At last something has prized me out of my extended bout of blog inactivity brought on by ill health, lack of a home of my own and becoming ensnared in the net of a corrupt publisher i.e. Authorhouse.
But I digress.
I’ve been prodded to ‘put pen to paper’ by watching Andrew Graham Dixon’s Secrets of the Mona Lisa, screened last Wednesday night (9th December at 9pm). Those who know me of old will also know why this interesting but ultimately disappointing foray into the mysterious world of the great man has stirred me into comment but, rather than rush to put my point of view, I’ve given myself time to think about the points covered in the programme.
For me, most illuminating was the sight of Raphael’s sketch of the painting he saw in Leonardo’s studio. It certainly points to the existence of another earlier Mona Lisa like the one shown which might have been delivered to her husband. The portrait of that beautiful young woman, seated between columns, would certainly have been worth getting his hands on, finished or not. I’ve always wondered why the merchant had not, apparently, taken possession of his property which remained with the artist until he died. I was also intrigued by the X-ray findings of the French expert – although I do wonder if he had taken into account the possibility of the Mona Lisa we are familiar with having been painted on an old unwanted canvas simply to save money. As a painter myself, I believe that working continuously on an oil painting would make it hard to discern (even by X-ray) any previous image since the oil remains wet and the paint moves with every overlaid brushstroke; so it seems there must have been a gap of time for the paint to dry out fully to create the images the expert found.
Another useful piece of information came in the form of the connection between Leonardo’s father and the merchant. I can well imagine Leonardo’s dad saying. ‘Come on, son. Do this one for me. He’s a good customer.’ The costume designer also had some interesting things to say and brought a different slant to the subject. But, for me, her most pertinent remark came in the form of the comment that the Mona Lisa we know is a fictional/imaginary portrait (apologies, can’t remember which word she used). But she’d summed it up; the Mona Lisa we know best has little to do with the woman who may, or may not, have sat to have her portrait painted.
Anyone who watched this programme could have easily come away with the impression that Leonardo da Vinci was a heterosexual male with a crush on a lovely merchant’s wife whose image he worked hard to capture and perfect. And this is where the programme let the viewer down in being so woefully neglectful of Leonardo the man. Finally, in his summing up, Andrew Graham Dixon went off into an esoteric flight of fancy trying to explain the true nature of the Mona Lisa we are familiar with, ignoring completely the significance of certain facts, which are:
Leonardo was homosexual (arrested for said ‘crime’, he escaped punishment by good fortune and the skin of his teeth).
Sexual preference aside, he was a great admirer of female beauty.
He kept the Mona Lisa throughout his life and reworked it constantly.
Leonardo also kept with him a young man he called Salai, who doubled up as his apprentice and servant (although not much good at either, apparently). According to Vasari, Salai was ‘a very attractive youth of unusual grace and looks, with beautiful hair which he wore in ringlets and which delighted his master’. Disreputable and lazy, Salai was adored by Leonardo who tolerated this wayward ‘child’ because he loved him.
I expect you can see where I’m headed. And there are numerous studies which state, as I do now, that the face looking out at us from the Mona Lisa in the Louvre is that of Salai. Yet the only mention of these theories in Dixon’s account was a throwaway comment to the effect that some people even claim the Mona Lisa is a man in drag! (mocking laughter inferred).
One very puzzling thing was his comment on reaching the vaults of the convent where the merchant’s wife was laid to rest. ‘This is as far as the story takes us,’ he said (or words to that effect). But an Italian academic named Silvano Vinceti has, famously and for some time, been excavating there in the hope of finding her skull. Why no mention of him? Was it because Vinceti also believes that, whoever the original sitter for the Mona Lisa was, the image we see now is the face of Salai?
It makes me wonder if Andrew Graham Dixon took his lead for the making of this programme from Prof Martin Kemp who was a contributor. If so, it would explain the omission of all reference to Leonardo’s sexuality and the activities of Vinceti. A few years ago I emailed Martin Kemp for a comment on Vinceti’s theories and received a response near incandescent in its fury. He dismissed the man as a fantacist.
So what makes my theory and that of Vinceti credible? Where’s the proof? For me the proof lies in what I see when I look at two paintings: The Mona Lisa and the St. John the Baptist (another of the paintings Leonardo kept with him until he died). And it’s here I find myself at odds with experts like Prof Kemp who believe that, if something is not written down, it cannot be regarded as true. Does that mean then that, if something is written down, it must necessarily be true? Besides, my theory doesn’t contradict any written evidence on the subject; it merely fills in the gaps.
Academic versus artist then; words written at the time versus the obvious similarity between the faces of the Mona Lisa and St. John the Baptist (which is widely acknowledged to be a painting of Salai). It is highly unlikely that anyone will find a written document confirming Leonardo had painted his male lover (except in my novel) because, at the time, such a disclosure could have led to his execution. However there are several drawings accredited to him which are acknowledged (even by experts) to be of his servant and there’s even a pornographic doodle within Leonardo’s notes which was put there, it is claimed, by the young man.
By way of a follow up, if you feel so inclined, you can Google away on the subject. You’ll find plenty of information. To me it’s only common sense that Leonardo used the face of someone he loved in his exploration of sublime human beauty (by the way, Salai would not have had to pose; the boy’s features would have been ingrained on his master’s heart and eye). Within the work of many great artists you can discern a face which reoccurs. In Picasso’s case, the face is always his own. No comment on that.
So, there are opposing camps when it comes to the true identity of the Mona Lisa. Academic versus artist. And what’s my particular interest in the subject? A few years ago I wrote a novel about a troupe of Renaissance actors. Part of the sub-plot centred around the Mona Lisa. But, just in case you think I’ve written this in order to get you to buy my book, think again. Available only as second hand copies – or through the afformentioned unscrupulous Authorhouse who, having had the book removed from their lists, appear to be selling it anyway, I would not benefit from any sales.
Again, I digress.
What I have tried to do here is redress the balance. Unlike Andrew Graham Dixon who appears to believe you can separate the artist from the man then treat that artist as some kind of demi-god, I believe the only way to reach the truth about an artist’s work is to embrace the whole person, flesh an’ all.
I urge you then, go searching; and make your mind up for yourself.
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