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LEONARDO THE LAST YEARS Mona Lisa’s Secret By Ton PascalThere are many reasons why the “Mona Lisa” is undoubtedly the most famous,researched, debated and talked about painting of all time. Its story, from commission,concept, travels, and thrills are worthy of a Hollywood film script. Then there is alsothe fact that its creator, Leonardo da Vinci, artist, scientist and inventor, is perhapsone of the most recognized names in the world.What secrets may still lie beneath the layers of the most famous and celebratedpainting the world has ever known?The Mona Lisa’s simplest story starts in1503 with Leonardo’s birthfathercommissioning him to do a portrait of Lisa,the wife of his friend Francesco DelGiocondo. Leonardo, having just escapedthe crazy Cesare Borgia, had reopened hisatelier in Florence with great success andcommissions purred in. Between night longdiscussions with his newly found friend,Niccolò Machiavelli, the painting of thehuge mural “The Battle of Anghiari” and thedaily, incessant fights, and mutualharassments with Michelangelo Buonarotti,Leonardo started the relatively small (77 cmx 53 cm), oil painting of the Italian lady onpoplar boards. Leonardo’s father died thefollowing year and he kept the painting. Upto closer to his death in 1519, Leonardonever stopped adding strokes here andthere on this painting. By then the ItalianLady, la Giaconda was already a veryfamous painting.With fame came questions and debates. What is the message here? Who is thiswoman? Whether it is Lisa Gherardini or Lisa Del Giocondo, the identification of thewoman has kept scholars busy for centuries. The gossip, reports, and books writtenon this subject alone could fill a library.Controversy followed a few centuries later when scholars and researchersquestioned the originality, provenance and ownership of the painting, and again thestory became the source of countless books, essays and reports. Salai, Leonardo’salleged old lover and pupil con-artist was the source of this chapter. On January 12,1524 Salai, who was also an informant-spy, was killed in a brawl. Listed in theinventory of his possessions, among the eleven other paintings, all named afterLeonardo’s well-know masterpieces, was one called “La Giaconda”. This informationdidn’t come to light until early 1800’s. No-one thought to check that in 1524 the TPD Inc. 103 Avenue Rd. Suite 810, Toronto, ON, M5R 2G9 Canada. 1
LEONARDO THE LAST YEARS original “Mona Lisa” was safely hanging in the palace of Fontainebleau along withKing Francis I’s other masterpieces, rather than a dead man’s house in Milan, onethousand kilometers away.All of these facts have contributed to making this painting very precious and famous,but the main reason that makes the Mona Lisa so special is the brilliant, genialconception and new approach to painting. Leonardo’s new experiment, his ‘esfumato’technique, blending shadows and light on Mona Lisa’s portrait, was executed withutmost precision. Mona Lisa’s expression eludes the viewer who questions whethershe is happy or sad. His ‘esfumato’ technique is disturbingly effective. Leonardosoftened all sharp outlines by very subtle and gradual blending of one tone intoanother through the use of thin, intricate layers, half the width of a human hair, togive the illusion of depth or three-dimensionality. Amazingly certain areas have asmany as thirty layers of almost transparent, hand made paint. Is it a dream image, avision, or a portrait of a real woman? The setting and background overflow withsymbols and messages screaming to be understood. Is art imitating nature? Thedreamy background landscapes are at different levels, so if you look at Mona Lisafrom the left she looks taller than from the right. Only a great master of perspectivelike Leonardo could so effortlessly create this illusion of depth to its fullest advantage.The great Florentine painter Georgio Vasari describes the painting in full detail but Iwonder where he saw it as he never visited Fontainebleau where Leonardo daVinci’s portrait was on display. We know that he visited Francesco Melzi, Leonardo’slast assistant and artistic heir, several times after his return to Italy. Did Vasari see acopy made by Melzi? I believe that there are several copies of a “Mona Lisa” stillhidden in dusty attics or secret vaults around the world. Leonardo was not a prolificpainter and when he did a major work it was talked about and most certainly copiedby many artists, as was the case of “Leda and The Swan”, which is lost, but copiedextensively, as well as “The Annunciation”, The Baptism of Christ”, “The Battle ofAnghiari” among others. It is unconceivable that this, even then, very celebratedpainting would not be copied by the best artists of the period. It was their form ofpaying homage to a great artist.Imagine if we could see the Mona Lisa in its original colors as Vasari describes it inhis 1550’s edition of “LIVES OF THE MOST EXCELLENT PAINTERS, SCULPTORS,AND ARCHITECTS,”: “…Seeing that her eyes had that luster and watery sheenwhich are always seen in life, and around them were all these rosy and pearly tints,as well as the lashes, which cannot be represented without greater subtlety. Thenose, with its beautiful nostrils, rosy and tender appeared to be alive. The eyebrowsthrough his having shown the manner in which the hairs spring from the flesh, heremore close and here more scanty, and curve according to the pores of the skin, couldnot be more natural. The mouth, with its opening, and with its ends united by the redof the lips to the flesh-tints of the face, seemed, in truth, to be not colors but flesh. Inthe pit of the throat, if one gazed upon it intently, could be seen the beating of thepulse.” Aggressive retouching throughout past centuries has erased Mona Lisa’seyebrows and eyelashes but recent x-rays of the painting show that they originallyexisted. TPD Inc. 103 Avenue Rd. Suite 810, Toronto, ON, M5R 2G9 Canada. 2
LEONARDO THE LAST YEARS Mona Lisa’s fame exploded to a new high when it was stolen on August 21 19ll. TheLouvre was closed for a full week. Guillaume Apollinaire, a French poet who hadonce said that the Louvre should be burnt down, was the first to come undersuspicion. He was arrested and put in jail. The plot thickened when Apollinaireimplicated the painter Pablo Picasso, who was also questioned and put in jail. Bothmen were later cleared and released. Everyone thought that the painting was lostforever.The actual theft was a very simple and easy caper. Vincenzo Peruggia, one of theLouvre’s employees, was an Italian patriot who believed that the painting should bereturned to Italy. On that fatidic day he snatched the painting when there was no onearound, hid it in a broom closet until closing time and walked out with the paintingunder his coat. For two years he kept the “Mona Lisa” in his Paris apartment. Finallyhe was caught in Italy when he attempted to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery inFlorence. The “Mona Lisa” was returned to the Louvre in 1913 after it had beenexhibited all over Italy. Vincenzo served six months of house arrest and becameItaly’s new national hero.The painting was again removed from the Louvre during World War II and takensafely to several secret places. I am not even going into the shooting, rock and othervandalistic attacks this art work has gone though. Lately we have been bombarded with a multi million dollar campaign by a Swiss corporation wanting to add more value to a painting they own claiming it to be a first version of “Mona Lisa” by Leonardo da Vinci. It is called the “The Isleworth Mona Lisa”. This oil on canvas, which was not Leonardo’s medium, is a poor representation of the original. Late 1400’s canvas made out of hemp was introduced as a new material for painting in a few regions of Europe but it was not the most popular and favorite medium then. The ‘Isleworth’ woman, her posture, veil, her hair, eyes, mouth, does not capture the simple beauty and elusiveness of the original. It could very well be a copy by an amateur artist of the 17th century. We have the technology to exam the composition of pigments and lacquers in this painting against what Leonardo used, as well as the canvas but none ofit has been done. Instead they rely on reviews of ‘scholars’ who claim to be DaVinci’s experts. I do not believe that “The Isleworth” painting is by Leonardo oranyone from his school or time. TPD Inc. 103 Avenue Rd. Suite 810, Toronto, ON, M5R 2G9 Canada. 3
LEONARDO THE LAST YEARS The “Mona Lisa” has created mystery and questioned the unknown from the day itwas first seen, right up to the present day, which is exactly what art is supposed todo. This everlasting masterpiece is still breathtaking despite the ravages of time andsubsequent dreadful retouching. However, the painting’s fame now works against it.Dear “Mona Lisa” has her own private space at the Louvre now, but she is enclosedby bullet proof Plexiglas and you can’t get close to it without attracting the attention ofthe museum’s security guards. And the worst part is that most visitors to the Louvreare more concerned about catching a camera-phone picture of the painting instead ofadmiring the genial conception and execution of this master piece.What a blockbuster of a film this artwork could make!Ton Pascal is a writer, designer of all things and artist. He also loves history and is anavid reader, so it is very natural that his latest book is a time leap into the 16thcentury. LEONARDO THE LAST YEARS starts in 1516 and spans three and a halfyears of Leonardo da Vinci’s life.Follow Ton Pascal on Twitter @tonpascalBuy the book on Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com http://amzn.to/HhNUKNCheck all about Leonardo on http://www.leonardo-tly.com/ TPD Inc. 103 Avenue Rd. Suite 810, Toronto, ON, M5R 2G9 Canada. 4