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Framed
July 28, 2014

Fortune’s Favoured Smile

Text by Mala Vaishnav

The canvas that launched a thousand secrets…

I am standing face to face with the most famous woman in the world and I am disappointed. She is so much smaller than I imagined, garbed in dull shades of brown and yellow and up close her smile borders on a sneer. If you want to get to know her better there’s not a chance. Japanese enthusiasts with their bobbing heads and supersonic cameras block your path every second. And the guards whistle and hustle in continuous slow motion to discourage too much gawking and gaping. So it is a brief encounter and entirely forgettable.

The Louvre, which is where she has resided since 1797, houses a number of mind-boggling treasures that outshine this over-hyped eyebrow-less personage who can be studied in more graphic detail on a computer screen than behind unbreakable bullet-proof glass.

The Mona Lisa, according to several art historians, competes for technical brilliance with many of Leonardo da Vinci’s other works though it is the most heavily insured and the most copied. What keeps it throbbing and alive 500 years since its birth is the mantle of mystery that enfolds the 30 x 21 inch canvas. And the stories abound.

Commonly believed to be a commissioned portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the third wife of a Florentine silk merchant who never took possession of it, there has also been much speculation that the image is that of a male in disguise and in all probability, a self-portrait which the artist never let out of his sight almost till his death.

In August 1911, a workman at the Louvre impudently picked it off the wall, discarded the frame and disappeared with the museum’s cash cow to surface after two years. Leonardo, for that was his name too, confessed he stole the painting to restore it to the country of its maker and wanted France to butt out. In two years, how many likenesses could have been produced, sold and mixed up, I think, but experts at the time vouched for its originality.

My favourite story is that of Roman art historian Gianfranco Salvatori’s claim that following a prolonged investigation it can be proved ‘beyond a shadow of doubt’ that Leonardo did not paint the masterpiece at all! Michelangelo did and both artists knowingly masterminded the world’s greatest art fraud. Well, the painting is unsigned and undated, so anything is possible.

I reconsider my detachment from this historical legend. Perhaps I should return to that room and pose against her ‘enigmatic’ demeanour just to prove I have been there, done that?  I retrace my steps through another entrance and suddenly see her everywhere – on posters, coffee mugs, mouse pads, carry bags, cocktail plates, duvets, flip flops, et al.

Overwhelmed by the mass hysteria caused by Leonardo da Vinci’s creation I finally settle for a fridge magnet. Of Antonio Canova’s classic marble rendering of Psyche and Cupid!

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