Tuesday, October 19

The Mona Lisa: the seemingly hidden detail that reveals a new meaning of Leonardo da Vinci’s painting

Some things are so obvious that you never notice them.

And that happens in a ubiquitous image like of Mona Lisa.

The inexhaustible portrait of Leonardo da Vinci from 1503 starring Lisa del Giocondo, a 24-year-old woman, mother of five and the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, is without doubt the most famous work of art in the world.

Yet how many of us have ever consciously noticed the object in the painting that is closer to us than any other: the chair in which the mysterious woman sits?

It does not matter that it is the only thing that Leonardo’s model grasps with her hand (literally all the fingers of her hand touch or point to it), the chair must surely be the most overlooked aspect of a painting that has been over-observed.

Hidden in plain sight, it can also be the arrow that points the way to the deeper meanings of the work.

Beyond the smile

For centuries our attention has largely been focused elsewhere on the small oil panel on poplar (77 × 53 centimeters) that Da Vinci never completely finished and is believed to have continued to obsessively play with until his death in 1519. .

Louvre Museum
La Gioconda is one of the most seen and photographed works, but it still holds many mysteries. (Photo: Getty Images)

Concern for Mona Lisa’s inscrutable smile is almost as old as painting, dating back at least to the reaction of the legendary Renaissance writer and historian. Giorgio Vasari, which was born a few years after Da Vinci began working on the image.

“The mouth, with its opening and its tips joined by the red of the lips to the tints of the flesh of the face”, observed Vasari in his famous “Lives of the most excellent painters, sculptors and architects.”

“They seemed, in truth, not to be colors but the skin itself (…) at the back of the throat, if you looked at it carefully, you could see the pulse beat.”

And he concluded: “In this work of Leonardo, there was such a pleasant smile that it was something more divine than human to contemplate, and it was considered as something wonderful, in the sense that it was something alive.”

The fascinating mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile and how Leonardo magically harnessed it to create “something more divine than human” and yet “nothing more and nothing less than alive” would turn out to be too intense for many.

The Gioconda
The smile is the most studied, but your hands also keep secrets. (Photo: Getty Images)

The 19th century French art critic Alfred Dumesnil He confessed to finding the paradox of painting completely paralyzing.

In 1854, he stated that the “smile is full of attraction, but it is the treacherous attraction of a sick soul that portrays madness.”

“This gaze, as soft but greedy as the sea, devours.”

If legend is to be believed, the “treacherous attraction” of the Mona Lisa’s irresolvable smile also consumed the soul of an aspiring French artist named Luc Maspero.

According to popular myth, Maspero, who supposedly ended his days by jumping from the window of his hotel room in Paris, was driven into destructive distraction by the mute whispers from the Mona Lisa’s raptly joyous lips.

“For years I have desperately struggled with his smile,” he is said to have written in the note he left. “I’d rather die”.

Hands and eyelids

However, not everyone has been content to locate the center of the magnetizing mystique of the Mona Lisa in his enigmatic smile.

Victorian writer Walter Father He believed that it was the “delicacy” with which his hands and eyelids are painted that paralyzes and hypnotizes us, making us believe that the work possesses supernatural power.

“We all know the face and hands of the figure,” he observed in an article on Da Vinci in 1869, “in that circle of fantastic rocks, as in a dim light under the sea.”

Pater proceeds to meditate on the Mona Lisa in such a singularly intense way that in 1936 the Irish poet William Butler Yeats he was forced to take a phrase from Pater’s description, divide it into free verses, and install them as an opening poem in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse that Yeats was compiling at the time.

The passage Yeats couldn’t help but reply begins: “It is older than the rocks it sits on; like the vampire, he has died many times and has learned the secrets of the grave; it has plunged into deep seas, and keeps its last days around it; she trafficked through strange networks with oriental merchants, and, like Leda, she was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, like Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this was for her like a sonar of lyres and flutes “.

The portrait “lives”, concludes Pater, “in the delicacy with which it has molded the changing features and tinted the eyelids and hands”.

Mona Lisa's Hands
All of the Mona Lisa’s fingers either touch the chair or point to it. (Photo: Getty Images)

Pater’s description still amazes. Unlike Dumesnil and the hapless Maspero before him, Pater sees beyond the seductive trap of the portrait’s smile.

It is fixed in a greater vitality that seeps as from the depths of the surface.

By arguing that the painting represents a figure suspended in an incessant shuttle between the here and now and some otherworldly realm beyond, Pater points to the mystical essence of the painting’s perennial appeal: its surreal sense of eternal flow.

Like Vasari, Pater witnesses a pulsating and breathing presence – “changing characteristics” – that transcends the inert materiality of the portrait.


The key to the strength of Pater’s language is the insistence on aquatic images that reinforce the fluidity of the model’s elusive being (“dim light under the sea”, “submerged in deep seas” and “trafficked… with oriental merchants”) , as if the Mona Lisa were a inexhaustible source of living water, an endless ripple in the endless eddies of time.

Maybe it is. There are reasons to think that such a reading, which sees the model as a source of eternal resurgence that changes shape, is precisely what Leonardo intended.

Flanked on either side by flowing bodies of water and which the artist cleverly places in such a way as to suggest that they are aspects of his model’s self, Da Vinci’s subject has a strangely underwater quality that is accentuated by the seaweed green dress.

The Mona Lisa wears a second amphibian skin that becomes more cloudy and darker over time.

The cockpit sylla

Turning her gaze slightly to the left to meet ours, the Mona Lisa is not sitting on any old bench or stool, but on what is popularly known as a chair. cockpit.

Meaning “small well,” the pozzetto introduces a subtle symbolism into the narrative that is as revealing as it is unexpected.

Detail of the face of the Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa is a landscape unto itself, some experts say. (Photo: Getty Images)

Suddenly, the waters we see snaking in a labyrinthine motion behind the Mona Lisa (whether they belong to a real landscape, such as the valley of the Italian river Arno, as some historians believe, or entirely imaginary, as others argue) are no longer distant and disconnected from the model, but are an essential resource that sustains its existence. They literally flow into her.

By placing the Mona Lisa within a “small well,” Da Vinci transforms her into an ever-fluctuating dimension of the physical universe she occupies.

Martin KempAn art historian and leading Da Vinci expert, he has also detected a fundamental connection between the depiction of the Mona Lisa and the geology of the world it inhabits.

“The artist was not literally portraying the prehistoric or future Arno,” Kemp states in his study “Leonardo: 100 Milestones (2019)”, “but he was shaping the landscape of the Mona Lisa based on what he had learned about the change in the ‘body of the Earth’ to accompany the transformations implicit in the woman’s body as a lesser world or microcosm ”.

The Mona Lisa is not sitting in front of a landscape. She is the landscape.

The meaning of the well

As with all the visual symbols used by Leonardo, the chair cockpit it is multivalent and serves more than simply to link the Mona Lisa to the artist’s well-known fascination with the hydrological forces that shape the Earth.

The subtle hint of a “little hole” in the painting as the channel through which the Mona Lisa emerges into consciousness completely repositions the painting in cultural discourse.

This is no longer just a secular portrait, but something more spiritually complex.

Representations of women “at the well” are a staple throughout the history of Western art.

Christ and the Samaritan woman, de Duccio di Buoninsegna (1310-1311)
The symbol of the well is common, as in the work “Christ and the Samaritan Woman”, by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1310-1311). (Photo: Getty Images)

The Old Testament stories of Eliezer meeting Rebecca at a well and Jacob with Rachel at the well became especially popular in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, as everyone from Bartolomé Esteban Murillo to Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo to William Holman Hunt, they tried their luck with these narratives.

Also, apocryphal depictions of the Annunciation in the New Testament (the moment when the Archangel Gabriel informs the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to Christ) next to a spring were common among medieval manuscript illustrators, and may even have inspired the oldest surviving portrait of Mary.

As an infinitely elastic emblem, as Walter Pater suggests, the Mona Lisa is certainly capable of absorbing and reflecting all those resonances and many more. There is no one other than her.

“Living Water”

But perhaps the most pertinent parallel between Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and the pictorial forerunners is one that can be drawn with the many depictions of a biblical episode in which Jesus finds himself in a well having a cryptic conversation with a woman from Samaria.

The Gioconda
Water is a fundamental element to understand the Mona Lisa, the great work of Leonardo Da Vinci. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the Gospel of Saint John, Jesus makes a distinction between the water that can be drawn from the natural spring – water that will inevitably leave one “thirsty” – and the “living water” that he can provide.

While the water from a well can only sustain a perishable body, the “living water” is capable of satiating the eternal spirit.

The remarkable representations of the scene of the medieval Italian painter Duccio di Buoninsegna and of the German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder they tend to seat Jesus directly on the wall of the well, suggesting his dominance over the fleeting elements of this world.

However, by placing his model metaphorically down the well, Da Vinci confuses tradition and suggests, instead, a fusion of the material and spiritual realms, a blurring of here and beyond, into a shared plane of eternal creation.

In Da Vinci’s gripping narrative, the Mona Lisa is herself a miraculous wave of “living water,” serenely content to be aware of her own intense infinity.

Read the original story in English on BBC Culture.

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