­ets are all just a click away. There seem to be plenty of peo­ple who’ve had ver­sions of Leonardo’s lady tat­tooed on their arms, backs and even but­tocks.

I doubt whether Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pal­lanti are among them. Kemp is an art his­to­rian, Leonardo ex­pert and emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor at Ox­ford; Pal­lanti is an economics teacher who has spent years re­search­ing the del Gio­condo and da Vinci fam­i­lies. They have teamed up to write Mona Lisa: The Peo­ple and the Paint­ing. And, while they ac­knowl­edge the pro­lif­er­a­tion of “Leonardo lu­na­cies” in the quest for the truth about the paint­ing, their book is a model of clear-headed ra­tio­nal­ity, suc­cinct, in­trigu­ing and marvel­lously read­able.

This small paint­ing, which started as a run-of-the-mill portrait com­mis­sion, has been the sub­ject of un­par­al­leled ef­forts of schol­ar­ship and foren­sic ex­am­i­na­tion. It has in­spired in­nu­mer­able crack­pot the­o­ries, in­clud­ing the sug­ges­tion that the sit­ter is the artist him­self in drag, the Egyp­tian god­dess Isis or a syphilis suf­ferer re­luc­tant to re­veal her mer­cury-black­ened teeth. Kemp and Pal­lanti’s mis­sion is to show that the truth is much sim­pler, or at least more com­pre­hen­si­ble.

Rich in ev­i­dence and ju­di­ciously light on spec­u­la­tion, their 11 brisk chap­ters cover mul­ti­ple lines of in­quiry. These in­clude ge­neal­ogy and so­cial his­tory, the na­ture of Re­nais­sance record-keep­ing and love po­etry, and Leonardo’s own multi-dis­ci­plinary cre­ative out­put. One of their rev­e­la­tions is the iden­tity of Leonardo’s mother, who turns out to have been an or­phaned teenager named Ca­te­rina di Meo Lippi.

In July 1451, she had sex with the 25-year-old lawyer Ser Piero da Vinci, who was vis­it­ing his fam­ily vil­lage near Florence. Piero re­turned to the city, leav­ing Ca­te­rina to dis­cover that she was preg­nant. His par­ents took her in, prob­a­bly pro­vided a mod­est dowry to en­able her to find a hus­band, and raised her baby, Leonardo, as their own.

Kemp and Pal­lanti’s pos­i­tive iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of Ca­te­rina is based on un­cov­er­ing “de­tailed his­to­ries of ob­scure and strug­gling fam­i­lies”. It is less colour­ful than the al­ter­na­tive hy­poth­e­sis that she was a North African slave, but seems likely to be de­fin­i­tive. So too does the in­tri­cate net­work of kin­ship and so­cial-pro­fes­sional con­tacts they map for the main fam­i­lies in this story, en­abling them to con­struct vivid snapshots of many peo­ple who played a part in Leonardo’s life.

There’s his al­pha-male lawyer fa­ther. De­spite los­ing suc­ces­sive young wives to death in child­birth, Ser Piero went on sir­ing chil­dren into his 70s, mov­ing into pro­gres­sively grander houses as his for­tunes and fam­ily grew. Then there’s Lisa her­self, whom Kemp and Pal­lanti set out to res­cue from the ex­cesses of her post­hu­mous fame. Born Lisa Gher­ar­dini in 1479, she was mar­ried at 15 to a much older mer­chant, Francesco del Gio­condo.

Francesco com­mis­sioned his wife’s portrait in 1503. Lisa prob­a­bly sat for a draw­ing or two; Leonardo got to work on the paint­ing, gave up, spo­rad­i­cally re­turned to it, and fi­nally de­cided never to let it go.

We learn, among other minu­tiae, that on Au­gust 11, 1514 Lisa bought seven lire worth of medic­i­nal snail wa­ter from the nuns of Sant’Or­sola, and that on Septem­ber 8, 1523 she sold these same nuns 95lb of cheese. So now we know. But do these kinds of semi-con­nected mo­ments, easy enough to vi­su­alise in Mona Lisa: The Movie, make any dif­fer­ence to

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