COFFEE AND TEA – Chapter Nine – The Mystery of Mona Lisa

“What one quality makes you an artist, Isabel?”

“Concentration. Concentration is love, Ashton. There is a special way to hold a pencil, a brush, there is a special mood, a meditative and intense passion, when you draw and paint you feel more alive.”

Leonardo da Vinci once said: “In painting, I can do everything possible.” But his abilities transcended painting: he studied anatomy, birds, fossils, flying machines, the heart, optics, botany, geology, weaponry and water flows, or as he put it: “the infinite works of Nature…” He radiated wisdom and possessed a pure, and obsessive curiosity, yes he was a genius, creative across multiple disciplines. Leonardo had no school education and could barely read Latin, or do long division. His imagination, however, pervaded everything he touched. He created theatrical productions, designs for ideal cities, schemes for flying machines. The historian Kenneth Clark called him “the most relentlessly curious man in history. “

Over and over in his life, Leonardo makes lists of things he has got to do and learn. “Why is the fish in the water swifter than the bird in the air, when it ought to be the contrary since water is heavier and thicker than the air?” “Describe the tongue of the woodpecker,” he instructs himself. Who in the world would decide one day, for no good reason, that he wants to know what the tongue of a woodpecker’s like? For fox sake, Isabel, it’s a mere wonder he didn’t ask “Why is the sky blue?” One of the entries in his diaries surprisingly states: “Go every Saturday to the hot bath, where you will see naked men.” He wanted to do that for reasons anatomical and aesthetic. As the New Yorker art critic Adam Gopnik once said: “Leonardo remains weird, matchlessly weird, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

a large building with a tower

The town Vinci where he was born and baptized, is a picturesque town surrounded by vineyards and olive trees. Leonardo is called da Vinci, which means “from Vinci.” Some researchers thought his mother Caterina was an Arab, or perhaps a Chinese slave. His parents never married.

Leonardo used to live in Florence, a place sizzling with creativity at the time, a great cultural and financial center. A third of Florence’s population was literate.

The essayist Benedetto Dei wrote in 1472: “Beautiful Florence has all seven of the fundamental things that a city requires for perfection. First it enjoys complete liberty, second it has a large, rich and elegantly dressed population, third it has a river with clear and pure water and mills within it walls, fourth, it rules over castles, towns, lands, and people, fifth, it has a university and both Greek and accounting are taught, sixth it has masters in every art; seventh, it has banks and business agents all over the world” In other words it was a cradle of ideas to teenage Leonardo – the city itself had become a work of art.

A week before his twenty-fourth birthday, Leonardo was accused of engaging sexually with a male prostitute. Leonardo was romantically and sexually attracted to men, and unlike Michelangelo, he seemed to be totally okay with this. He even taught one of his earliest male companions how to play the lyre. His most serious companion was angelic looking but devilish in personality, and he was called Salai – the little Devil. He was described as “a graceful and beautiful youth with fine curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted, and he was the subject of many sexual comments.

a cross stitch picture of a woman's faceLeonardo was never known to have had a relationship with a woman, he seemed to distaste the heterosexual copulation. Homosexuality was not uncommon among artists of Florence. Indeed it was so popular that the world Florenzer became slang in Germany for “gay.” But it was a crime and often prosecuted – the church banished it as a sin. Speaking of Leonardo’s peculiarities for his exact knowledge of human anatomy, he had lived in a hospital, where he studied skeletons and dissected more than 30 cadavers.

Leonardo looked good, was muscular in build, and a gentleman, a man of “outstanding beauty and infinite grace. He was striking and handsome and his great presence brought comfort to the most troubled soul. His disposition was so lovable, that he commanded everyone’s affection, He was so pleasing in conversation that he attracted to himself the hearts of men. He was friendly precise and generous with a radiant and graceful expression. His genius for invention was astounding and he was the arbiter of all questions related to beauty and elegance.” – With such love and affection wrote Leonardo’s contemporaries about the great artist. He dressed colorfully, and as he grew older he grew a long beard, which “came to the middle of his breast and was well-dressed and curled.  

Leonardo da Vinci head bust

Because he loved animals, Leonardo was a vegetarian for much of his life. “He would not kill a flea, for any reason, whatsoever.” He was so generous that he sheltered and fed all his friends, rich or poor.  His brilliance had one flaw: he was called by his friend Vasari “capricious and fickle.”

He painted the world’s most memorable smile. Even art connoisseurs cannot decide if the smile of Mona Lisa is happy or sad. “In this work of Leonardo, there is a smile so pleasing, that it was more divine than human. While painting her portrait he employed people to play and sing for her, and jesters to keep her merry, to put an end to the melancholy that painters often succeed in giving to their portraits.” The famous painting has got a captivating mystery around it. The smile flickers as we stare. What’s she thinking? Our eyes move a bit and her smile seems to change. The mystery compounds. The most fascinating is that the lady’s gaze seems to follow the viewer, no matter where he or she stands to look at the painting. Check this for yourself.

Her stare has followed visitors for hundreds of years. This effect is due to the elements of shadow, light, and perspective employed by the great artist. He mastered the ability to draw objects on a two-dimensional surface so that they look three-dimensional.

People are prone to believe that the Mona Lisa is a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. But this being Leonardo, there have been some disputes and mysteries.

Mona Lisa hung in Napoleon’s bedroom until it was moved to the Louvre in 1804. It caused a traffic jam in New York were 1.6 million people came to see it in seven weeks. In Tokyo, the curious were only allowed to view the picture for 10 seconds. It is not only the most admired but also the most reproduced image in all art.” It became the most famous painting in the world because viewers are able to feel an emotional engagement with her. Most of all she seems aware both of us and herself – that makes her seem the most alive of any portrait ever painted. “It was painted in a way to make every brave artist tremble and lose heart!”

When the British needed to contact their allies in the French Resistance during World War II, they used a code phrase: “La Joconde garde un sourire – the Mona Lisa keeps her smile.”

Bibliography: Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson


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