The Greatest Leonardo

It’s probably written somewhere that nobody should return from the Louvre without making some noises about the Mona Lisa, aka Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. The painting was acquired by Francis the First, aka the Father and Restorer of Letters, aka François au Grand Nez. The Big Nose is probably the French ruler one is supposed to be familiar with besides Louis XIV and Napoleon. Basically, he’s the daddy of the well-justified snootiness the French are famous and loved for. He invited Leonardo to France, and one of the paintings he brought with him was the one that now acts as the main tourist magnet of the Louvre.

The problem with the painting, first, is this:

Unlike on the second floor where you can find some alone-time with a number of famous paintings, the hall where this one hangs is always packed full. And there’s probably no time of the day when it’s cleared of the hoards who come to see it from all over the world. A nice security guard lady led me to Morrison’s grave and let me snoop around for a while on my own as the Père-Lachaise was closing down, but I bet nothing like this would ever happen with Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

Second, it’s very small and it is impossible to have a good look at it with those horrible railings around it. The thing to do is to walk around it and then brag about seeing the thing in the flesh. Or wood, as it may be. This is how it looks from behind:

Source: Wikipedia

You can’t actually see the back at the museum, but you can’t really see much else either. Pictures of the picture are much better. For instance, you do not get to see the great sfumato effect Leonardo made famous and which is the single-word answer to the mystery of that mysterious smile on site, because the painting is very dark and, again, very far away. You can get the effect from close-ups, though. Mind you, the security is probably warranted due to all sorts of madmen and deluded iconoclasts roaming the halls.

One of the other paintings Leonardo brought with him to France was his St. John the Baptist and it is much easier to approach.

Source: Wikipedia

Wikipedia tells me that this painting was finished during a time when the High Renaissance, the climax of human artistic achievements that left Rome and Florence sticky with masterpieces, was morphing into what is known as Mannerism. Mannerism is a topic that cannot be breached here, because something very complicated happened in the evolution of the arts when it was created. I suppose a hint of it can be seen in the exaggerated gesture of St. John, painted on walnut; he is looking at you saying: “Yeah, it’s this thing again.” His smile is close to the Mona Lisa, but it’s a religious picture and it seems somehow inappropriate. The figure is leaning to you from a deep darkness, smiling invitingly, and if there’s one thing inappropriate in religion it’s looking at the enigmatic smiles of young nude men beckoning you to join them.

His symbolic gesture is there as almost an ironic prop that empties the signal of its gravity, and that’s something that might lead us on a path that leads to the sources of Mannerism. In fact, this picture Leonardo painted in later life might be a source in more than one sense of the word: the gesture is copied by later artists and the way it is presented is copied, meaning that the way its symbolic significance is almost detached from its original context — salvation through baptism, through Christ and for Christ — makes it a relatively complicated motif that leads us to all things abstract in art. If this is true Leonardo is indeed the greatest painter in the Louvre and this his greatest work.

2 Responses to “The Greatest Leonardo”

  1. 1 Moon Under Water January 30, 2012 at 22:48

    I must revisit The Louvre some day – I can confess to Mona Lisa giddiness and the same disappointment at the end of the search through the museum. That St. John The Baptist painting is mesmerising.

    My most recent post actually deals directly with the Mona Lisa issue too, if you’d like to have a look (

  1. 1 Art in Paris « nonvisedvoce Trackback on January 30, 2012 at 22:38

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