The mystic bond
The stylus of many an author has flown to unravel the fine complexity of human relationships. The most popular reads so far have been about affairs between mortals; and yet a lot remains to be defined and discovered in the sphere.
In this web of literature and lexis, silently waits a story untold. Not of two human beings, but between the most significant name of the Renaissance era, Leonardo da Vinci, and his exceptional painting Mona Lisa.
Leonardo da Vinci was a unique child from the start. Born out of wedlock and with quaint tastes, he was kept away from refined learning by unsympathetic societal mores. The curse of the lack of proper education turned out to be a boon for this chosen one. Leonardo escaped believing what was written in the books. What he did learn was to dream. Of airplanes, army tanks, calculators, surgical devices, transmission waves, hydraulic pumps, bridges, steam canons, helicopters, methods of capturing solar power and much much more which was yet to be discovered, invented and most importantly believed as possible.
His early years, in the small Tuscan hamlet of Anchiano, that were spent in the lap of nature helped in blossoming in him, the traits of sensitivity and wonder. Taken as an apprentice in one of the most famous studios of Florence, Leonardo also developed a deep interest in art.
Thereafter began his fascinating journey into the real world. He visited several cities of Italy and grew in fame very soon. He dabbled in not just painting, but in the study of anatomy, sculpting, writing, architecture, mathematics, geology, engineering, music, botany, optics, hydro-dynamics and many other subjects. A little known fact is that Vinci was also a profound philosopher. It is to the exceptional talent of this multi-faceted genius that he excelled in each field that he picked.
It was in Florence in 1503, nearly at the age of 51, that he first began to sketch Mona Lisa. She is said to be modelled after the Lisa del Giocondo, wife of a rich Florentine merchant. Just 77x53 cms, much smaller than what she appears in pictures, he breathed life into her using oil paint on wood.
The painting is not just exquisite, but has several unique features. The blurred effect known as Leonardo’s sfumato is most visible around her eyes and mouth. Unlike the strong strokes that were au courant in those days, Vinci chose to create a smoky effect through soft and heavy shading and by using his fingers. It is because of the shadow around the ends of her lips that one cannot discern her exact mood and gather whether she is smiling or brooding. Mostly, what mesmerizes is her enigmatic smile teasing viewers about the secret she holds behind the pursed lips.
Apparently the lady was sitting in front of a mountainous landscape, but on closer inspection, one finds that the left and right backgrounds are strikingly different in proportions. The left side is lower than the right, and so Mona Lisa looks taller on the left surface.
There are many stories about how long it took Leonardo to finish her. According to one theory she was completed in three years, as per another he worked on the painting for four years and then took a break. He is believed to have then continued to mull over and add touches to her here and there; and really perfected the piece a little before his death in 1519. Whatever may have been the duration, one thing is for sure that Vinci refused to part with her; sidelining even the claims of Francisso Giocondo, who had commissioned the painting in the first place.
Leonardo cared for her like for no other in real flesh and blood. He slept with her by his side, embraced her in lonely moments, spoke to her of his inner most feelings; simply never letting her out of his sight. When he moved to other cities, he would leave behind a lot, but never Mona Lisa. On his carriage, she was always seated beside him properly wrapped.
What was it then, which bound a man of senses to such a deep extent with his inanimate creation? There have been many theories; some made famous by the book ‘Da Vinci Code’. It is possible that he was trying to limn answers from some deep spiritual experience. He may have unravelled the mystery of divinity that he wished to express through her perceived dual and combined image of the male and female.
Others feel the answer is more basic. It is still unclear whether she is a woman at all. Mona Lisa may be a combination of the male and female aspects of a human being, and thus indicative of Vinci’s own sexuality. Or she may actually be a man painted in the garb of a lady’s dress of those days. There are also theories that Vinci’s self portrait is beneath her image, especially as their physical dimensions matched. Else, she may possibly be a unique assimilation of several paintings he created and then combined into her shape. The point is whether he was truly trying to communicate some secret message through her. There is no definitive answer and the mystique surrounding her remains intact.
On the flip side, to understand Mona Lisa’s relationship with Leonardo, one must understand that his life was not without controversy. Unconventionality was a norm with him. His unorthodox approach did not suit many and his unqualified success made him the target of many envious eyes. His uncommon sexuality became an easy target. Early in his life, in 1476, he and his friends were put to trial, many believe inappropriately, for sodomy; but escaped punishment due to his influential connections. Leonardo at that time had left Florence, and was to return back only much later.
In Milan, where he lived in 1482-99, he came up with different types of weaponry for warfare, despite his gentle temperament, for the dreaded Duke Ludovico Sforza. It was here that he undertook his bizarre trips to graveyards to study human anatomy and organs and began probably some of the first attempts at surgery.
Many in the Catholic bastille could not swallow his eminence and conspired for him to be declared anti-Church and a heretic. Then there were other artists, like Michelangelo, who were not free from jealousy of Vinci’s unparalleled faculties and were glad of him quitting Italy and moving to France.
But after he died, his opponents got the better of him, as they tried to wipe traces of his formidable and colossal work. Many of his great pieces were lost and a misty fog enveloped his entity for a long period of time.
It was in such times when Leonardo’s contribution and brilliance were draped in fogginess that Mona Lisa came to the rescue. The painting, which is believed to have been lost for several years, may have through Vinci’s assistants come into the hands of the French King and later Napoleon. Later in the 19th century, when art connoisseurs began to genuinely and greatly appreciate the masterpiece that it sparked an elaborate hunt for the hand whose deft strokes had created such a beauty. So, truly, it was Mona Lisa who led them to Leonardo da Vinci.
Years of research and the final discovery of Leonardo’s notebook, penned in his inflected handwriting, shed light on the existence of the man, who is considered till date the most versatile and gifted individual ever to be born on the planet. Mona Lisa, considered the prototype of all Renaissance works, became the most famous painting of the world and her rising star ensured the resurrection of the man, who had created her and loved her the most.
A few hundred years after she was born, she paid back, in full, the debt to her creator. Mona Lisa was Leonardo’s life as long as he breathed; and she ensured that he will stay alive in books, as a subject of studies, in history and imprinted on human imagination, as one of the greater talents ever to have been born, as long as she exists.(April 15 is the birth anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci)