"The Mona Lisa." Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-06.
I was sick of the “Mona Lisa.” It was old and tired, I thought; so iconic that it ceased to have meaning. But that was so wrong! What’s new in the “Mona Lisa”? A wealth of ideas, ripe for transformation.
I’m still listening to my “Masterpieces of the Louvre” lectures, so I’ll share an insight from Prof. Richard Brettell. The “Mona Lisa,” he says, fascinates us for two reasons. One, that mysterious, knowing smile. (Which seemed too popular, too fixed in the one painting to mine for re-creation.) Two, “the wild beauty of the Alpine landscape” behind her. Aha! Here’s the key.
For this, in fact, is no real place. It doesn’t exist. An ocean cove cuts to the middle of spiky mountains, which don’t look like anything in Europe. Rather, Brettell notes, they look like something you might see in Japanese art, except Leonardo didn’t know of it. The curving road, red and raw, seems to have been only recently carved from the rock. It’s a strange, fantastic landscape.
How are we supposed to process this? Brettell asks. It’s a clash of two realms: the human, knowable and familiar, against the incomprehensible. Granted, the lady is at the very edge of the knowable – centuries of interpreters have puzzled over the meaning of her smile – but she is still human. The landscape, on the other hand, is completely fantastic. Typical of a Leonardo painting, it has “intensity and lurking danger,” suggesting darkness, turmoil, even evil.
I think the weird landscape belongs to the imagination (after all, it’s not a real place). What strange new worlds we create in the journeys of the mind! And look at the lady – she is confident, knowing, set in front of this landscape as if she controls it. She is not afraid of strange new worlds.
In the Italian Renaissance, people questioned the traditional pillars of meaning as science opened up new vistas. The same is true in our 21st-century Renaissance (more on this here). In Leonardo’s time, it was the world of the Church against the emerging power of the human mind, of logic, of the scientific method. Now, the overwhelming explosion of new technologies and ideas often makes the world seem fragmented, unknowable. People are often pessimistic, confused, or anxious about the future.
Why don’t we take a cue from the “Mona Lisa”? She exists confidently in front of the unknown. Whatever strange new vistas that science opens up, she stands in the foreground, refusing to give in to anxiety. Reaching to the utmost of the human realm, she returns with a knowing smile, telling us that everything will be fine in the end. We have power over strange new worlds.