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Saturday, August 01, 2020

THE EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, Why the Mona Lisa?


I wonder how many of the six million people who gaze upon her face every year know she was a 24 year old mother of two when she  sat for her portrait?  Her wealthy husband had been widowed twice before, and he must not have paid for the painting because he never took delivery. Instead, the artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, kept it in his saddle bags, traveled with it for fifteen years, dabbing at it off and on, seeking a perfection he never found. He said, “Art is never finished. It is only abandoned.”. But why could not this homosexual man abandon this painting of what was at the time a middle aged woman?
After DaVinci died, the painting on a poplar wood panel was inherited by his long time lover and frequent subject (above), painter Gian Giacomo Caprotti, aka Salai.  Caprotti's  heirs sold it to the King of France.  And four hundred years later it was merely inventory number 779, just another renaissance masterpiece among  six thousand other masterpieces in the  Louver....until August of 1911, when it was stolen.
“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.”
Walter Pafer. 1873
She was last seen hanging on the wall between Correggio's “Mystical Marriage” and Titian's “Allegory of Alfonso d'Avalos”, just after closing hour of The  Louver on Saturday 28 July, 1911. But her disappearance  was not noticed until just after seven in the morning of Tuesday, 1 August, 1911.  Msr Louis Béroud brought his easel and paints into the gallery a that hour, seeking to lampoon the masterpiece and sell his work. Instead he found only four metal support pegs where the painting should have been. After hours of increasingly frantic searching, the police were called and 60 investigators descended upon The Louver. They found the frame and protective class in a stairwell, but that was all. Some time over the previous 48 hours, the Mona Lisa had been stolen.
“Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife...."
Giorgio Vasari 1550
The panel was sawed from a poplar tree trunk, cut radially in quarters, like fire wood, and then sliced vertically. Each 30” high by 21” wide slice of yellowish wood was dried, sanded and then “sized” - primed on both sides with up to fifteen layers of resin until its finished surface was as hard and smooth as ivory . Finally a linen cloth was stretched across the panel. This entire process might take weeks, and the panels were sold, mass produced, in speciality artists' shops. Eventually, Leonardo Da Vinci picked up one of the panels at random, quickly gauged its quality, and chose it for immortality.
“She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own....Sometimes she seems to mock at us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile.”
E.H. Gombrich, 1950
The robbery made headlines worldwide. They closed the Louver for a week. The museum director was forced to resign. One leading Paris magazine, “L'Illustration” pondered, “What audacious criminal, what mystified, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” And when the Louver reopened, the San Antonio Express noted “...more people gather to stare at the vacant space on the wall...than ever before had gathered there to see the picture.” Some in the heartbroken crowds left flower bouquets in memorial. The Prefect of the Paris police admitted, “The thieves -- I am inclined to think there were more than one -- got away with it, all right.” The reward offered for her return went as high as fifty thousand francs, but for two years there were no legitimate takers. She was simply, suddenly, gone..
Mona Lisa...was the epitome of beauty for so many 19th-century writers...Yet to me she is anything but, with her chipmunk cheeks, close-set eyes and depilated face.”
Laura Cummings. 2011
First he painted the background, a mixture of indistinct mountain peaks, a winding road, rivers and a bridge. It is tauntingly familiar and yet specifically no place on earth, masked by “Leonardo's smoke”, or sfumato. It was not his invention, but the Mona Lisa is its highest achievement. Nothing is clearly seen, nothing has definitive edges. Only after the backdrop was as nearly perfect as he could make it, did Leonardo placed La Mona center stage. My Lady Lisa dominates the frame, sitting in a chair, its left arm supporting her's and separating us from her. Her right arm is laid across her stomach, its hand rests on her left wrist. She wears no jewelry, no makeup, no lipstick. She is dressed as befitted a wealthy Florentine lady. Her eyes look at you directly, seem to follow you about the room, and project...calm self assurance.. challenge...or inquiring. Her suggestion of a smile fades at the corners, her lips blending softly into the flesh; sfumato..
“You should make your portrait at the hour of the fall of the evening when it is cloudy or misty, for the light then is perfect.”
Leonardo Di Vinci
The myth of a wealthy eccentric paying millions for a stolen masterpiece to keep it hidden in his mountain top mansion is far older than the Mona Lisa. But no confirmed examples of such a theft have ever come to light. Another myth is that the art may be used as currency in an illegal trade. But eventually such ersatz wealth has to be converted to cash, and, again, no such examples have ever surfaced. Most stolen paintings not recovered by police are sold back to the museums from which they are taken. And those that are not returned have probably been destroyed when the frustrated thieves came to the alarming realization that art is about illusion, and either buying or stealing art is all about being fooled.
...she does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood. On looking closely at the pit of her throat, one could swear that the pulses were beating.”
Geggio Vasari
The “audacious" criminal mastermind walked into a Florence, Italy commercial art gallery two years later, on Wednesday, 10 November, 1913. His name was Vincenzo Perugia (above) and he calmly told the owner that he had Mona Lisa in his hotel room. He was offering it for a half million lire. The quick thinking dealer agreed to the price, but said he first had to have the painting examined by an expert.
The next morning the dealer and the expert watched in amazement as Vincenzo pulled a battered trunk out from under his bed in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia (above). Vincenzo opened the trunk and removed some underwear, plastering tools, a pair of pliers, a smock, paint brushes, old shoes and a mandolin. And just as the art dealer was about to storm out in anger, Vincenzo lifted up a false bottom and revealed, wrapped in red silk, the Mona Lisa. Scrawled on the back of the panel was the magic inventory number, “779”. 
Vincenzo claimed he stole the Mona Lisa so he could "return" it to its Italy. despite the fact no such nation existed when Leonardo painted it, and he kept it in his Paris apartment for 2 years. Still most Italians saw the theft as an act of patriotism, and Vincenzo served just six months in prison. 
While the thief was a guest of the state,  "La Gioconda" made a grand tour of Italy (above), which greatly increased her celebrity status.
And then in January of 1914, The Lady was returned to The  Louver (above).  She had left a painting. She returned an icon. It was the classic tale of the local girl who leaves home to become a media star.     
“Do you smile to tempt a lover Mona Lisa, Or is it your way to hide a broken heart? Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep. They just lie there and they die there. Are you warm, are you real Mona Lisa. Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?”
Ray Evens, Jay Livingston 1950
Art is an impersonation. Pigments suspended in oils give the impression of color, and by the clever combination of colors a representation of three dimensional reality can be offered. But it is obviously not reality. You can only be fooled if you wish to be fooled, An artist is a tactician in fraud, and technique is the methodology of his or her lies. Thus, fraud has been art's handmaiden from the instant of creation. And art shares this characteristic with politics and economics and history – you can be fooled only if you are willing to be fooled.
“I have offended God and mankind because my work didn't reach the quality it should have.”
Leonardo Da Vinci
Her real name was Lisa Gherardini. At 16 she married Francesco del Giocondo. Leonardo and his lover Giacomo Caprotti referred to the painting with joke. The pair referred to her as La Gioconda, the feminine version of the husband's last name and the lady's disposition – in French, La Jocunde – means jovial. Francesco died of the plague in 1538. Lisa followed her husband in death on 15 July,  1542. She was 63. She was buried in the convent of St. Ursula in Florence.  On 19 May, 2011, archaeologists reopened what they believed was Lisa's grave. But no skull was ever found, and attempts to match her DNA with those from her children's graves was frustrated by 500 years of repeated flooding by the River Arno. So we may never be able to gaze upon the face that inspired Leonardo di Vinci to create the single most famous and iconic piece of art in history, a painting that was always a masterpiece, but which became iconic only after it was stolen.
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