The Mystery of the Florentine Lady

The Mystery of the Florentine Lady

Posted Feb 13, 2017
Tags: Art History

The other day I was down in our second shed getting some art supplies for an upcoming lesson.  Russ, our warehouse manager, was digging out my required supplies.  I figured a layman like Russ with interests other than art, may be able to give me a different perspective on art history.  I asked him, what he thought the most famous painting in the world might be.  Without a second thought he said, the Mona Lisa.

 It got me thinking that nearly everybody in the world must know of this magnificent portrait, but what do they really know about the tales behind the work?  Why didn’t Leonardo sign the work? What’s with that smile? And why doesn’t she have any eyebrows?  There are still so many unanswered questions.   

So in this month’s art history blog we’re going to explore the Mona Lisa.  The first question is, who was she?  Well, according to the sixteenth century art historian Giorgio Vasari her name was Raelene - ha!  No, that was just a bad joke.  Her real name was Lisa Gheradini and she was the wife of Francesco Del Giocondo, a wealthy merchant 20 years her senior who had lost two previous wives.  One of the few things we do know, is Lisa herself, had tragically lost her own daughter a few years before she sat for Leonardo.

The portrait shows an attractive young woman seated amongst a landscape.  By most accounts she was around 24 years of age when Leonardo began to paint her in around 1503.  If you ask anybody about why the portrait is so famous, they will invariably say, “the smile”!  Yes, that enigmatic smile, but was she happy?  Well this has been a bone of contention between the best minds in art for centuries and the enigma of that smile has not been yet solved.

I read an article awhile ago, where Margaret Livingstone, a neuroscientist, had written that she believes that our eyes are sending mixed signals to the brain when we view Lisa’s smile.  According to Dr Livingstone, different cells in our eyes are designed to pick up different colours, contrasts, backgrounds and foregrounds.  Some deal with central vision and some deal with peripheral.   So it depends on which cell picks up the visual information and what part of the brain it is channelled to as to what we ‘see’.  This would certainly explain why Mona Lisa’s smile is radiant one moment and sardonic the next.  See even in art, women’s moods can be a mystery!

One interesting thing is the painting was originally larger than the painting we know today.  At some point around the early 17th century the sides of the painting were removed!  Apparently Lisa had giant columns either side of her.  No one knows why the painting was altered but it was most probably due to damage sustained to the painting when it was moved tirelessly around Europe as everybody wanted to catch a glimpse of the greatest painting in the world. During the painting maintenance is no doubt when Lisa’s eyebrows disappeared, probably from an overzealous heavy handed cleaning job.

Everybody fell in love with the Florentine lady.  Raphael sketched versions of her and she even hung in Napoleon’s bedroom in the Palais Des Tuileries for a short while.  Mona Lisa’s fame spread and she found herself in the Louvre, the greatest art museum in the world.  Time went by and visitors from all over the globe came to gaze at her beautiful image.

Things went on like this rather routinely until one fateful day, Sunday the 20th of August, 1911.  On Mondays the Louvre was closed to the public, a day when the museum was cleaned and maintenance was carried out.  On the morning of the 22nd, an artist, Louis Beroud, noticed the Florentine lady was not in her usual place.  He called the guard, but the guard was not concerned, thinking the official photographer had probably taken her to his studio. The next day when the photographer showed up for work, reality sunk in and the authorities were called…and all hell broke loose, the Mona Lisa had been pinched!

The museum was closed and the police began to formulate theories.  At five o’clock on August the 22nd, Louvre officials announced publicly that the painting was missing presumed stolen.  The reaction from the press was instantaneous.  The story went viral with the theft becoming headline news and spreading all over the world.

Police pursued leads but the case went cold.  One year passed, then another, and all hope of retrieving the work had been abandoned.  The newspapers showed no interest in the story any more, they were more interested in the new war that was brewing.  Would Lisa ever be found?

At the end of November in 1913 a small antiques dealer Alfredo Geri received a cryptic letter from a guy who called himself Leonardo.  Leonardo said that he had in his possession the stolen Mona Lisa and he wished it to be returned to Italy as restitution for Napoleon’s looting of art and objects from his native country.  He wanted a tasty ransom as well.  Geri organised a meeting with Leonardo the next day and took a Professor Giovanni Poggi with him.  They met Leonardo in a hotel room, where from under his bed, he produced a trunk.  The trunk appeared to be empty but Leonardo pulled out a false bottom and withdrew a neatly wrapped canvas.  Leonardo carefully unwrapped the cloth and exposed the Florentine lady.

The painting was examined by a special committee of art experts for a detailed analysis and it was agreed that it was the original Mona Lisa.  Of course old Leonardo was narked in and arrested, it turned out he was employed to build the glass frame around Lisa in the museum.  So the Florentine lady was returned to her happy place in the Louvre and the tale to the theft had a happy ending.

Come on!  Things just aren’t ever that simple, are they?  Years later a fantastic development was to emerge that there was much more to this story indeed.  This was a high crime with a mastermind, forgers and many others involved.  A reporter named Karl Decker wrote that Edwardo de Valfierno, a South American art swindler, had told him a story on the condition that it not be published until after his death.  Edwardo died in 1931 and Decker then revealed that Valfierno had hatched the whole Mona Lisa theft as a forgery scam to make money from selling forged portraits of the world’s greatest painting to dodgy art collectors.

The plan was simple, find some rich art collectors who were known to buy stolen masterpieces, and promise them the greatest painting known to man.   Have an expert forger create perfect reproductions of the painting, then steal the real painting, wait for the publicity of the theft to be circulated, and then pass off the dodgy forgery as the authentic painting.  The buyers would not be able to have their painting authenticated through fear of getting caught.

Valfierno said the worst thing that could have happened would have been that the Louvre kept the robbery quiet and substituted a copy, but of course the robbery got worldwide attention.  In fact Valfierno claimed to have sold six forged copies of the da Vinci masterpiece for $300 000 each.  When you consider that you could buy a house in 1911 for approximately $2000 -$ 5000 that is a very large sum of money indeed.

Bearing this in mind, It does make one wonder:  is the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre the real Mona Lisa?  

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