Transcript

The Mona Lisa with Donald Sassoon

Professor Donald SassoonProfessor Donald Sassoon

You can also listen to the interview (MP3 12.9MB).

Matt:

This is the La Trobe University Podcast, I'd be your host Matt Smith, good morning, good afternoon, and good evening, it does all depend on where you're standing. Joining me today is Professor Donald Sassoon from the University of London, and he's one of the world's leading experts on the Mona Lisa. Thankyou for joining me today, Donald.

Donald:

Hello, thankyou for asking.

Matt:

So the Mona Lisa, how long have you been studying it, and what was it that first drew you to it?

Donald:

Well I did study the Mona Lisa, I've stopped studying the Mona Lisa, but my interest came about around 1999 when I was writing a much bigger book on culture, I was intrigued by the phenomenon where an artefact of high culture, a masterpiece of high culture in music or painting or something, becomes popularly known, becomes known by people who have no special knowledge or particular interest in that field. And I thought that the Mona Lisa was a particularly good example of that since many people who are not terribly interested in art history or in the Renaissance know about the Mona Lisa, and certainly would recognise it immediately and should they go to Paris they would not fail to go to the Louvre and if they go to the Louvre they would not fail to stop, like hundreds of others, thousands of others, to admire the famous painting. So I ask myself how come, why that particular painting.

Matt:

Well that's one of my questions actually, why that particular painting? Why is it so popular? What is it about it that’s ingrained itself in our culture?

Donald:

Well what I tried to do is to reconstruct the process whereby the painting becomes such an international and global icon. And like most historical questions, there's not a single answer, there's not a simple answer, its complex. So it's to do with a fairly long historical process. The first thing to be said is that the painting was part of the collection of the King of France and therefore is one of the very first paintings to be put in the Louvre when the Louvre became a national museum after the French Revolution. So in a way, location, location, location. The painting was set in the most important museum in Europe in what was the artistic centre in Europe, mainly Paris, as early as the beginning of the 19th century.

It was also painted by someone who was a recognised genius, and this recognition came about more in the 19th century then earlier. Leonardo was revered not just because he was a painter, but also because he was a scientist and intellectual, and therefore more special than the other great painters of the Renaissance, say Michelangelo or Raphael. But so far, it's an important painting and it's in the centre of Paris.

Then towards the middle of the 19th century the French intelligentsia had developed a theme, the theme of the femme fatal, the castrating mysterious woman who drives men to perdition, and somehow they decided that the Mona Lisa was it, was a representation of the femme fatal.

Matt:

Is that because it is one of the few images that they had that everybody in the world would find immediately recognisable?

Donald:

No, because no one knew about the Mona Lisa, or very few people knew about the Mona Lisa. They chose the Mona Lisa because they were Parisian intellectuals, because the Mona Lisa was not the portrait of a well known woman but an unknown woman and therefore fantasies could develop more easily with a woman that has no history. You couldn't have these fantasies with the Virgin Mary, well, I suppose you could but you better not. Or someone who has a history behind her. So that is one of the reasons why the Mona Lisa was chosen. And this is when the idea of the smile being mysterious and enigmatic came about. Before that no one remarked about he smile being mysterious, she was just smiling a little. There are no references to a mystery connected to the smile, but in about 1850, 1855 she becomes mysterious. Before that she was just a cheerful housewife. So far so good, so the French intelligentsia decided the Mona Lisa is a femme fatal, and that idea is also borrowed by the British, particularly by Walter Pater who wrote Purple Prose describing the mystery of the Mona Lisa.

But by the end of the 19th century the painting is still known only by the elite practically, there is no tourists except well off people, The Louvre has few visitors, one cannot speak of a popular understanding of what the Mona Lisa is, even though at the end of the 19th century you have the development of the popular press in France, in the United States and in Britain selling up to 1 million newspapers a day. But there is no need for them to discuss Renaissance art, these are newspapers, tabloids we call them now, and they talk about crimes.

And the luck of the Mona Lisa is that it was stolen in 1911 by an Italian carpenter who was working at The Louvre, so that caused a flurry of excitement in 1911, and the flurry of excitement was renewed in 1913 when he brought the painting back to Italy and he handed it in to an art dealer who called the police and so there was a whole affair connected with that. And that in itself was a clinching moment where something that had been building up for nearly a century develops and now people know because it's on their breakfast table with a newspaper.

After that you have further developments when Marcel Duchamp the Dadaist painter decides to mock high art by putting moustaches and a goatee beard on a portrait. In order to mock high art he has to choose something reasonably well known and so he chooses the Mona Lisa.

Matt:

When was this?

Donald:

1919. And he's the first of many people who use the Mona Lisa to make points other than it's a normal object or that she's ugly or that she's beautiful or that she's something. It becomes a reference point. Such reference point is enhanced after the Second World War, particularly when you have a very special occasion. This is when she – I say she, but she is of course it, it's a piece of wood, but she.

Matt:

She's okay.

Donald:

She's okay. She goes global when the French, who are in their periodic bout of anti-Americanism pro-Americanism, usually it's anti but in this case it was thought to be nice to send the Mona Lisa to represent European art and send it to the United States.

Matt:

They sent it to the United States?

Donald:

Yes, for an exhibit. Jackie and John Kennedy were in power, jointly as it were as the first royal couple in the history of the United States, and so there was an enormous amount of press interest in the Mona Lisa and an enormous amount of interest in the United States. 1.7 million people in the cold February winter of New York lined up in order to cast a glance at the Mona Lisa for 20 seconds or so, and 10 years later the thing was repeated with Japan. It was sent to Japan and the Japanese...

Matt:

Was it the same reception there?

Donald:

An even bigger one because in the intervening ten years you had the development of merchandising and so on, so you had all sorts of gadgets. You didn't have fridge magnets in '63, but you had them in 1974. So you have the repopularisation of the Mona Lisa. At that stage the advertising industry will begin to use the Mona Lisa systematically. I looked in the archives of the Louvre because you have to ask permission to use it, and so there is a whole correspondence about that, especially after 1980, almost every week there is a use of the Mona Lisa for some kind of advertising. You could argue that the international advertising industry tries to use their product by linking it with quality and therefore with high art, renaissance and Leonardo and so on and so forth. And in so doing, they also advertise the Mona Lisa for free. And it is the conjunction of all of these factors taken together which in my view brings about the extraordinary recognition of the Mona Lisa as a world icon.

Matt:

What's the strangest thing you've seen her on?

Donald:

She's been used to advertise Air India, she's been used to advertise a British condom. She's been used to advertise a chain of hotels called, of course, the renaissance hotels. And on and on and on, it's a constant thing. A printer by showing of course the product of the printer reproducing the features of the Mona Lisa in high quality colours.

Matt:

Okay and the Louvre are okay with that?

Donald:

The Louvre charges, they don't do it for free.

Matt:

Oh, I imagine, but do they have a limit that they'd go to?

Donald:

Well the one with the British condom, I don't think anyone had asked that and it was earlier. They were only marketed in Spain and Latin America countries and I've never been able to find out why! An unused condom is kept, and I'm grateful it's unused, an unused condom was kept in the archives of the Louvre in the original box.

Matt:

Okay! So who was the Mona Lisa? Where did the painting get it's name from?

Donald:

Well Lisa was her name, she was almost certainly, but nothing is absolutely certain hence controversies, but I will give you the most likely story, Lisa Gherardini was the wife of a Florentine merchant called Francesco del Giocondo so her other name La Gioconda is because of her husband. And he asked Leonardo to paint the portrait of his wife probably in 1503. We know from bank records that Leonardo was broke at the time. He had to leave Milan in 1499 so he was looking for a job. And so he got this commission. Why on Earth it ends up in France we are not sure. Maybe it took too long for him to paint it, four years is an enormously long time for such a small portrait. In four years Michelangelo had done the whole ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. So maybe the merchant got fed up.

Matt:

He was trying to get the smile just quite right, probably.

Donald:

The smile is important because it's quite rare for renaissance paintings to have smiles, usually they are serious, but there are lots of smiles in the renaissance, it's not such an extraordinary special thing. What is special is that Leonardo uses a technique called sfumato which means 'smokey' or something like that, blurred. He blurs the corner of the mouth and the corner of the eye and it gives an air of ambiguity because we tell the expression of people from the corner of the eyes and the corner of the mouth. Kids know that and when they draw someone smiling everything points up and when someone is sad everything points down. So if you have them blurred it's not quite clear what the expression is. And he deliberately used that to, in a sense, enable the viewer to decide what it is that you want the expression to be.

Matt:

And what it is that you think of the theory that it is actually a female version of Leonardo himself?

Donald:

There are hundreds of these theories and one can come up with any theory that you like by looking at the detail or changing a little bit of the positions. I think if Leonardo wanted to do a self portrait he would have done a self portrait. He did not need to disguise it under a woman.

Matt:

It depends how tricky you wanted to be, he was into the mirror writing as well, wasn't he?

Donald:

Yeah, but we don't know why he was in the mirror writing phase because if he wanted to disguise things it is about the silliest way to do it, anyone can hold a mirror up. But all these things are fascinating why, because we don't want things to be simple. And so there is a code, there is a secret, after all the Da Vinci Code that's part of the story. Everything is plausible and since for a theory, even a conspiracy theory, all you need for it to work is to suggest that it is plausible. So all these things are plausible but I'm a historian, I need more than plausible, I need some kind of evidence and some kind of imperial backing.

Matt:

Professor Donald Sassoon, thank you for your time today.

Donald:

Thank you very much.