Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Leonardo's smile

Leonardo represents one of the most recognisable, yet least known, figures in history. The wisdom of all the ages of man radiates from his self-portrait in the Turin Royal Library. But is it really Leonardo? If so, what do we really know of him?

Leonardo remains the perfect icon of the celebrity hero. Long after his death, figures as diverse as Vasari, Goethe, Michelet, Pater, Valery and, most significantly, Freud, claimed to know something of the un-knowable. That of which we are uncertain we are obliged to invent. 

Such is the nature of mythology. The drive towards such inventions implies motivation. RichardTurner – in his book Inventing Leonardo – wondered what, exactly, each of these authorities gained from pretending to know someone whom they had never really known? “Was it that each writer needed something from him?” Such pretence has become central to everyday modern life where we deceive ourselves into thinking that we might actually know who famous people are and, more importantly, what are the motivations that drive their successful lives.

His sheer ineffability makes Leonardo a useful symbol for the mystery of what it means to be human. Leonardo’s story throws down a provocative challenge: something that intrigues yet, at the same time, generates fear. 

 In his notebooks Leonardo wrote: “do not reveal if liberty is precious to you”. All the evidence suggests that his resolve never wavered. So resolutely did he repel prying eyes that they fell, perforce, to elaboration, extrapolation and invention. His copious notes recorded over more than 35years – some in his noted mirror writing – were designed to reveal nothing of their creator: nothing of his personal feelings or daily schedules and certainly nothing of his relationships with others. 

The universal man displayed his penetrating brilliance only in some areas, keeping all else in the obscurity of silence. Even the image of the aging, tired man with the flowing beard of the prophet is, almost beyond doubt, not that of Leonardo. This is the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ Leonardo: the embodiment of wisdom in the shadow of extinction. This may not be the waning genius, stricken by a cerebrovascular  accident, trailing silently around the Doge’s Palace. Rather, this is the icon that all post-enlightenment minds wanted to be Leonardo.

We shall never know for certain? What we do know is that one of his biographers, Freud – the ambitious social scientist – saw fit to turn a blind eye to mis-translation and errors of historical fact, to reinforce his allegiance to an essentially intuitive diagnosis of Leonardo’s homosexuality.  Freud’s essay on Leonardo sets the scene for almost all biography and hagiography. We have a deep desire to know others and, at the same time, a need to fulfill ourselves through the explication of others. Often, however, what results is not so much an image of some ‘other’ but a distorting mirror of our selves. We invent other people, usually by attributing our undesirable characteristics  to this alien ‘other’. 

The greatest irony of the Leonardo myth is that in the Mona Lisa he created the most iconic human portrait of all time: an image that is now to be found in adverts for everything from toothpaste to hair styling. Everyone believes that they know her but no one really knows her. Even art historians dispute the name of the sitter. Others, hot on Freud’s tail, claim that if not a portrait of one of Leonardo’s male lovers, it is probably a self-portrait. In either case not a femme-fatale after all.  

What does the enigma of Mona Lisa tell us about portraiture in general? Since we have never met any of the famous people whose portraits adorn the walls of galleries the world over, we must take it on trust that these are likenesses. But how much does verisimilitude matter? Is the portrait not meant to suggest something of the person beneath the skin, behind the bone structure: something beyond a mere likeness? Does the portrait – as opposed to the snapshot – not seek to touch the soul itself?

Leonardo’s Giaconda sits head and shoulders above every other portrait chiefly because of her status as an enigma. Whoever is Mona Lisa – rich or poor, woman or man – we are drawn to the personhood. The portrait tells us little about who (s)he might be. At the same time it is almost as if she is laid completely bare. We recognise her – not from the myriad reproductions, copies and pastiches – but as if we have always known her. 

It seems unlikely that Leonardo intended this work to become a popular icon. He might have been vain about his dress and appearance but vanity was hardly one of the hallmarks of his work. Perhaps Leonardo did actually paint a self-portrait – but not one of his physical self. Instead, he may have offered a reflection of his private identity. Leonardo has safeguarded Mona Lisa’s own ‘precious liberty’ in much the way that he guarded his own. In appearing to reveal all, he reveals almost nothing. 

 If we ever were to doubt this, the enigmatic smile completes the picture. “You think you know me?” she appears to say. 

Oh, only if we could! 

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