#Mona Lisa is probably the most famous painting in the world, but since this column sees the work as unworthy of such hype, a likely reason for its fame is the ton of news stories that constantly pop up about it from #Art experts - one sillier than the other. This includes all the speculations about the identity of the sitter. Either the #portrait has been called a likeness of the artist or his mother or his servant.
That latter conjecture came from someone who should know better, the head of the Italian National Historic Properties Evaluation Commission - Silvano Vincenti. Odd that someone having to do with history would overlook accounts written in 1550 by Giorgio Vasari who identified the subject as Lisa Gherardini, wife of the Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.
Mona gets a physical checkup
The latest silliness isn’t about Mona’s identity, but rather about the state of her health. Art critic Jonathan Jones writes in the Guardian this month that the woman was sick with syphilis. (More about that in a moment). Meanwhile, Huffington Post art critic Priscilla Frank reported Jones’ conjecture without questioning it, which has the effect of making it seem reasonable. Even the way she introduced the topic warrants comment. She said that for centuries art experts have “wondered who this mysterious figure was, what the ingenious Leonardo saw in her, and, most importantly, why she isn’t smiling more.” No, no and no.
The sitter is far from “mysterious.” Vasari named her five centuries ago. As for why the artist chose to paint her, it was for the same reason artists paint portraits. Such commissions earn income. And when it comes to the smile, just how much more of a smile must there be to qualify as enough?
Taking Mona’s temperature
Jones says he knows the reason why Mona is not “smiling more.” She’s sick with a venereal disease, namely syphilis, he says, and she can’t stop thinking about the certain death that it will bring. Why does Jones think this? A record in a Florentine convent apothecary indicates that she bought snail water, which was known in her day to combat sexually transmitted diseases. Apparently there was an outbreak of syphilis in Europe when the portrait was made. Even so, why assume that Mona was even sick, let alone suffering from a life-threatening disease? Jones points to “pools of dark shadows spread across del Giocondo’s face.” And while he rightly acknowledges that the darks help define the image, he sees them as suggestions of melancholy and a sign of ill-health.
Check your dates
So what if Mona bought some snail water. Must it be for some fatal disease? Why not some other STD instead? Or maybe she bought it for her husband. None of this matters because that record of her buying snail water occurred more than 10 years after she sat for the portrait. If she had syphilis when she posed for the portrait, she would have died before the time of the purchase. Oh, well, at least Jones wasn’t dredging up the old who-sat-for-the-portrait nonsense.