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