Leonardo's Smiley


At the National Gallery in London, nine of the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci are currently on exhibit. If you plan on going, you have until February to see them. But you won't see Leonardo's most iconic painting, the Mona Lisa---unless you include on your itinerary a visit to the Louvre in Paris.  You will find it there in the Grande Galerie, under bullet-proof glass.  That bewitching lady with the inscrutable smile,  done in oil on poplar wood, measuring 30 inches by 21 inches.   Its small dimensions themselves a paradox.  For no other work of art can equal the scope and breath of its appeal.

It took Da Vinci  over a decade to finish it in 1519 shortly before his death.  It is fortunate he did; he left many projects unfinished. Not surprising according to  Christopher Knight in today's Tribune.  Distractions were Da Vinci's Achilles' heel. He was---besides a painter--- an engineer, a geologist, a musician, a philosopher, an equestrian, a botanist, a mathematician, an inventor. He probably did windows too.

Who is this mysterious woman? The wife of a Florentine merchant?  The conventional wisdom.  Da Vinci's mother?  Hi, Mom? Or for those into wild speculation, Da Vinci in drag?  Da Vinci has the last laugh? Too far out even for a liberal like me.

She's called La Gioconda in Italian: the smiling one.  Vasari, who wrote biographies of Renaissance painters of the time, said her"smile was so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human, and those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original."  Her eyes are hypnotic too.  The cognoscenti of art tell us that  a technique Da Vinci used---sfumato--- softened the corners of the eyes and mouth.  The effect is a riveting stare which won't take its eyes off of you.

Dan Brown's novel "The Da Vinci Code"  added to the patina of the Mona Lisa's fame.  And  some Italian scientific investigators have actually found letters (an L and V) in the pupils of her eyes, and the number 72 near the arch of the bridge in the background.  So this masterpiece that Napoleon hung  in his bedroom;  that was stolen  in 1911, kept for two years by the thief, hidden in his valise; that was attacked by two vandals in 1956; and  that John Kennedy unveiled at the National Gallery in January of the year he died; continues to cast its spell.   Its charisma will always  defy our explications or descriptions.  Sister Wendy---my favorite decoder of art---has said it best: The Mona Lisa will always be "a work that we  can only gaze at in silence."

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