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).
Self-Portrait at the Clavichord with a Servant, c. 1577, Oil on canvas.
Lavinia Fontana was born in Bologna on August 24, 1552, the daughter of the painter Prospero Fontana, who was a prominent painter of the School of Bologna at the time and served as her teacher. Continuing the family business was typical at the time.
Her earliest known work, ” Monkey Child”, was painted in 1575 at the age of 23. Though this work is now lost, another early painting, Christ with the Symbols of the Passion, painted in 1576 is now in the Cornell Fine Arts Museum. She would go on to paint in a variety of genres.
Early in her career, she was most famous for painting upper-class residents of her native Bologna.
She began her commercial practice by painting small devotional paintings on copper, which had popular appeal as papal and diplomatic gifts, given the value and lustre of the metal.
In addition to portraits (the typical subject matter for women painters), she later created large scale paintings with religious and mythological themes which sometimes included female nudes.
Fontana married Paolo Zappi (alternately spelled Paolo Fappi) in 1577. She gave birth to 11 children, though only 3 outlived her.
After marriage, Fontana continued to paint to support her family. Zappi took care of the household and served as painting assistant to his wife, including painting minor elements of paintings like draperies.
Raphael was born Raffaello Santi in Urbino, central Italy, during the final years of the early Renaissance.
His father Giovanni Santi was a court painter to Duke Federigo da Montefeltro and gave his son his first painting lessons.
When he was a teenager, Raphael was sent to apprentice under Pietro Perugino, leading painter of the Umbrian school. Raphael became a ‘Master’, fully qualified and trained in 1501.
His career falls into 3 phases. The first phase was his early years in Umbria when under the influence of Perugino (c.1450-1523) he produced works like The Spozalizio, The Marriage of the Virgin and The Coronation of the Virgin.
His second period runs from 1504 to 1508 when he painted in Florence and produced works like The Entombment and La Belle Jardiniere.
And his third and final period were the following 12 years when he worked in Rome for 2 Popes and produced works such as St Cecilia, The Madonna di San Sisto, and The Transfiguration.
During his Florentine period, Raphael came to be influenced by the works of Leonardo da Vinci, who was 30 years his senior.
This influence can be seen in his figure drawing of a young woman that uses the 3-quarter length pyramidal composition used by Da Vinci in the just-completed Mona Lisa. Raphael also perfected Da Vinci’s sfumato technique to give subtlety to the flesh of his figures.
In 1508 Raphael moved to Rome where he lived for the rest of his short life.
Gaining fame as one of the most outstanding artists of the High Renaissance, it was in Rome that he produced some of his most beautiful frescos on the wall of the Vatican.
In 1511 he started painting the Stanza della Segnatura, the first of his most famous ‘Stanze’ or ‘Raphael Rooms’ at the Palace of the Vatican. He was commissioned to paint 3 others rooms with religious art, and increasingly started to rely on his team of skilled assistants – led by Giulio Romano (1499-1546) – to help complete works.
He was strongly influenced by Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, which was being painted at the same time. Michelangelo was in fact to accuse Raphael of plagiarism and years later complained that ‘everything he knew about art he got from me’.
The father of modern political theory, Niccolo di Bernardo dei Machiavelli, was born at Florence, May 3, 1469, saw the troubles of the French invasion (1493), when the Medici fled, and in 1498 became secretary of the Ten, a post he held until the fall of the republic in 1512.
He was employed in a great variety of missions, including one to the Emperor Maximilian, and four to France.
His dispatches during these journeys, and his treatises on the Affairs of France and Germany, are full of far-reaching insight.
On the restoration of the Medici, Machiavelli was involved in the downfall of his patron, Gonfaloniere Soderini.
Arrested on a charge of conspiracy in 1513, and put to the torture, he disclaimed all knowledge of the alleged conspiracy.
Although pardoned, he was obliged to retire from public life and devoted himself to literature.
It was not until 1519 that he was commissioned by Leo X to draw up his report on a reform of the state of Florence.
In 1521-25 he was employed in diplomatic services and as historiographer.
After the defeat of the French at Pavia (1525), Italy was helpless before the advancing forces of the Emperor Charles V and Machiavelli strove to avert from Florence the invading army on its way to Rome.
In May 1527 the Florentines again drove out the Medici and proclaimed the republic — but Machiavelli, bitterly disappointed that he was to be allowed no part in the movement for liberty, and already in declining health, died on June 22.
Through misrepresentation and misunderstanding his writings were spoken of as almost diabolical, his most violent assailants being the clergy. The first great edition of his works was not issued until 1782. From that period his fame as the founder of political science has steadily increased.
Besides his letters and state papers, Machiavelli’s historical writings comprise Florentine Histories, Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius (commonly known as The Discourses), a Life of Castruccio Castrancani (unfinished) and History of the Affairs of Lucca.
His literary works comprise an imitation of the Golden Ass of Apuleius, an essay on the Italian language, the play Mandragola, and several minor compositions. He also wrote Seven Books on the Art of War.
The greatest source of Machiavelli’s reputation is, of course, The Prince (1532).
The main theme of this short book is that all means may be resorted to for the establishment and preservation of authority — the end justifies the means — and that the worst and most treacherous acts of the ruler are justified by the wickedness and treachery of the governed.
Futurism was the Italian movement most controversially remembered for allying with Mussolini’s National Fascist Party.
The Futurist art movement was much more inclusive and borrowed from other schools such as Cubism and Impressionism to convey the speed of technological advancement that was a key part of their manifesto.
This exhibition at the Estorick Collection of Modern Italian Art displays a breadth of work by Gerardo Dottori, a Futurist painter, who used many of these techniques to build up a varied portfolio.
His use of angular lines brings an energy to his work, whether it be rays of sunlight reflecting off a tower or the intense flames of a fire in the middle of a city that makes the surrounding buildings glow a foreboding red.
His landscapes are impressive and one particularly inspiring view is of jagged mountains towering over the contrasting green rolling fields beneath them.