- Arts and Design
Learn about the Real Mona Lisa and her childhood in Italy
Mona Lisa's Childhood Home Found: A video telling us a lot about Mona Lisa's life, who she married and where she might be buried.
The actual room where you will see the Mona Lisa
Visiting the Louvre and the Mona Lisa painting.
Last summer I visited Mona Lisa three separate times. The surprising thing was how easy it was to see the painting despite being at the height of the tourist season.
Another very surprising thing (but it shouldn't have been) was the special accommodation for children. The French are extremely concerned with children and it was evident in the showing of the Mona Lisa. There is a velvet rope about five feet in front of the painting setting off room for about fifteen kids at a time. If you're there with a child the guards (more like ushers) will come and ask you if they may escort your child to stand directly in front of the painting so they can see it without tall adults blocking their view. It was an amazingly civilized and sensible arrangement. The result was a bit humorous. Those kids who had been prepped for what they were to look at did look at the Mona Lisa though from time to time looking back into the crowd behind them to make sure their parents hadn't made a deal with the Louvre to leave them there forever. Other children, who had no idea what they were looking at, did spend most of their time looking back for their parents. The moral of that is: prime your kid for the sights in Paris.
There are two other strange things about the "Mona Lisa room." One is that if you look back and away from the Mona Lisa, you will see that the walls of the room are covered with incredible other Italian paintings, such as masterpieces by Titian. I sometimes think if the Louvre could give each of the other paintings in the room a separate room and advertise them a bit, crowds would throng around them instead of ignoring in competition with the Da Vinci. But, of course, the others haven't been put on calendars and Warhol paintings nor have they had songs made up about them.
Which brings me to the second stange phenomenon of the Mona Lisa gallery. Can you believe that people, in spite of being told not to, take photos with their little tiny cameras or even cell phones. Of what? Of the Mona Lisa, the most duplicated painting on the face of the earth. Why? To prove to someone in Tokyo or Boston that their two eyes (and their camera) were actually at Mona Lisa ground zero? Why not just show your Louvre ticket. Oh, well.
A quick suggestion (which is in all the tourist guides): Get your Louvre tickets beforehand at the big FNAC department store about five blocks away in the Forum des Halles marketplace. The folks selling the tickets for the Louvre-and for concerts, etc.-all speak English. The ticket counter is right next to the largest bookstore in Europe (of course, the books are 99% in French, but you can find guides and picture books in English, too). By the way, when in France refer to the "Mona Lisa" the way the French refer to it, La Jaconde, or they won't understand you. Jaconda comes from the Italian name for the model "La Giaconda" the name of the wife of an Italian named Giaconda. Mona Lisa means a. Mona = a form of Madonna and b. Lisa, which is the name of the woman historians think was the model for the painting (see the video about Mona Lisa's childhood, below).
The following is an astute treatment of that famous puzzle, Mona Lisa's smile.
The Mystery of Mona Lisa's Smile Linked to Flickering Eyes
Sandra Blakeslee, New York Times Monday, November 27, 2000
For nearly 500 years, people have been gazing at Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of the Mona Lisa with a sense of bafflement.
First she is smiling. Then the smile fades. A moment later the smile returns only to disappear again. What is with this lady's face? How did the great painter capture such a mysterious expression and why haven't other artists copied it?
The Italians have a word to explain Mona Lisa's smile: sfumato. It means blurry, ambiguous and up to the imagination.
But now, according to Dr. Margaret Livingstone, a Harvard neuroscientist, there is another, more concrete explanation. Mona Lisa's smile comes and goes, she says, because of how the human visual system is designed, not because the expression is ambiguous.
Livingstone is an authority on visual processing, with a special interest in how the eye and brain deal with different levels of contrast and illumination. Recently, while writing on a book about art and the brain, an editor advised her to learn more about art history. "I got a copy of E.H. Gombich's 'The Story of Art' in which he basically said, 'I know you've seen this painting a hundred times but look at it, just look at it.' And so that's what I did."
In staring at the picture, Livingstone said she noticed a kind of flickering quality. "But it wasn't until later when I was riding my bike home that I realized what it was," she said. "The smile came and went as a function of where my eyes were." A scientific explanation for the elusive smile was suddenly clear. The human eye has two distinct regions for seeing the world, Livingstone said. A central area, called the fovea, is where people see colors, read fine print, pick out details. The peripheral area, surrounding the fovea, is where people see black and white, motion and shadows.
When people look at a face, their eyes spend most of the time focused on the other person's eyes, Livingstone said. Thus when a person's center of gaze is on Mona Lisa's eyes, his less accurate peripheral vision is on her mouth. And because peripheral vision is not interested in detail, it readily picks up shadows from Mona Lisa's cheekbones.
These shadows suggest and enhance the curvature of a smile. But when the viewer's eyes go directly to Mona Lisa's mouth, his central vision does not see the shadows, she said. "You'll never be able to catch her smile by looking at her mouth," Livingstone said. The flickering quality - with smile present and smile gone - occurs as people move their eyes around Mona Lisa's face.
The actress Geena Davis also shows the Mona Lisa effect, Livingstone said, always seeming to be smiling, even when she isn't, because her cheek bones are so prominent.
"I do not mean to take away the mystery of Leonardo," Livingstone said. "He was a genius who captured something from real life that rarely gets noticed in real life. It took the rest of us 500 years to figure it out."
It is also not clear, she said, why other painters have not copied the effect more often. To make a good counterfeit Mona Lisa, one would have to paint the mouth by looking away from it, she said. How anyone can do that remains a mystery.
Why a Painting is Like a Pizza
If you have doubts about understanding modern art and want to go to the Louvre and other museums in Paris and have a good experience, I strongly recommend the plain English, common sense book on the subject: Nancy Heller's Why a Painting is Like a Pizza: A Guide to Understanding and Enjoying Modern Art. Check it out by clicking the image on the right. When you're at Amazon you can read some of the pages in the book and see if it's for you.
It seems to me that all of what we consider "traditional painting," like the Mona Lisa, was "modern at some time. The early Renaissance painters shocked people by not sticking with lords and gods for their subjects just as did the nineteenth century realists who also threw away the lords to depict whores and farm workers. And today, of course, a lot of people are shocked by artists who depict mainly shapes and colors. The definition of art has a lot to do with the status of the people who look at it and buy it. Radically new art can endanger the status of those who love and have even invested their money in the art of the previoius period. And what you like often changes the more you know about what you're looking at.