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.

Yo Zushi's most recent album, "Notes for Holy Larceny", is out on Pointy Records (£9.99)

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

MONTY FRESCO/DAILY MAIL/REX
Show Hide image

A hatchet job on the Daily Mail: Peter Wilby reviews Mail Men

Peter Wilby on Adrian Addison’s expletive-strewn history of the Daily Mail.

The Ukip leader Paul Nuttall recently claimed that he was among the crowd at the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in 1989 and that he lost close personal friends there, statements which suggest, at best, a flexible relationship with the truth. David English, the Daily Mail editor from 1971 to 1992, went one better. He claimed to have been in Dallas in November 1963 on the day John F Kennedy was assassinated. He was, he told Mail readers 25 years later, “part of the inner press circle which the Kennedys courted so assiduously” and: “We lived and travelled well, we President’s men . . . in brand new special planes.” In Dallas, he “witnessed the whole unbelievable scenario”. In fact, English, then based in New York for the Daily Express, was 1,600 miles away having a coffee break near his office. Adrian Addison’s riotously entertaining book is full of similar stories.

The present editor, Paul Dacre, has never been caught out in such flamboyant untruths. Yet, as Addison explains, the very appearance of the Daily Mail is based on a more subtle lie. Flick through its “human interest” features and you find “typical” Britons talking about their experience of relationships, crime, hospitals, schools, and so on. “Typical” in the Mail’s world means Mail readers as envisaged by its editor – white and middle class, not too fat or too thin, with smart but sensible clothes, hair and shoes, and free of tattoos and nose rings. A story does not, as editors say, “work” unless a picture shows the subjects conforming to this stereotype. If they don’t, make-up artists and hair stylists are despat­ched along with the correct clothing.

Addison, a BBC journalist for much of his career, has experience of tabloid journalism, though not at the Mail. Well over half his book is devoted to the editorships of English and his direct successor, Dacre, with the Mail’s first 75 years – including the familiar but still shocking story of its proprietor’s admiration for Hitler in the 1930s – dismissed in just 150 pages. The paper’s Sunday sister, launched in 1982, is mentioned only briefly.

In many respects, the book is a hatchet job. Dacre emerges, to quote Stephen Fry, as “just about as loathsome, self-regarding, morally putrid, vengeful and disgusting a man as it is possible to be”; English comes out very slightly better, thanks to personal charm and lavish parties; and the Mail Online’s publisher, Martin Clarke, who gets a chapter to himself, is portrayed as a cross between Vlad the Impaler and Fred West, redeemed, like Dacre, by demonic energy and undeniable success in attracting readers.

Like a good tabloid editor, Addison varies the tone, giving us occasional tear-jerking passages to show that even Mail editors have a human side. English befriends an ­office messenger boy, promises to find him a job in journalism if he gets an A-level in English, and proves as good as his word. Dacre, shy and socially clumsy, summons a features editor who had said the previous night, “You are mad, you know, Paul,” and asks, “I’m not really mad, am I?” Addison even deploys that old tabloid staple, the faithful, prescient dog. It belonged to Vere Harmsworth, the 3rd Viscount Rothermere and fourth Mail proprietor, who died in 1998 just 12 weeks after English, some said of a broken heart because the two had become so close. The day that Harmsworth, tax-exiled in France, was leaving home for London, where a heart attack killed him, his dog Ryu-ma refused to accompany the master to the airport in the chauffeur-driven car as it usually did.

The Harmsworths command a degree of admiration from many journalists. Of all the great newspaper dynasties – the Beaverbrooks, the Astors, the Berrys – they alone have stayed the course. The present proprietor, Jonathan Harmsworth, the 4th Viscount Rothermere, is the great-great-nephew of Alfred (“Sunny”) Harmsworth, who co-founded the paper in 1896. The Mail’s masthead hasn’t changed in 121 years, nor have several other things. Just as Sunny had only one Daily Mail editor until his death in 1922, Jonathan sticks by Dacre, allowing him to get on with his fanatical Brexiteering despite being a Remain sympathiser himself. So, too, did his father allow Dacre to denounce Tony Blair while he himself moved to the Labour benches in the House of Lords. Again like Sunny and Vere, Jonathan keeps accountants at arm’s length, giving the editor such generous budgets that the Mail scraps roughly two-thirds of the features it commissions yet still pays higher “kill” fees for them than other papers pay for the articles they print.

Other aspects of the Harmsworth legacy are less admirable. Most papers worried about the militarisation of Germany in the years before the First World War but, Addison writes, the Mail “raged”. Today, it is rage against immigrants, liberals, Greens, benefit claimants, human rights lawyers, the EU, overseas aid and a host of individuals from Polly Toynbee to Gary Lineker that oozes from almost every paragraph of the paper.

Many among what Dacre calls “the liberal elite” will find that Addison has written the exposé of the Mail that they always wanted to read. The inside story, with its unexpur­gated f***s and c***s, is as bad as you thought it was. But remember: the paper sells about 1.5 million copies a day, second only to the Sun. Its faults and virtues (there are some of the latter) owe nothing to marketing constructs, the proprietor’s business interests, party loyalties or anything other than the editor’s judgement as to what people will read. Denounce it by all means, but remember that millions of Britons love it.

Peter Wilby was the editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the NS from 1998 to 2005

Mail Men: The Story of the Daily Mail - the Paper that Divided and Conquered Britain by Adrian Addison is published by Oneworld (336pp, £20)

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain