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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How will future videogame makers design a grand strategy game about the 21st century?

With the diminishing power of nation states, and the lack of conventional warfare, what would a 21st-century grand strategy game look like?

In the world of historical strategy games, it always seems clear how to win. Paint the map your colour. Raise your flag over the capitals of your rivals. Pave the streets of your cities with gold. Games based around statecraft in olden times will tend to have diverse objectives, they usually focus on the greatness of a nation in the traditional senses of the word: military might, technological advancement, religious and cultural hegemony. These same priorities hold up from the times of the Roman Republic to the Cold War.

Yet if games designers in the future were to look at the world of today, how would they interpret the actions of modern governments? Do the same goals as before apply or have we moved on? Are the objectives of contemporary societies different, and if so, just what would a player in a game of 21st-century grand strategy be trying to achieve?

One thing is for sure, the conventional measures of success in historical grand strategy games don’t stack up so easily in a modern setting.

War, for instance, has always been a staple part of historical games and it remains a preoccupation of contemporary society too. In the 15 years of the 21st century, Britain has invaded two countries, conducted armed interventions in three more and is even now lining up the procurement of new fighter jets, new aircraft carriers and new nuclear weapons at incredible expense. So we can safely say we do not live in a peaceful age.

But despite having all this firepower and the political will to bring it to bear at the drop of a dossier, war doesn’t seem to serve Her Majesty’s Government in the way it does in either the history books or the strategy games. There is no territory to be won and no rival great powers being thwarted – only air strikes, occupations and teetering puppet governments.

Indeed the only country whose military adventures bear any resemblance to the old-timey way of doing things is Russia, with Putin perhaps the last of the breed of world leaders who still thinks swapping out the flags on municipal buildings constitutes a legitimate redrawing of national boundaries. Given his famous distrust for technology it seems quite likely he didn’t get the tersely worded Tweet from Obama about how that kind of thing isn’t supposed to work anymore.

On the economic side of things the approaches opted for by governments today don’t fit with the historical mind set either. Nations are no longer trying to get rich for their own sake. Privatisation relinquishes the assets of the state in return for a temporary financial gain and long term loss of revenue. Deregulation and poor tax enforcement bleeds capital overseas. It is here we see perhaps the key difference between games where you play as The State itself and real countries, countries run by people who have bank balances of their own and competing party financiers to appease.

The idea of running a country for the purpose of making that country wealthier and then reinvesting that wealth back into the country by developing assets and infrastructure has gone out of the window. Simultaneously both the leftwing model of a state run for the benefit of its citizens and the rightwing ideal of a country mastering its economy to become a more powerful force on the world stage have been quietly phased out. Outsourcing and tax havens suggest that there is no longer room for patriotism in economic policy – unless you’re China, of course, but it wouldn’t be much of a game with only one nation playing it.

On a technological front there was the space race, and there have even been games built around it. But in the 21st century, the urgency and the sense of competition has been lost. Rovers on Mars, probes on comets and space stations tend to be viewed in a spirit of collective human achievement, partly because of the collaborative nature of modern space exploration, and also, I suspect, because lots of people in those fields are Star Trek fans.

The idea of going to Mars so you can stand on the surface of another planet and tell the Communists to stuff it no longer appeals as much as that whole "pushing back the scientific boundaries for the benefit of all life of Earth" deal. It is laudable, but not ideal for games built around competing with other countries.

In the 21st century grand strategy game, we wouldn’t be looking to conquer the world, we wouldn’t be looking to buy it and we wouldn’t be looking to leave it in our technological wake either. So what does that leave? What would 21st-century grand strategy look like?

It could be argued that we’ve moved beyond the era of nation states as the bodies driving world affairs, and such a game might reflect that. Maybe something more akin to a Crusader Kings game would be the way to go, with the player taking the role of an individual – a connected political blueblood, perhaps, like an oligarch, a CEO, an activist turned politician, a drugs baron or a terrorist leader. Or maybe we would play not as an individual, but as an organisation, for example the CIA, ExxonMobil, Isis, Amnesty International or the Solntsevskaya Bratva.

It may be that we never see the present day immortalised in a strategy game, at least outside of that passing phase in Civilization where everything is either settled down or exploding in nuclear fire. Perhaps we’re destined to nestle into a historically obscure crack between the tumult of the 20th century and something spectacular or horrible yet to come. It is nice to think, however, that the times we live in are at least interesting and that maybe we’ll get to see it all laid out in a game one day, if only to find out what winning the 21st century would look like.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture