It’s true. The Mona Lisa is a man.

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.

PS Please retweet, share, etc. if you have found this article persuasive, informative or remotely interesting.

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Tribes and Immortali resurrected

I could have given up on my novels. At times it seemed they were destined never to be. I didn’t give up because, to me, they are an integral part of my creative work, whether or not they become a success in commercial terms.
Years of frustration have prevented either Immortali or Tribes coming to the marketplace in satisfactory mode but, at last, I have two brilliant covers. There’s work to do on the texts but I hope to put both on Amazon Kindle once I’ve sorted out the mess two publishers made of them.
Many thanks to PepperCreative of Newport, Isle of Wight, for tuning in immediately to what I wanted and to what was needed. They came up with two super designs without fuss, stress and the downright stupidity I experienced in dealing with both Indepenpress and Authorhouse publishers (the latter deserves to be shut down).
Another step along the way and to peace of mind.

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Thank you!

Sitting on the single wooden chair provided by the Coop, struggling to organise errant items into my hideous shopping trolley (why do designers think all old ladies like tartan?) I lost my hospital crutch (I’m recovering from a hip replacement). It slid (as it frequently does) just out of my reach.
Screwing up courage to squirm far enough forward to get it, which meant dealing with the inevitable painful complaint from my hip, I glimpsed a hand grasp the crutch and bring it within my reach.
‘Thank you!’, young attractive lady for thinking how to help promptly.
‘Not much’, you might say. ‘Not exactly saving the planet.’ But, if we all did something similar when we noticed someone struggling (and I don’t nearly enough) it just might.

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How Strange!

I have just realised that my last two blogs are both dated 31st May. What’s strange? you may ask; two on one day. Except that they are, in fact, a year apart.
It wasn’t planned and it shocks me to think a year has passed since I was inclined to write something for someone to read.
However, the reason is plain. The past year has been one of pure frustration, despair at times at my failure to find a home and see my work recognised. Having made some wrong choices, I’m back in life’s waiting room, hoping my turn will come soon.

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Doors

The healthy newborn is greeted by a multitude of open doors, limited only in number by its inherited genes. Soon doors start to close.
By the time the child starts school only a fraction of those doors are still open; though, in most cases, there are still more than enough to facilitate a rich and varied future.
By teenage the choice of open doors to step through has shrunk again and, on reaching early twenties, some of the doors already stepped through have closed behind the individual. Wrong choices lead to more open doors where passing through becomes a matter of survival rather than choice.
For some, the habit of passing through another wrong door to negate the effect of having had a wrong one shut firmly behind them becomes a habit. Choice no longer seems to play its part.
Gradually, the doors diminish and those remaining exist only to enable the individual to continue – until only one door remains and that’s the same for everyone.

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The Story So Far

Anybody visiting my website right now could be forgiven for thinking it a bit of a confused mess. I apologise. It annoys me too.

For months I’ve been in the process of trying to get things done but, as ever, getting things done depends a lot on other people doing things and it seems I have little or no control over timescales, errors and misunderstandings. So I’ve decided the best thing to do is apologise and explain the reasons for the sorry state of some of the information available on my website (which is not the fault of the website’s creator).

Let’s begin with a problem for which I (and only I) am to blame; I do more than one thing. If I just wrote books or just painted pictures, my internet persona would be easier to manage. Instead I write, paint, and hold forth on all sorts of subjects. And I do get the feeling that doing more than one thing makes people take me less seriously. ‘Oh, if she writes books, she can’t be much of a painter then,’ and vice-versa. Doing more than one thing certainly complicates matters when it comes to self-promotion and it gets worse because I write books of a different genre and don’t always paint in the same style.  All my subjects fascinate me but they do vary and, in telling you this, I know I open myself up to the accusation of having a butterfly mind.  I freely confess – I do.  Within the space of a minute I can become absorbed by any number of topics from the true nature of the universe to how long the bog rolls in the bathroom will last. Having said that, it’s my attempt to get things organized which has caused the mess and (hopefully only temporarily) brought about the even more disorganized state of my website.  

Firstly, and easiest to explain, is the non-appearance of paintings for sale. This is due to my inability to muster photographs of my new work. It began with my camera breaking – actually, and most annoyingly, what broke was a small piece of plastic which kept the batteries in place. One day I found it had simply snapped off, leaving no way to use the camera since the batteries would not stay in place. There, all that techno brought low by the snapping of a silly piece of plastic – and money down the drain. I bought another camera; cheap and not good – more money down the drain. I asked people to take the photos, I took the paintings to a professional photo shop. That took time and results varied. I am close now to having all the pictures I need but I have to say, getting my paintings photographed well has caused me more trouble than doing them in the first place.

Now, the really gritty stuff – the books. The bloody books! At the moment, look up Immortali and Tribes on Amazon and you will find a confusing number of versions and a variety of covers. To cut a very tedious story to the bone, this is mostly due to me changing publishers. Why? Well, when you can’t get an answer to any of your emails for a fortnight and no clear explanation over the phone as to why, it’s time to up sticks, don’t you think? So now both books are handled by Authorhouse. But, predictably, that has brought some problems. Immortali has two covers already but will be getting a third due to technical problems with printing. There is no Kindle version (although it’s available on Google and Nook) for more technical reasons and the soft and hardback are over-priced (yes, this is an honest blog). It might interest you to know that, on the softback, I receive just 6p royalties. For that I have no logical explanation. All I can say is, as some compensation for you forking out £10.50 for one of my books in softback on Amazon, you get free postage so it does bring it down a bit. Publication of Tribes seems (touch wood) to be free of technical hitches (so far) but confusion can arise over the fact that a very old version (published 1999 and with a different cover) is still doing the rounds in the second-hand market. The book has been rewritten twice since then so really is of no interest to anyone other than the dedicated student of how an author’s writing changes over time (yes, I really believe I write better now).

Some good news – Tribes will soon have a great promo on You Tube.

Back to the bad. Attempts to move and begin a life dedicated solely (almost) to writing and painting have been frustrated by delays in acquiring my new home. I wait in hope. In the meantime, I’m still at the disposal of others. Is that my little grandson I hear, calling from the bathroom – a bright child who can negotiate his way through the various levels of the video game, Lego Harry Potter, unaided but, as yet, hasn’t quite mastered the art of wiping his bum. – Now, doesn’t that that have something to say about the present state of society?  

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Up or down beat? Why subject matter changes.

When I was a teenager I painted depressing subjects; refugees, weeping mothers standing by graves, etc.  My offering for the composition section of Art A level was entitled Death of a Hero (chosen from a list) and depicted a sick old man lying in bed with a chamber pot underneath.  So why did I choose to paint these subjects?  I think there were two reasons.  Firstly, as a teenager, I felt deeply about stuff; secondly, I thought people needed waking up to how much suffering there was in the world.

These days I wouldn’t dream of painting anything which doesn’t delight the eye and hopefully stir the heart; that means I no longer depict scenes of despair or suffering.  Does this mean I no longer care?  No.  It means I’ve learned that suffering is an unavoidable part of life and sometimes there’s nothing you can do.  Trying to emotionally take on board the enormity of pain and hardship we witness through the media on a daily basis can lead to only one thing; total despair.     

As a teenager I was dismissive of my parents’ generation.  Nothing unusual in that.  But, thinking back, I’m staggered at my ignorance and audacity.  I poured scorn on their love of security and order.  All Things Bright and Beautiful wasn’t just the most popular hymn of the time, it was the catchphrase for the 1950’s.  I saw it as hypocrisy and it sickened me.  But how could I have overlooked the fact that these people had just endured the most devastating war which robbed millions of loved ones and scarred a continent.  Was it any wonder survivors turned their faces from it towards a hopeful future?

So, what about the bad stuff?  Should we just ignore it?  Sometimes, yes, in order to survive.  If there’s something we can do to help we should.  If there’s nothing we can do, let’s try to put into life something better and help redress the balance.  Life is full of injustice, cruelty and pain; far too much for me to want to add to by depicting ‘the dark side’ in my paintings.    

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Immortali. What’s it all about?

AUTHOR’S NOTE ON THE COMMEDIA DELL’ARTE

That William Shakespeare saw at least one Commedia dell’Arte play is not in doubt. His … lean and slippered Pantaloon, recruited to represent the sixth age of man in As You Like It, is confirmation enough.  What is not so widely known is that his comedies owe a great deal to the Commedia scenarios and Much Ado About Nothing was a title in regular use by the Italian troupes long before Shakespeare purloined it.

Molière, on the other hand, admits his debt of gratitude to the Italian company in which he learned the actor’s craft and where he found inspiration as a playwright, even if he did go on to found the forerunner to the world famous Comédie Française which put the Théâtre Italien out of business.

Alas, unlike the plays of Shakespeare and of Molière, those performed by the Commedia dell’Arte are lost to us forever and their written scenarios do little to convey the artistry which, for centuries, charmed and captivated rich and poor alike.  Hardly a trace of the genius is left because the magic was all in the acting and the actor’s skill was improvisation.  No lines were learned.  Nothing was written down, apart from a brief copy of the scenario pinned in the wings.  Yet a common misconception that these troupes consisted merely of buffoons and slapstick artists denies their true professionalism,  ‘… a mastery so skilful as, by a kind of magic, to compel even the most sophisticated members of his audience to submit to the illusion and in spite of themselves to laugh, applaud and acknowledge their admiration’,   –  Casanova, on seeing a performance of the actor, Antonio Sacchi, in the role of Arlecchino.

So who were they, the Commedia dell’Arte?   Where did they come from and when?

The second question is the easier to answer.  They came from Italy, in the middle of the sixteenth century, when the Renaissance was at its height.  Troupes of travelling players containing stock characters, some of them masked, made their first impact upon the social scene at a time of fervent creativity.  It is likely that certain individuals (Arlecchino is recognised as coming from Bergamo, Pantelone from Venice) had already appeared in impromptu regional entertainments but not until the middle of the century did these types come together within a single performance.

As to who they were, opinions differ.  Some scholars trace their origins back to the mimes of Ancient Greece and Rome.  It has even been suggested that Arlecchino is a direct descendent of the god Hermes (patron of herdsmen, artists and thieves).  They are both fleet of foot, wear a similar hat and were rumoured to have fathered many children.  But on one thing all are agreed, Arlecchino, the most endearing and enduring of the roles, is ‘a child of the Tuscan sun’.  And it is perhaps only in such a place at such a time that he and his companions could have flourished because, while they sought first and foremost to entertain, they also challenged.

The Commedia’s art was of the street, concerned with romance, intrigue, jealousy, all the human frailties; a true soap opera in fact.  But there was also within the tradition something else, something then quite new to society, an awareness of the growing tension between servant and master, a burgeoning realisation by the common man that he was as good as the next.  Beaumarchais borrowed the concept and Mozart turned his brilliant, scandalous play into a masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro.  So, if you thought you knew nothing about the Commedia dell’Arte, you were wrong.  You just didn’t know their name.

Throughout the centuries Commedia plots have been plundered, the names of their characters changed to suit national taste.  Arlecchino became Harlequin.  The French took Pedrolino to their hearts and renamed him Pierrot.  But that’s OK because these people are common property, recognisable citizens of the world  –  Pantelone, the elder, the symbol of authority; sometimes a miser, sometimes a lecher, eternally duped.  Pedrolino the dreamer, the nice guy who never gets the girl.  Brighella, the cultured sociopath.  Arlecchino, the sexy bad boy women love to hate.  And Colombina, the feisty, independent-minded heroine striving to keep one step ahead.  Do they sound familiar?  They should.  Peak viewing ratings mark them out.

In my novel, I too have taken liberties with the Commedia dell’Arte.  Within a real company, the actors would have kept the same role for much of their lives but gone by their own names off-stage.  Mine are known only by their characters’ titles and the essence of a Commedia performance, filled with its predictable plot lines and outrageous coincidence, spills over into the narrative so that the novel becomes its own scenario.  Like others before me, I have also tweaked the personalities so that they are more in tune with a modern readership.

All I hope is, the world I have recreated for my troupe would be preferable to them than their current ignominious fate.  Trapped in two dimensions, they decorate greetings cards.  Abandoned by time, their empty costumes are filled now by oblivious revellers on their way to masked balls.  No place for the Commedia, not even in the modern pantomime!

Anyway I disclaim responsibility for what happens in this book.  All I did was invite some characters I love back on stage to improvise.  They did the rest.

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