Mostly, people talk about the smile.
“Enigmatic” is a common adjective used to describe it. And it is the most-discussed attribute, likely because we’ve all been programmed by school teachers to focus in on that one element of what is an overpowering whole.
Some people wax rhapsodic over the formal nature of the work, its perfect geometry, the enthralling link that directs the eye from the eerily smooth facial features down across the dark dress to the beautifully rendered and folded hands below.
All well and good, and, certainly, opinions with legitimate pedigree of art-critical pursuit and exploration. But, for me, the wonder and mystery of the Mona Lisa, as that painting now in the Louvre (and in a bazillion replications, modifications and satirical usages) is called, has always been in what is behind her: the odd and magical landscape against which she seems to be almost Photoshopped – a misty, flowing, timeless and rambling terrain that, actually, doesn’t seem to make much sense. All in one vista, which the eye can take in in one sweep, there are tall trees and, perhaps, what seem to be mountains; lagoons and lakes, and a primeval forest; a road that zig-zags to and from nowhere; an arched bridge that connects no discernible points nor appears to carry anything upon it.
For me, while La Gioconda herself seems an unreal and glowing thing – more humanoid than human, more theory than flesh, more love of pure painting than love of person or portrait verisimilitude – what lies beyond her is the map of Heaven, or the land we travel in our dreams. All gold and green and floating to a distant horizon, beyond which is …? More mystery.
But leave it to academics – those inveterate mystery-munchers and nit-picky killjoys, pluckers of gossamer wings, who seek to influence the macro by denuding the world of the magical micro – to try to identify, pigeonhole, define and cast in amber that undiscovered country that Lisa has her back to. News came out of Italy last week that a writer, Carla Glori, has determined, to her satisfaction, that Mona’s backyard is not a work of Leonardo’s imagination but, in fact, a real spot on this Earth. Glori, basing her “discovery” on the even more fascinating “revelations” by art historian Silvano Vinceti – who says that he’s found a true Da Vinci code finely etched by the artist into Mona Lisa’s eyeballs – declares that the landscape is that of the Northern Italian village of Bobbio. How did she arrive at this determination? The evidence, she states, is the bridge that stretches to Mona’s left, our right; the numbers 7 and 2 are, she says, almost microscopically painted on it, and those numbers stand for the year 1472, the year of the destruction by flood of the bridge at Bobbio, which, presumably, this is a rendering of. All this, and more, Glori lays out in – what else? – her new book, which is called – are we surprised? – “The Leonardo Enigma.” (Where would we seekers of truth and life’s essence be without the release of such books about that inveterate trickster, gamester, Easter-egg-hider, knower-of-all, revealer-of-some, inventor of lighter-than-air things, journal keeper of backwards sentences, and, oh, by the way, not too shabby an artist? He is the Sphinx of our modern age.)
But, let’s get a few things straight: First, the “secret code” observed by historian Vinceti appears, to others with a good magnifying glass (and, apparently, no book contract) to be little more than cracks or crazing, not to be unexpected in a 500-year-old painting. Which, second, means that Glori’s theory, based on Vinceti’s theory, has more cracks and crazings in it than the painting. And with a much shorter sell-by date. It would appear to most observers that that bridge isn’t the only thing that’s stretched.
But, third, and most to the point: Who cares? Who wants to know? Who needs to know? Who even asked? Even if Glori and Vinceti are right on the money – so what? What does their information add to the appreciation of the work? How can their “findings” be anything but reductive? Who, besides they, benefits from this new knowledge, if it is such, except maybe travel companies who can add an extra day’s stop to their “Da Vinci Code” tours?
Even if Glori is as right as right can be, by taking that landscape and pinning it to the map at Bobbio, she may give that painting and its famously puzzling locale a place, but, at the same time, destroys its luminous placeness. In art, to know is, often, to defuse; to define is to deflate; to suppress a viewer’s imagination is to defeat the purpose of having made the work in the first place. No one gains but the writer of the journal article in which the “discovery” appears.
It is important for the Mona Lisa, and the land behind her, to be unknown and unknowable, and to remain so. More important than attributing significance to a small, painted bridge and two numbers that may or may not be there is the imperative to ignore that presumption, so as not to muddy the more valuable point. We look into Lisa’s eyes for something more than scratched codes; we gaze into and drift off to the wide and watery land behind her because it is a place we know, or want to, or have seen in our souls, or in our sleep. This is art, not life; this is placeness, not location. Mona Lisa, the painting, is like two landscapes, two topographies, one imposed on the other, and no GPS coordinates or Mapquest directions can take us there, guide us through them and get us back, altered by the experience.