La Gioconda, or Mona Lisa, c. 1503–1506 by Leonardo da Vinci
Editor’s Note: Dianne Hales is the author of Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered.
Here, Dianne joins Biographile to discuss the odd, inexplicable things people do when faced with the Mona Lisa, exemplifying the bizarre syndrome known as the Stendhal Syndrome.
From acts of aggression, to lust, to selfie-infatuation, behold the myriad acts of mania the Mona Lisa induces.
Presidents and princes lauded her. Poets penned sonnets to her. Singers crooned of her.
Admirers reproduced her image in beads, bread, bulbs, jellybeans, Legos, seaweed and just about every other material imaginable.
But Leonardo da Vinci’s model has stirred more than adulation. A vandal threw acid at the lower part of the painting.
A young Bolivian flung a rock, chipping the left elbow. A Russian woman distraught over being denied French citizenship hurled a souvenir mug. The portrait, barricaded behind bulletproof glass, was unharmed.
The attacks stem, according to art experts, from the same source as the admiration: the deep passions Leonardo’s lady evokes.
But don’t blame his model.
As I discovered in years of tracing her life, Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo (1479-1542) was the proud daughter of an ancient Tuscan clan, the teenaged bride of a prosperous silk merchant twice her age, the mother of seven (including a stepson), a devout Catholic and, in her husband’s words, a “noble spirit.”
As a refined woman of Renaissance Florence, she would have been horrified by the outbursts.
So why does her portrait trigger such intense reactions?
Start with Leonardo, who with thousands of feather-light strokes captured the immediacy of a real, breathing human being centuries before the invention of the camera.
His masterpiece, the art historian Giorgio Vasari wrote, “would cause every brave artist to tremble and fear.” No one could have predicted its effect on mere mortal onlookers.
For centuries, the portrait resided in princely palaces, admired by an elite few.
Only after the French Revolution liberated “the people’s art” did Mona Lisa go on public display in the Louvre.
As Romanticism swept across Europe in the 19th century, hers became the face that launched a thousand fantasies. Suitors bearing flowers and impassioned notes climbed the grand staircase of the Louvre to gaze into her “limpid and burning eyes.”
“Lovers, poets, dreamers go and die at her feet,” a French curator wrote in 1861. He wasn’t exaggerating. The artist Luc Maspero threw himself from the fourth-floor window of his Paris hotel, leaving a farewell note that said, “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die.”
Emotions intensified after a thief stole the Mona Lisa in August, 1911.
Millions mourned as if a person rather than a painting had gone missing.
By the time of her return to the Louvre in 1914, Mona Lisa had been transformed into art’s first mass celebrity, famous for being famous, part of the public domain that anyone could use — or abuse.
The artistic affronts began with Marcel Duchamp, who painted a moustache and goatee on a postcard of the Mona Lisa and called it L.H.O.O.Q. (letters that, when spelled in French, sound like slang for “she’s got a hot ass”). Dali, Magritte, Warhol and other modern masters couldn’t keep their hands off her.
Contemporary artists have pushed the parodies ever further with works like Gorilla Lisa, Gaso Lisa (drenched in oil) and Unicorn Mona (with a horn in the middle of her forehead).
If the far west New South Wales town of Wilcannia has a spiritual sister in the city of Sydney, it is undoubtedly the suburb of Redfern, an indigenous hub that has seen as much trouble as triumph.
It is just a short walk from Redfern Station to the Pine Street Gallery in Chippendale, where the Wilcannia Community Artist exhibition is currently on display.
Here, city dwellers can view the dreams of painters, printers and sculptors from the land of the Barkindji (river people), many of whom have never been exhibited outside of their outback home.
Curator Alex Papasavvas says it was while he was teaching at Wilcannia Central school last year, that he got the idea to take local art to the city.
“Wilcannia was my first graduate position after finishing school,” says Sydney-born Papasavvas.
“It was a big shock for me when I first moved to this isolated community and met Aboriginal people for the first time.”
“What I wanted to do when I was there was to try and teach the students in Wilcannia about art that was relevant to them; that is, artwork made by Aboriginal people in rural New South Wales, preferably from Wilcannia.”
For the first half of the twentieth century, pulp magazines were a quintessential form of American entertainment.
Printed on cheap, wood pulp paper, the “pulps” (as opposed to the “glossies” or “slicks,” such as The New Yorker) had names like The Black Mask and Amazing Stories, and promised readers supposedly true accounts of adventure, exploitation, heroism, and ingenuity.
Such outlets offered a steady stream of work for stables of fiction writers, with content ranging from short stories about intrepid explorers saving damsels from Nazis/Communists (depending on the precise time of publication) to novel-length man vs. beast accounts of courage and cunning.
This, incidentally, gave birth to the term “pulp fiction,” popularized in the 1990s by Quentin Tarantino’s eponymous film.
The Black Mask
In the 1950s, the pulps went into a steep decline.
In addition to television, paperback novels, and comic books, the pulps were overtaken by the more explicit, and even lower brow men’s adventure magazines (readers of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood may remember Perry Smith, the sociopathic misfit who murdered the Clutter family, being an enthusiastic reader of these early lads’ mags).
Thanks to The Pulp Magazines Project, however, many of the most famous publications remain accessible today through a well-designed online interface. Hundreds of issues have been archived in the database that spans from 1896 through to 1946.