The Lady with the Mystic Smile

Last updated 14:30 28/09/2012

News that the Lady with the Mystic Smile sat for old Leonardo twice hit the headlines today when Swiss arty types revealed an earlier version of the painting we all know as the Mona Lisa had been confirmed an authentic Da Vinci.

The new painting shows a smooth browed, apple cheeked young Mona Lisa, in a somewhat more barren setting, though in the same pose with that same, impenetrable smile on her lovely face.

The art world is in an uproar,  although, I'm not quite sure what over.

It's not like Da Vinci didn't regularly do lots of versions of his works before delivering the goods. But it is always exciting when some new drop of information is added to the art history pool. 

I was lucky enough to visit the old Mona Lisa in Paris earlier in the year. I'd never been before, but I'm a sucker for the big Tourist Hit, so I didn't hesitate upon arriving in the city of Love to make my way across the river to Napoleon's summer bach.

The Louvre is, let's not mince words, frikken massive. Much of it is closed for refurbishment at the moment, and it is still frikken massive.  And there's no running around it a la Bande a Part, because

1) Tourists and


Just give up any hope you have of seeing everything, because one day is not enough. I didn't even have one day, so I picked five things I felt like I had to see: Napoleon's apartments, Michelangelo's slaves, Canova's Cupid and Psyche snogging, Antinous' giant beautiful head and, at the top of the list, the Mona Lisa.

I planned to zoom straight to Mona and get it out of the way - it was really just a duty call, going to see it. A thing I felt like I needed to say I've done, a box to be ticked. I like Da Vinci, but as a former art history nerd my heart belongs to Michelangelo and I want to get to the Dying Slaves.

The Louvre had other plans though: The Denon wing, where she lives, was 'closed' as an entry point and there were practically piles of disgruntled tourists trying to get through.  Some faintly ruffled looking staff suggested I enter through Richelieu wing which was, needless to say, similarly rammed with international art lovers and American teenagers.

I had to take the long way around the palace, because this was a museum that required crowd control. 

When I get to Napoleon's insanely opulent apartments things go a little crazy.  Things are actually already a little crazy in old Bony's city pad, what with all the gold, ruby silk and undulating flesh on the walls. The huge crowd is barely shuffling through the rooms, heads craning left and right and mostly up at the rococo craziness.

But the real object for most of the people here is through the hall next door, in a medium sized room with bland museum walls off to the left.

There are gorgeous and imposing Tintorettos, Titans and Veroneses hanging on every surface in here.  Massive public works by the greatest artists who ever picked up a bush. But no one cares. The 30-deep scrum at the far end of the room is to see a small, muddy looking painting of a woman.

Okay, so she is the most famous woman in the world, possibly. But there's no way of explaining why the people - all the people, all of them -  have chosen her portrait to be the definitive representation of high art.

I imagine Da Vinci would be as bemused as I am about it. He painted so many large, public, imposing pieces of art, meant to put awe into your soul as you cowered before god.  And if you can name even one of them you probably have a degree in Art History. But it's this, this 77 cm × 53 cm vanity piece for the wife of a mate, this is the one painting everyone knows.

She is the Mona Lisa, Lisa del Giacondo of Florence,  and she's the one painted face everyone has seen, no matter how careless of the arts they are.

I'm not sure I really got that until I came in here. As I made my way through the room, I realised my heart was pounding and my eyes were getting a little damp. It is the most famous painting in the world! And I'm looking at it!

I've felt like this before, at gigs of bands I am passionate about, at signings with people who are so famous, so famous, mentioning you've met them leaves people incredulous, leave you incredulous, because they are so impossibly, untouchably god like.

Only this is a painting.  It's weird to feel like this about 500 year old pigment on stretched canvas, really weird.  But it is what it is.

There were about 300 people the room having the same experience me. It was like a pap frenzy, the barrier at a rock show. In fact I was reminded later that rock idols My Chemical Romance visited the Mona Lisa when they were in Paris last summer and bassist Mikey Way described it as being exactly like the front row of a gig: pure hysteria.

I get jostled and nudged and elbows.  But I slowly made my way to the front for my turn in her presence.  Staff there try to keep everyone moving after two pictures, but I find myself reluctant to leave, the energy is amazing.

The painting though is nothing special, a muddy little image of an ugly girl (who might even be an ugly boy dressed up as a girl) set in a floaty, idealised, romantically wild landscape, and yet...

In all that muddiness she is pristine; a golden visage, apple cheeked and slant eyed. The dark, arc of her hair only makes her sphinxy face more lambent. And her smile - it's as if she is graciously accepting the adoration of the crowd, clamouring at the wooden rail, with amused condescension. She really does know something we don't.

Christ sits opposite her, on the far wall, at the head of the table in Veronese's magnificent and massive Wedding at Cana  - an ode to the conspicuous and God ordained consumption of his patrons - looking somewhat startled that a mere girl is getting this adulation when he's just done miracles. 'I turned water into wine and saved the day, and this what I get?!'

Well, Adonai, she's just less accessible than you, and humans are perverse that way. Where there's a sniff of aloofness we become obsessed, and Mona has been treating us mean and keeping us keen for more than five hundred years.

I don't know if the discovery of this new image will taint that feeling of specialness when you are in La Giaconda's presence.  The new image, with her smooth, silky, youthful, cheeks, lacks the mystery of Mona. But it also robs the Louvre's version of some of the charge. Why did he paint this strange looking girl twice?

Now we can only wonder if maybe La Giaconda's portrait was another of his experiments - to capture beauty fading.  Was there to be another portrait ten years after the Mona Lisa?  And another ten after that? Da Vinci was an artist with the soul of a scientist.  The object would have been fascinating to him.

Capturing Lisa del Giaconda's slow decent into decrepitude has the air of a memoir du mort, too.  And that was the most popular of Renaissance topics: Don't get cocky, kid. You start out here - fresh faced and lovely - and wind up here - on Leonardo's anatomy slab.

Or maybe the 'younger' image was the vanity portrait, and the Mona Lisa we all know and love was Da Vinci exercising his passion for verisimilitude, for natural beauty?  Because the Mona Lisa is beautiful, despite being odd looking. And to my mind she will always be more beautiful than this newly discovered starlet.

Will young Mona ever be able to claim the adoration we've given her elder (better) self, or is her youthfulness just a prelude to greatness and not the real thing?

- Kapi-Mana News


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