The Telegraph reports today the latest Mona Lisa theory.** Silvano Vincenti–the art detective, who has spent the last few years digging around in the ground beneath S Ursula’s convent in Florence looking for Lisa del Giocondo’s (née Gherardini) remains–has finally “come up with an answer to a question that has divided scholars for years – who was the Mona Lisa based on?”. Vincenti says that we’ve all been wrong for years, and that the Mona Lisa is actually not, strictly speaking, a portrait of Lisa at all. It’s really a portrait of Leonardo’s live-in assisatnt, and conjectured lover, Salai. Partly based on examinations of infra-red images, Vincenti says that the “androgynous” Mona Lisa is a fusion of Lisa’s face with the best bits of Salai; he says that the forehead, nose and that smile, are all Salai’s features. Underlying all this is the speculation that Leonardo and Salai were gay lovers–hence Vincenti’s comparison between the face of the Mona Lisa with the face of the Incarnate Angel, here reckoned to be a portrait of sorts of Salai, and notable because the angel has a stonking erection. Reading between the lines, the Mona Lisa thus goes from idealised portrait of a Florentine merchant’s wife, to a secret homage to Salai, Leonardo’s gay lover.
Frankly, Vincenti should’ve known better. The basic premise that the identification of the portrait’s sitter is ‘a question that has divided scholars for years’ is a false one. No scholar–or else, no serious one–actually doubts whether the portrait is a picture of Lisa, however idealised or imaginative it may, in many respects, be.
At any rate, it is frankly misleading to claim that even if Leonardo found Salai attractive, and even if he had, somewhere in his mind, Salai’s features when producing his pictures, that those pictures must then be understood as pictorial manifestations of Leonardo and Salai’s gay romance. This is a misunderstanding of the artistic process, what it entails and how it works. It’s also a rather naïve take on sexuality in the Early Modern period, during which relationships between older men and young boys would never have been understood according to a modern taxonomy of sexuality (gay, homosexual etc.). To say the Mona Lisa is actually about gay love, articulated in those terms, is simply anachronistic.
This latest theory is therefore a kind of dramatising and skewing of the known facts that gives rise, in this case, to a view not dissimilar to the wholly problematic interpretations of Michelangelo and Tomasso dei Cavalieri’s relationship and the works of art, poetry etc. that they exchanged.
Anyway, as Prof. Martin Kemp has been saying for years–and this is repeated in The Telegraph‘s article–we don’t actually know what Salai looked like. Vasari’s written description of him is generic, to say the least, and conforms to a standard type: “he was pretty and had curly hair”, basically. So any attempt to spot Salai’s features in Leonardo’s work is a lost cause from the off, and any results are wholly conjectural.
Thus Kemp’s view: “This is a mish-mash of known things, semi-known things and complete fantasy…”.
To put that another way, this is Dan Brown stuff.
* This is, by the way, the second time Vincenti has peddled this “theory”. This is just a re-hashing. In 2011, he said the same.
** do wish people would stop referring to Leonardo as “da Vinci”.