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The eternal enigma of Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Mona Lisa'

Agus Dermawan T.

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Wed, March 11, 2020  /  01:23 pm
The eternal enigma of Leonardo da Vinci’s 'Mona Lisa'

Changing faces: The many depictions of the 'Mona Lisa'. (From left to right) Leonardo da Vinci's version, Bernardino Luini's version, Philippe de Champaigne's version and a version stored by the Prado Museum in Madrid. (JP/Agus Dermawan T)

Leonardo da Vinci died 500 years ago and his most celebrated work, the Mona Lisa, with its portrayal of a women with a mysterious smile, still captures the imagination of art enthusiasts.

To celebrate the 500th anniversary of da Vinci’s death, the Italian Embassy and the Italian Cultural Institute of Jakarta recently organized and held an exhibition of his works.

The exhibition, titled da Vinci Opera Omnia (da Vinci’s Complete Works), took place at the Bank Mandiri Museum in Jakarta and was originally scheduled to run from Feb. 6 to March 3. However, due to the immense public interest, the organizers extended the exhibition until March 9.

The exhibition did not show da Vinci’s original works but rather their photo reproductions, which were framed and presented with light emitting diode lamps.

Many of the visitors attended the exhibition more than once, including Tossin Himawan, an art collector and corporate businessman.

“The exhibition allows us to approach the paintings so we can examine their details with accuracy,” Tossin said.

He added that the experience he had visiting Opera Omnia was far different from the one he had when he visited Europe to see da Vinci’s works. There, Tossin said, he could only gaze at the works from afar and some were protected by bullet-proof glass.

“It’s more absorbing and familiar here [at Opera Omnia],” he said.

All of da Vinci’s works on display were certainly fascinating. For example, the vibrant colors of L’Annunciazione (The Annunciation), which was created when da Vinci was still young, were fully captured.

However, despite the charms of the other paintings, the Mona Lisa remains the most captivating. This 77 by 53-centimeter masterpiece by da Vinci has never ceased to attract crowds of people eager to gaze upon it.

Explanatory text was provided beside each work, including the Mona Lisa, a painting that art historians continue to find mysterious and puzzling. Many visitors to Opera Omnia hoped to solve the puzzle of the painting but the information provided only added to its ambiguity.

The text detailed several possible background stories behind the making of the Mona Lisa.

One story is that the Mona Lisa was ordered by Francesco del Giocondo from Florence, who asked da Vinci to paint Mona (short for Madonna) Lisa, Francesco’s wife. It was created from 1501 to 1504.

Another story is that the Mona Lisa was a portrait of Pacifica Brandano, a woman beloved by Giuliano de Medici, da Vinci’s patron when the maestro lived in Rome. Nevertheless, the subject of the Mona Lisa has remained an enigma, intriguing the whole world for almost 500 years.

Some believe the subject is actually Lisa Di Antonio Maria Di Noldo Gherardini, the full name of Mona Lisa, a 24-year-old mother of one child. It has also been speculated that when painted, Lisa was expecting her second child, which made her cover her abdomen with her hands. But Francesco saw the face in the painting as bearing no resemblance to Lisa, and so refused to pay. Da Vinci, therefore, kept the work securely in his residence.

The question arises as to why the painting would lack resemblance to its subject, when da Vinci was so talented. One theory is that Lisa’s likeness was merged with that of the mother of da Vinci, with the mysterious smile being hers.

On the other hand, there are those who maintain that the face of the Mona Lisa is the same as the Nude Mona Lisa, a painting discovered and confirmed as original by the conservator of the Louvre Museum, Bruno Mottin.

The smile of the Nude Mona Lisa is indeed different from that of the Mona Lisa. Another hypothesis speculates that the painting is a portrait of Caterina Sforsa, a noblewoman from Forli.

Yet another theory is that the Mona Lisa is in fact an invented figure, combining the face of da Vinci’s mother and that of da Vinci himself. Those who hold to this interpretation argue that the “woman-man” face is reflected in the paintings title, with the name Mona Lisa being derived from the Latin words amon (man) and elisa (woman).

In 1517, when da Vinci lived in France, the painting drew the attention of French king Francois I, who sought to purchase it.

Da Vinci was unwilling to sell for mysterious reasons related to a “family secret”. But Francois insisted until finally he bought it at a very high price — as da Vinci put it — of 4,000 gold florins, equivalent to 15.3 kilograms of gold.

Owing to its small size, Francois displayed it in his bathroom, where it was kept for decades. The Mona Lisa was only known to limited circles in the mid-17th century, before gaining popularity when the Louvre Museum in Paris exhibited it in 1797.

As the Mona Lisa gained popularity, fascination in its enigma again emerged.

In the 16thcentury, many works were made to imitate the Mona Lisa, from the face, sitting position and background, to the crossed hands. Some even resembled the Nude Mona Lisa, as apparent in the La Belle Gabrielle collected by the earl of Spencer in Northampton, United Kingdom, and the Carrara Academy in Bergamo, Italy.

The Prado Museum in Madrid, the National Gallery in Oslo and the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore, United States, also possess 16th century imitations of the Mona Lisa. Some of their creators are known, like Philippe de Champaigne and Bernardino Luini, while others remain anonymous.

With the various 16th century versions of the Mona Lisa, the next question is whether da Vinci had shown the painting to other painters, or did Francois I allow painters to enter his bathroom to see it? Why was the Mona Lisa so often imitated, when many of da Vinci’s other works were no less eye-catching? What makes the Mona Lisaso special?

While on display at the Louvre in 1911, the painting was stolen by museum employee Vincenzo Peruggia, who conspired with Eduardo de Valfierno, a top forger. Peruggia was an Italian, and, after keeping the painting in his apartment for two years, sought to return it to its “homeland”. He was caught after contacting an art gallery owner in Florence, from whom he sought compensation for turning over the painting. While the painting was recovered, the series of events raises another question: Was the painting handed over by Peruggia, the one displayed in the Louvre today, the original? It is still a mystery.

Nevertheless, millions of people come from all over the world each year to marvel at the mystery that is the Mona Lisa, who never loses that enigmatic smile.

“A special painting always spawns stories outside its canvas, outside its frame. The Mona Lisa is the number one example of this,” said Srihadi Soedarsono, an Indonesian painter.

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