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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Mona Lisa’
MONA LISA: LEONARDO'S EARLIER VERSION
By the Mona Lisa FoundationThe Mona Lisa Foundation$99, 297 pages
Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa"(1501-1516) is regarded as one of the world's finest masterpieces and greatest mysteries. For centuries, art historians and literary biographers have written volumes discussing every geometrical line, color, angle and shape in this beautiful painting. They have debated the central figure's true identity and whether it has a hidden meaning. Some have even tried to explain why this woman is smiling and what she may be smiling at.
Certain questions about the "Mona Lisa" have been answered gradually. For instance, a margin note written by Niccolo Machiavelli's assistant, Agostino Vespucci, in 1503 proved the sitter was Lisa del Giocondo, a member of the once-prominent Gherardini family in Florence. This important clue wasn't discovered until 2005 at the University Library of Heidelberg. Yet other questions remain unresolved and, in certain cases, have opened doors to more discussions.
Consider the intriguing debate about a painting attributed to da Vinci, "The Isleworth Mona Lisa" (1501-1505). This work is well-known to most researchers and observers, and has been the source of constant quarreling for centuries. The artistic community simply can't agree whether this is an original painting or a beautifully drawn copy.
This question, too, finally may have an answer. Stanley Feldman, an Irish-born art historian, has extensively studied the two "Mona Lisa" paintings. He is convinced that da Vinci painted the early and later versions -- and in both cases, del Giocondo is the sitter. The Mona Lisa Foundation in Zurich supports Mr. Feldman's thesis. It has published an intriguing book, "Mona Lisa: Leonardo's Earlier Version," which includes his findings and contributions by Alessandro Vezzosi, John Asmus and Pascal Cotte.
This art book is, much like its subject matter, worthy of being called a masterpiece. It's a hefty hardcover volume with gold-leaf binding, huge amounts of color plates, various high-gloss page reproductions and a movable bookmark. Without question, the Mona Lisa Foundation took great time and care in developing this book.
What about the contents? It's a compelling argument, to be sure. The sections on historical evidence and historical background point out that da Vinci's "art, painting and sculpture in particular, was never his main priority. His vast amount of notes, written over a lifetime, clearly illustrates the thinking of one man who single-handedly personified so much of Renaissance creativity, and this often overshadows some of his actual work." With respect to the "Mona Lisa," there is some discussion that he left it "unfinished, and that is the way this painting remains." Mr. Feldman also attempts to show how some famous artists (Raphael, Titian, etc.) had a "Leonardesque style" to them, and constructs an argument that da Vinci did create more than one copy of his most famous work.
Great detail is put into discussion about the "Mona Lisa" and its principal players, including the infamous "perfect crime" of the painting's theft in Aug. 21, 1911, and why the artist who "used to paint for dukes and princes" accepted "the commission to paint the wife of an untitled merchant."
The sitter at the center of attention is given her own chapter, about whether del Giocondo was "Leonardo's own self-portrait" or "the Louvre portrait [is] a fictionalization of Leonardo's ideal woman," or something entirely different.
The chapter that truly stands out in "Mona Lisa: Leonardo's Earlier Version" is "Connoisseurship." It's an extraordinary comparison of the two "Mona Lisa" paintings, as well as various copies found in the National Museum of Art in Oslo, the Museum of Prado in Madrid and the collection of Lord Brownlow of Grantham, Lincolnshire. Every aspect of the paintings -- face, eyes, neck, columns, color scheme, light and shadow, and various hidden techniques -- is analyzed and reanalyzed to the brink of collapse. Technologies such as X-ray exams and various tests by forensic artists are conducted to ensure that a connection is real.
The book ultimately lists three major findings. First, the "artist intended from the outset that the works would be different from each other." Second, the two paintings "are original works by the same artist, and neither could be a copy of the other." Third, and most important, "Both paintings were executed by Leonardo da Vinci." Hence, "both 'Mona Lisa' portraits are of the same woman and completed approximately 11 years apart."
What do I think? I'm neither an art expert nor completely convinced that da Vinci created the two "Mona Lisa" paintings. But I'm willing to concede that this book provides real food for thought. I'm also more willing to accept the possibility of a connection between the paintings.
With the 500-year-old mystery of the "Mona Lisa" and "Isleworth Mona Lisa" at stake, these important revelations could bring us one step closer to being able to say, "Case closed."
• Michael Taube, a regular contributor to The Washington Times, is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
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