Posted by: cctracker | April 15, 2012

Beneath Layers of Paint,Time: The Inexhaustible Mystery

The NYT has a wonderful story on Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Prado researcher Ana Gonzalez has definitively shown that the Museum’s copy of the masterpiece was created side by side and step by step along with the original. Read the piece here to see how the truth was uncovered under layers of paint and time.

We study the painting every year in my Humanities course. The story reminded me how “layers” captures something essential about this work. And it got me thinking about “layers” in a larger sense.

First, in the case of the Mona Lisa, came the layers of paint laid down by Leonardo himself: an underlying sketch,  fields of color and shading over the sketch, features and details in finer brushwork on top of that and finally, in exquisite detail and delicate hand, finishing touches bringing lace, lips and landscape shimmeringly to life. Even after initially completing the piece, Leonardo added layers of alterations over many years: a slightly smaller head, a slimmed bosom, a lowered bodice.

And this was actually the decisive factor in Gonzalez’ detective work: even covered layers of alterations were a perfect match. There can be no other explanation: whoever was doing the copying was always sitting right there at the master’s side, over many years, as he refined the painting. The copy has recently been cleaned, unlike the original covered with still more layers of varnish and paint added by subsequent collectors.  It reveals not only stunning new detail and virtuosity but a younger Mona Lisa. Though the scholarly world does claim the copier was always the same person, they have  no idea who Leonardo’s partner was, and will likely never know.

But that’s just one of the many “layers” of mystery in the work:

To what territory does the surreal background landscape refer?

Why did Leonardo keep this painting with him until his death?

And, of course, why that enigmatic half-smile?

Wendy Beckett, the Benedictine nun turned internationally celebrated art critic, has an intriguing interpretation of the painting in her film series.

She says that the woman sitting for the painting, La Gioconda wife of Francesco Giocondo (rough translation: “Mrs. Happiness, wife of Mr. Francis Happiness”) is looking at Leonardo, not at us, and saying: “You and I share a secret and neither of us is telling.”

It is widely believed that Leonardo was a homosexual. Is that the secret? If the copier was painting, too, it might have added another layer to what she knew.

Many scholars believe that Leonardo was ultimately painting himself. Note the strong jaw line. Is that the secret? Did Lady Happiness know this secret? Did his partner?

My first encounter with Leonardo Da Vinci was through my Dad. He’d drawn an aerial view of our backyard to plan the placement of a backboard and hoop. I was fascinated with the clean lines of the drawing: the yard and fence in perspective, shrubs sketched in a corner, even the figure of a boy standing under the yet-to-be-raised standard.

“How did you do that? I asked him.

“I’m engineer; I learned it in school. Let me show you the drawings of  the greatest engineer that ever lived.” He got out the encyclopedia and showed me black and white sketches like these.

He was a helicopter engineer so he told me the story of how Da Vinci had designed one 500 years before Igor Sikorski actually made one that flew.

“All he was missing was a source of propulsion,” Dad said.

I noticed Da Vinci’s drawings had the same sharp, diagonal lines to create depth that my Dad had used for the backyard.

I already had a kind of reverence for things my Dad knew how to do.

That day the name “Leonardo Da Vinci” was added to my personal hall of saints.

And so here I am years later,  teaching Leonardo. Reading the latest about Leonardo. And realizing today, on his birthday as it happens, that I know almost nothing of Leonardo Da Vinci, the human being.

What does it really capture in terms of the essence of a person to call them a homosexual or an engineer or an artist? Or even to gaze in speculation and surmise upon the immediate work of their hands miraculously expressing something of the spirit of the person and nevertheless leaving so much concealed in mystery?

Time and layers of dirt will cover us all.  But today, now, at this moment in all of its overwhelming complexity, immediacy and endless mystery, we are here. We are present to ourselves and to one another as Leonardo was, underneath the layers of paint and time,  to Lady Happiness and his Prado Partner.  As I was to my father. Somehow, miraculously, we are present to it all as it passes away. And it is present to us.  The inexhaustible mystery.


  1. Another great post, James. What will future generations make of our blogs?

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