My Date With the Mona Lisa


Art is sometimes said to be an act of revelation, so today I'd like to exploit that notion, and engage in some shameless public confession. I'm going to reveal to you a piece of my secret history. My story is about my brief but unforgettable courtship and intimacy with one of the world's most beautiful, most famous, and most mysterious women. I'm going to tell you about my date with the Mona Lisa.

It happened long ago, in 1963. I was a student living in Washington, D.C., when word came that Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa would be coming to town. She'd be on loan from the Louvre in Paris, and would be displayed for our cultural edification at the National Gallery of Art downtown on the Mall.

Now, when I heard about her imminent arrival, I resolved right away to go and see this famous woman in person. Why? Was it because of my expertise in Renaissance portraiture? No, it wasn't. I didn't have any expertise in Renaissance portraiture. Was it because of my interest in the Italian painterly technique of sfumato, an interplay of light and shadow that is so beautifully employed in this work, and that is the ultimate source of its great, great fame? No. If I'd heard the term sfumato back then, I might have guessed that it was a flavor of Italian ice cream. Was it because I wanted to examine first-hand the theory that the Mona Lisa is actually a self-portrait in drag by a notoriously cryptic, gay painter who loved puzzles? I actually wish that had been the reason, but that remarkable theory was not to be enunciated for many years. I wish we had time to pursue it today.

No, I knew one thing about the Mona Lisa back then: It exemplified Great Art. Said who? It would not have occurred to me to ask such a question. The Mona Lisa–La Giocanda–was and is universally recognized as one of the world's great artistic achievements. There were people who knew such things: teachers, critics, historians, curators. They had training, education, experience, sensibility. Did I? These people established the rules of the cultural game, and set the standards and parameters of its discourse. They bore the burden of recognizing the condition of art. I was their student, and acknowledged their authority. If I had any pretentions to attaining even a minimal level of cultural literacy, and to claim someday the status associated with such knowledge, then it was up to me to get on a bus headed downtown, and to make my first art pilgrimage. I was, in other words, your perfect middlebrow in the making, adjusting my cultural expectations to a highbrow elite, to whom I granted status and authority.

When I got off that bus and approached the National Gallery, I was confronted by quite an extraordinary sight. Indeed, I was to begin learning an important–if unexpected–lesson about culture, fame, status, and art well before I ever got into the building.

I'll tell you what I encountered, and the lessons I learned, in a moment. But first, let's set the stage for my date with Signora Giocanda. Let's place this historic rendezvous in its proper, historic context.

Now, you know what I'm doing there: I'm an art pilgrim. And you know more or less what the Mona Lisa is doing there: De Gaulle loaned her to Kennedy. But a more interesting question involves the National Gallery of Art: What is it doing there? Why is there such a thing as the National Gallery in the first place?

We take such places entirely for granted now; no self-respecting town is without its municipal collection of artworks. But collections of such artifacts, both public and private, are a relatively recent phenomenon in history. They have their origin in the Reformation, when, after a period of iconoclasm, the Western relationship to such imagery underwent a great change, from religious to secular.

You probably suppose that these temples to art exist to display and preserve acknowledged art masterpieces. Sure: That's true as far it goes. But their original purpose may be said to have been the protection of art, not merely from the ravages of time, but from the likes of me.

After all, where had I first encountered the words, "Mona Lisa"? It wasn't from perusing the learned works of sensitive aesthetes: It was in the lyrics of a hit song. That song wasn't Nat King Cole's 1940s ballad, either; it was the 1950s rockabilly remake of the Cole ballad, screamed by Conway Twitty at at least three times the speed of Nat King Cole's version.

In fact, the 19th century in America witnessed a great struggle between Leonardo Da Vinci and Conway Twitty. That is, between a culture of learned aesthetic contemplation inherited from the aristocratic court society of Europe, and a far more raucus, popular culture that began to assert itself in the days of Jackson administration.

In fact, the system of imitative fine arts as we know them–poetry, painting, music, drama, dance–was not even formulated until the late 18th century. People before then had very different ideas of what the arts constituted. It took a while to convince Americans.

There were many remarkable fronts in this struggle over the arts: including battles over the control of Shakespeare, the presentation of opera, and the approach to the display of art imagery. Among the most important players was a class of merchants who, once they'd made their money, determined to use their fortunes for the benefit of high culture. They established American business patronage, underwriting serious American painters, importing foreign objets d'art, and laying the groundwork for a tradition of social and cultural philanthropy that lives on to this day in such organizations as the Rockefeller Foundation, the Getty Trust, and the Aspen Institute.

Their attitude toward high culture has cast a long shadow. To quote the grocer Luman Reed, who when he died in the 1840s was supporting numerous painters and had become the first American to build a private gallery as a shrine to the cult of art, "The artists are my friends, and [my money] is the means of encouragement and support to better men than myself."

One of the fondest dreams of this class of philanthropists was the establishment of a National Gallery of Art, to be open free to the public. It would be a place of retreat and inspiration for the better classes, and even more important, it would be a source of edification and uplift to people like me, opening my eyes to true art in an appropriately somber, cathedral-like atmosphere.

Quite a few American businessmen went roaring through Europe buying everything they saw in order to enrich the nation and give it a cultural trove. They didn't always choose well. One merchant ammassed a huge collection of pre-Renaissance religious imagery in Italy, only to find that when he tried to give it away, no city wanted it. The work was then regarded as too primitive to be considered fine art at all: it was literally worthless. Yale University finally took the collection, perhaps in the hope that it would be followed by the rest of the man's fortune. Of course, today, opinions have changed: Yale's collection is regarded as priceless.

Anyway, Washington's National Gallery, finally begun in the late 1920s, comes directly out of this tradition of merchant uplift. It was established by Pittsburgh's Mellon family, which has maintained a close relationship with the institution. The recent death of Paul Mellon was a major cultural story in the nation's capital.

Thus, when I got off that bus and approached the National Gallery, hosannas surely were sung in high culture heaven. All that grocery money, and steel money, and coal money, and railroad money; it hadn't been spent for nothing. Not only had it bought its original spenders status, not only had it established their connoisseurship, but it had built a temple to house the Mona Lisa in America, and it had caused me to flip off my transister in mid-Conway Twitty to expose my soul to art.

But, ladies and gentlemen, I wasn't alone. Because here's what I saw when I approached the Gallery: I saw people. A lot of people. So many people that my first thought was that a parade had been scheduled along Pennsylvania Avenue, because the only reason so many people gathered downtown was to watch parades.

In fact, there was a parade: an parade of art pilgrims much like myself. That parade was marching past the Mona Lisa. And I was person number 15,853 in that parade.

"Marching" is perhaps the wrong term for what that crowd was doing, because we were all in that line a long, long time. Some people around me were reading novels; others, I am certain, were writing them, and completing them. People met, courted, married, and sent their children off to college, and still we shuffled slowly toward our goal.

That experience has made me an amateur connoisseur of such cultural events. We've had a remarkable one just recently in Washington, during an exhibition of some Van Gogh paintings. Having learned from the notorious Mona Lisa experience, the city's galleries that mount popular exhibits no longer simply open their doors to the public. Instead they distribute a limited number of tickets in advance. The degree to which this has benefitted art lovers is a matter of lively debate. But there is no debate about one group that has benefitted from this practice: and that is the group currently known as "the homeless." They line up early in the morning and are issued a large number of the free tickets, which they then immediately, and successfully, offer for sale. People grumble, but the fact is that this is a new way to measure the value of culture.

How long was the line that I stood in in 1963? I would say that it stretched to the 14th century. That is the earliest time that I can locate when people flocked in great numbers to see some art artifact.

It was in the 14th century that certain crucifixes began to appear that drew large, curious crowds. But the people who went to examine these objects were not exposing themselves to uplifting masterpieces; they were there to gawk at spiritual illegalities.

In London, for example, an artisan had created a crucifix in which Jesus's feet were placed one over the other, and nailed to the cross with one, single nail. At the time, this was not only a wonder, it was a crime. Almost all imagery in this period was ultimately religious imagery, and all of it had to be created according to strict rules established by the Church, according to an edict adopted by the Church in the 8th century. Those rules included the nailing of Jesus's feet side by side.

This is a period before the modern era of art begins at all. Thomas Aquinas mentions both cooking and shoemaking as arts. His attitude is a holdover from antiquity, which considered as arts any activities that required study: painting was an art, but so was rhetoric. So was magic.

In the 14th century, one didn't contemplate the meaning of imagery; rather, imagery had an innate power. Artisans had no freedom to create as they wished; experimenting with the form of an image was to risk debilitating its power and therefore its function. If artisans tried to do so, they were punished. The maker of the shocking London crucifix, for example, had to return his commission, and to remove the crucifix from London in the dark of night, so that it would do no more harm to the faithful.

Secular imagery as we think of it emerges in the course of the Italian Renaissance, when a class of art patrons appears with enough money to challenge the Church's patronage monopoly. They wanted pictures of themselves, for example, or paintings of their luxury possessions, or paintings of people without any clothes on. The famous nudes of the Renaissance were usually hidden behind curtains, or kept rolled up and hidden. These patrons adopted the Church's control of the work they were paying for, and in fact many of works identified the patron as the creator, and left the actual artist unmentioned. The age of art had begun, but not the age of the artist.

In fact, the artist enjoyed relatively low status through much of the Renaissance. The polite classes of Europe believed that painting was beneath them. Art was regarded by them as a mechanical craft: like making shoes or sewing. It was something you did with your hands, and it soiled your clothing. Michelangelo's father, a notary and therefore literate, considered it a family scandal that his son was in the declasse business of making likenesses.

One of the most striking debates of the Italian Renaissance, when painters were struggling to improve their status, was over whether one could paint while wearing fine clothing. The phrase was, "with velvet on one's back." Because if that was possible, then the better classes could paint while maintaining their noble dignity. And if they could do that, painting might gain some status. This debate continued even until the time of Leonardo da Vinci himself, who argued strenuously that painting was no more manual work than was writing. On the other hand, you should read what he had to say about the filthy work of sculptors. By the way, Da Vinci believed mathematics to be one of the arts, but not architecture.

Speaking of Da Vinci, my crowd of art pilgrims continued to inch toward his Mona Lisa, aging visibly as we very gradually neared her shrine. As we got closer, we grew quieter, adopting an appropriate mood of solemnity, just as we were supposed to. People craned their necks, hoping to get an early view of–if not the painting–then perhaps the frame, or at least the guards.

Patience on that day seemed to be its own reward. At last my turn came, and I stepped before the most famous portrait in the world. I'd done a bit of homework, and I understood that the experience of seeing the painting in person was unlike that of studying its ubiquitous copies. I scanned her rapidly: the fold of the hands, the slight wink of the eye, the famous curl of the mouth. I began to compose myself, as was appropriate for this rare, perhaps once in a lifetime experience.

That's when the guard stepped forward and asked me to move on. Why? My time had expired. I'd been there 20 seconds.

This exhibit was to become notorious; it was lambasted as a triumph of hype over art. But I'm not sure that it didn't provide an insight into art's kaleidocopic nature. I'd attended an Enlightenment palace of bourgeoise uplift to see a Renaissance portrait, but was allowed to have only a medieval experience. It was not a painting that I was given an opportunity to see, but rather a powerful likeness in whose presense I was allowed to stand.

Some years later, I was to find myself in Paris, and I naturally set aside some time to visit the Louvre, where the Mona Lisa hangs. It was my first trip to Paris, so the time I set aside for museums was pretty limited. And I remember staring at my floorplan of the huge museum, attempting to come up with a strategy for my very quick visit. Marked on the map was the gallery with Leonardo's painting. I hesitated over that map, and on that ocassion I said to myself, you know Mona, we'll always have Washington.

Then I went and two-timed her with the Venus de Milo.

Thank you.