The real Mona Lisa

A team of art historians is preparing to excavate a cemetery in search of the Mona Lisa's model. But

"Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher and philosophy begins in wonder," wrote Plato in one of his dialogues: after all, he argued, Iris, the Greek messenger of heaven, was the child of the sea god Thaumas, who was the concept of wonder personified. But you don't have to be a divine genealogist to appreciate the value of wonder to our understanding of the world around us and our relationship with art -- the vehicle of elucidation that brings dimly felt experience into the light (as Tolstoy once put it). Wonder and enchantment, by their nature, stem from vagueness and imprecision; much of their power lies in their ability to cast our imaginations adrift.

Curious, then, that a group of art historians is resorting to CSI-style forensic methods to discover the identity of the model who sat for Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Silvano Vinceti, who raised eyebrows in February with his claim that Da Vinci had based the iconic portrait on the face of Gian Giacomo Caprotti, his young male apprentice, has now embarked on another widely reported project to locate the remains of Lisa Gherardini, the rich merchant's wife long held by convention to have been the sitter.

Last year, the same group of scientists announced that it had found the bones of Caravaggio and identified a possible cause of death, centuries after the artist died in mysterious circumstances. The team has also used modern methods to reconstruct the faces of some notable Italians (including Dante) on the basis of their skulls. One obvious question springs to mind: why did they bother?

Vinceti was once a television producer and his nous for generating publicity is not in question. Yet his enterprise is more than just a waste of money -- it is a symptom of a culture of cynicism that aims to replace the wonder of art with cold, hard fact. The Mona Lisa, of all paintings, is one that is celebrated for its sense of mystery. For centuries, critics and casual viewers have contemplated the precise meaning of her smile and her story. (As Bob Dylan speculated in the song "Visions of Johanna": "Mona Lisa must have had the highway blues/You can tell by the way she smiles.") The haze of uncertainty that surrounds the work has kept it alive. Anchoring the image to a particular body and identity will neither enrich the experience of looking at it, nor answer the more metaphysical questions that count. In the Prelude, Wordsworth's daydreams transfigure a wet, black rock in the distance into a "burnished shield", glistening in the sun. Not knowing whether his fancies are right or wrong in objective terms allows for imaginative play. In many ways, I'd rather have the shield than the rock.

The real-world details of the Mona Lisa's creation would, at most, serve as a mildly diverting piece of supplementary information. Maybe I'm being over-critical of Vinceti's work -- having more information about something, I admit, is better than having less. Yet I reserve a certain scepticism for anyone who feels compelled to make such a song and dance about a relatively insignificant biographical detail, as if solving the mystery of who the model was would, at the same time, solve the grander mystery of the painting's power.

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Tsipras' resignation has left Syriza in dire straits

Splinter group Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal Syriza struck with its creditors.

The resignation of Alexis Tsipras on 20 August was the start of a new chapter in the havoc affecting all sections of Greek political life. “We haven’t yet lived our best days,” the 41-year-old prime minister said as he stood down, though there is little cause for optimism.

Tsipras’s capitulation to the indebted state’s lenders by signing up to more austerity measures has split his party and demoralised further a people resigned to their fate.

Polls show that no party commands an absolute majority at present. It seems as though we are heading for years of grand coalitions made up of uneasy partnerships that can only hope to manage austerity, with little room for social reform. The main parties from across the political spectrum have lost legitimacy and the anti-austerity campaign is more marginal than ever. Many fear the rise of extremists, such as members of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn. Thankfully, that is unlikely to happen: the party’s leadership is facing a number of grave accusations, including forming a criminal organisation, and its general secretary, Nikolaos Michaloliakos, is going out of his way to appear more moderate than ever.

It is to the left of Syriza that most activity is taking place. The former energy minister Panagiotis Lafazanis has defected to co-found a new party, Popular Unity (an ironic name in the circumstances), joined by MPs from the radical Left Platform and, according to the latest information, Zoi Konstantopoulou – the current speaker of the Hellenic
Parliament, who had considered starting her own party but lacked time and support in the run-up to the general election, scheduled for 20 September.

Popular Unity’s stated aim is to take Greece out of the deal struck with its creditors, to end austerity (even if that means leaving the euro) and to rebuild the country. It is likely that the party will work with the far-left coalition Antarsya, which campaigned hard to guarantee the Oxi referendum victory in July and increasingly looks like Syriza in 2009, when it won 4.6 per cent of the vote in the Greek legislative election under Tsipras.

Yet it is dispiriting that few on the left seem to understand that more splits, new parties and weak, opportunistic alliances will contribute to the weakening of parliamentary democracy. It is perhaps a sign that the idea of a left-wing government may become toxic for a generation after the six months that took the economy to the edge and failed to produce meaningful change.

Despite this fragmentation on the left, the largest right-wing opposition party, New Democracy, has been unable to force a surge in the polls. Its new leader, Vangelis Meimarakis, enjoys the respect of both the parliament and the public but has few committed supporters. The apolitical alliance To Potami (“the river”) appears to have stalled on 6-8 per cent, while the once-dominant Pasok is unlikely to enter parliament without forming a coalition on the centre left, postponing its predicted collapse for a few more years.

The winner amid all of this is apathy. Many believe that a large number of Greeks won’t vote in the September election – the fifth in six years (or the sixth, if you include the referendum in July). The situation in Greece should serve as an example of what could happen to democracies across Europe that lack political unity: parties with clear ideological positions end up serving as managers of diktats from Brussels, while more extreme forces become the de facto opposition. In this harsh climate, many citizens will either abandon their politicians or, in a bleaker scenario, reject the democratic system that elected them. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a Greek investigative journalist. His work on politics, economics and Greece, appears in the New Statesman, Vice UK and others.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism