Who was Mona seducing?

What does this Renaissance temptress, seemingly impervious to changing taste, tell us about the enduring nature of our own desire?

Published November 26, 2001 8:32PM (EST)

In the spring of 1959, a doctor named Kenneth D. Keele revealed that the Mona Lisa was pregnant. Don't for a moment imagine that his diagnosis -- first published in a respected medical journal just 440 years after Leonardo da Vinci's death -- was blind speculation. In Lisa's thick neck, Keele detected an enlargement of her thyroid gland and, lest any mere curator question his claim, he drew all eyes to the maternal calm of her smile.

Who could be surprised? The Mona Lisa, femme fatale, has a sexual history more sordid than Mata Hari. As a seductress, her sustained popularity rivals that of Cleopatra. French kings kept her in their bathing chamber at Fontainbleu. Napoleon shared her company, briefly, in his bedroom. Authors from Jules Michelet to Jules Verne, Stephen Mallarmé to Algernon Swinburne, have made love to her in so many words. William Gibson lent her name to a cyberpunk whore. She's at least twice endorsed contraception -- appearing on the Giaconda Liquid Latex condom in '50s Spain and, more recently, on the Mona Lisa-CU375 IUD. But even both birth control methods combined could hardly be expected to protect her from decades of Parisian striptease personification, or comparison -- in the New Yorker -- to kinky Monica Lewinsky.

It seems appropriate to honor her 500th birthday by collecting the centuries of innuendo that have made her such a hot item. That is what British historian Donald Sassoon has done in "Becoming Mona Lisa," ably examining the making of an international icon, affording us the opportunity to inquire: What does this Renaissance temptress, seemingly impervious to changing taste, tell us about the enduring nature of our own desire?

One thing about Lisa del Gioconda we have reason to believe is that she didn't set out to seduce anybody. Perhaps she was pregnant at some point over the four years Leonardo spent painting her. Or maybe, as one provincial Italian dentist claimed to rapt paparazzi in 1955, the enigma of her smile was just the effect of a toothache. Either way, her life as wife to twice-widowed Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo seems, far from scandalous, the stuff of pregnancies and toothaches and other commonplace domestic complaints.

We know that she was born into the petty nobility, christened Lisa Gherardini, on Tuesday, June 15, 1479. When she turned 16, her father married her to Francesco di Bartolomeo de Zanobi del Giocondo, age 35, on the strength of a 170 florin dowry. By the time il Giocondo commissioned Leonardo to paint his young wife's portrait, Monna Lisa (monna is the standard Italian contraction for madonna, or "my lady,") had birthed one girl, already deceased, and two healthy boys.

She sat for Leonardo many times over the following four years. Sixteenth century painter and author Giorgio Vasari, our primary source on da Vinci's life, claims that Leonardo inspired Lisa's smile by arranging to have her entertained by singers, musicians, and jesters "so that she would be merry and not look melancholic as portraits often do." Unfortunately, Vasari's account of Leonardo's "ingenious expedient" is hearsay, if not outright fabrication: Eight years old when Leonardo died, he didn't write da Vinci's biography in his legendary "Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects" on the strength of collective memory, for another several decades. His explanation of her suggestive expression, written by a man who may even have known an aged Monna Lisa, is a far cry from later claims that she was Leonardo's secret lover and kept her portrait in his possession as a remembrance of their affair.

If Leonardo ever had sex with anybody, history has turned a blind eye. Even his one brush with the law, an anonymous accusation of sodomy at age 24, was quietly dismissed. While that, together with boilerplate psychoanalytic symbolism tortured out of a mistranslated childhood dream, gave Sigmund Freud reason to claim that da Vinci was gay, it's more likely that the universal genius simply avoided intimacy with everybody. Whether it was on account of his illegitimate birth, or simply a quirk of personality, likely we'll never know. Apart from documentation of official commissions, the life of the most legendary artist and scientist in history left barely a trace to be followed even by near-contemporary Vasari.

Why do the thousands of manuscript pages recording Leonardo's observations and speculations, on everything from perspective to parachuting, offer us almost no information on the author? Certainly it wasn't a matter of modesty. To potential patrons he boasted of accomplishments that wouldn't be achieved until nearly our own generation. Nor was it a question of inhibition: His drawings of human anatomy, depictions of everything including coitus, leave absolutely nothing to the imagination. Most believe he was cryptic, that he wrote backwards to keep his research secret. But he scribbled quickly and, as a lefty, was probably compelled to work in reverse.

If he failed to explain his actions or note how he felt, that's just because he wrote for nobody but himself. He could decide his opinion of Giuliano de' Medici, or remember his impression of Lisa del Gioconda, without recourse to pen and paper. What he didn't understand satisfactorily was how the heart beat or what made birds fly. These subjects he studied simply to satisfy his curiosity, recording all he saw as reference for no reader other than himself. In his eyes, the world expanded to an extent never before seen and grew in inverse proportion to the observer. As if anticipating a scientific method not yet formulated, he separated himself from his object of inquiry. As his investigation came to encompass totality, he had no option other than to vanish completely.

Leonardo had nothing to do with us. He was subsumed by his curiosity. His interest -- all humanity -- lay beyond him. Sexual congress across that divide was as incomprehensible as a clash between an act of nature and its mathematical law. Likewise, he never addressed posterity, not intentionally. (Surely somebody attempting to communicate, to split the difference between himself and everyone else, would have published in his lifetime, or at least have written more legibly.) Declining public commissions, he pursued his personal interests, running afoul of patrons and even a pope. Naturally his careless behavior only bolstered his reputation, increased his allure. Every courtier, and courtesan, wished him to paint her portrait. Why, then, would he choose to depict the likes of Lisa del Gioconda?

Some speculate that the Mona Lisa is Leonardo's self-portrait. While batty in its particulars, fundamentally the theory is valid: Like da Vinci, Lisa is desirable to the extent that she's unattainable, a figure in paint that deceives us into believing that she lives in our midst. From the start she's been praised as, above all, almost real. "Examining very intensely the hollow of the throat," Vasari notes, "you can feel its pulsation." Nineteenth century literateur Walter Pater goes even further, informing us:

She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like a vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and hands.

These are arguably the most famous lines on the Mona Lisa, later turned to verse by Yeats, whispered from memory at La Gioconda's side by Oscar Wilde. Celebrity citation and slippery syntax aside, Pater's prose is singularly incisive: Even as we appreciate Lisa's vitality, we see that it's of another order from whatever animates our own coarse flesh. Like Leonardo, superficially she seems to be one of us. We imagine, even, that she's prepared to speak.

But, just as Leonardo writes only for himself, she keeps aloof. So, she holds us. We invent all manner of history to fill the silence. We make her an expectant mother. Leonardo's lover. A vampire. Her myth emerges and enlarges on the strength of our imagination. She "seems to pose a yet unresolved riddle to the admiring centuries," according to leading 19th century art critic Théophile Gautier, a man so smitten by her that he confessed to feeling before her like a "schoolboy in the presence of a duchess." As Freud gives Leonardo a psychosexual profile, Gautier gives La Gioconda a secret motive for her smirk: "And you discover that your melancholy springs from the fact that the Jaconde received, three centuries ago, the confession of your love with the same mocking smile she still wears today."

Lisa can withstand that and all other speculation about her "mystery." She can do so simply because she hides nothing, has nothing to hide. We love Leonardo because we're insignificant to him except as models in his studio and specimens on his dissection able. In the ageless eyes of the Mona Lisa, we are as dead.

Still, that doesn't explain what makes the Mona Lisa distinct from every other painting. Just what do we see in her? Leonardo's other women sitters don't appear half as leaden as his Lisa del Gioconda. His portraits of Cecilia Gallerani and Lucrezia Crivelli, both mistresses of his patron Lodovico Sforza, show women clearly worthy of seduction and capable of the same. The former, shown stroking her pet ermine, bears a smile no less beguiling than his Gioconda's, while the latter, so finely coifed that she was once believed the beloved of King Francis I, is in every visible proportion closer than Lisa to our classical ideal. Yet, simply by dint of their profession, they tell us too much. They may know many more secrets than matronly Monna Lisa, but all are of the sort we might guess. These women live for a price. Their enigma is occupational. If they choose not to share, it's absolutely intentional. Their allure, undeniable, is played as a game, and if they seem to hold something over us, it's merely for personal gain.

Altogether another matter is Ginevra de' Benci, an aristocratic lady painted by da Vinci when he lived in Florence. We know less about her than we do about Lisa, and can infer only that she shrouded her extraordinary beauty in vast sadness. She betrays not even the trace of a smile, or toothache. Her eyes meet ours not quite in defiance, nor resignation, but because evasion would be more suggestive than momentary confrontation. Whatever she has to hide, that burden, has nothing in common with the trade secrets of Sforza's mistresses. Her beauty, her aristocracy, her misery, belong to her as unequivocally as her own two hands. Admired, envied, even pitied, they aren't subject to the give-and-take of jewels, money, poetry.

She is absolutely opposite La Gioconda. Ginevra is of our world -- straddled by life, sustained by sorrow. Lisa, as carefree Leonardo, has known no earthly woe. For all the sfumato subtlety of her depiction, we see a woman absolutely detached from her setting, floating impossibly over a landscape to which she'll ever remain a stranger. Lisa lies on a plane apart from even her own painted panel, fitting since she probably wasn't portrayed initially in any setting at all: Her seated figure alone occupied the master for four years -- as long as Michelangelo took to complete the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- permitting him to build up his image with such subtlety that even today individual brushstrokes can't be detected by X-ray. Then, rather than deliver it to the sitter, he perversely took it away, carried the picture everywhere he went until his death, in France, some three decades later. Along the way, he likely added that misfit backdrop, an absolutely inexplicable alteration: Against a solid ground such as those Leonardo used in his portraits of Sforza's mistresses, Lisa's full figure might appear abrupt, but atop all nature in her balcony, she becomes positively inhuman. Even laws of perspective are broken. As Leonardo could throw over Francesco del Giocondo after a four-year wait for a portrait of his own wife, Lisa, Mona Lisa, seems to follow only those rules that suit her.

So we have an entire literature, a whole mythology, devoted to her mystery. To this look, which Gautier calls "divinely ironic," is credited her enduring popularity, her extraordinary allure. If we add George Sand's observation that the Mona Lisa is a laide seduisante, a homely seductress, all pieces fall in place: What attracts us to La Gioconda is her overwhelming emptiness. From Leonardo she has learned to be indifferent, only without his underlying purpose. She is distant without a destination. Enigmatic without a riddle to puzzle. Silent without a secret to keep. All surface, she hasn't even a mark of physical distinction to betray her past or damn her future. She is a blank, a mirror. And those who fall for her? They're enamored of whatever story they give her, in love with their own voice.

To be seduced by the weighty beauty of Ginevra de' Benci is a serious affair. We must meet her on her own terms. We cannot flatter her and expect our words to become her, our mind to mold her before our eyes. Rather -- surpassing smiling Lisa Gioconda -- she is as solid, as human, as any viewer.

Seduction is an art, art a seduction. Between Lisa and Ginevra, Leonardo offers us a choice, a dichotomy equally applicable to paintings and lovers. Search the world for ourselves and we will find our own image, irresistibly attractive, in a vacuum. Or we can embrace an equal opposite, and behold something whole.

By Jonathon Keats

Jonathon Keats is an artist and writer. His collection of fables, "The Book of the Unknown: Tales of the Thirty-Six," was published this year.

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