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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Essayism is ultimately about how literature can make a difference

Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is a beautiful and elegiac volume – having read it, I re-read it.

It is somewhat unseemly for a critic to confess that their immediate reaction to a book is one of unremitting envy. But Brian Dillon’s study of the essay is so careful and precise in its reading of a constellation of authors – Derrida and Barthes, Didion and Sontag, Browne and Burton, Woolf and Carlos Williams, Cioran and Perec – that my overall feeling was jealousy.

Dillon is a writer on art and culture and a tutor at the Royal College of Art, and the author of an award-winning memoir from 2005, In The Dark Room, about losing both his parents in his youth. A remarkable meditation on memory, it shares with his other work – an examination of hypochondria, Tormented Hope, and his writing on the cultural significance of ruins – a wide and nimble range of reference as well as a sense of personal grief and literary anomie.

 In Essayism, Dillon deals, with a kind of weary shrug, with the etymology of “essay”. But more than just sauntering through “attempt”, “try” and “test”, he digs much deeper: from essayer he goes to examen, the needle of a scale, an image of control. The essay is both a proposition and the judge of it. What truly comes across in this book is that the essay may well be a sally against the subject, but what is tried, in the final reckoning, are the authors themselves. And, of course, found wanting, in both senses of the word. The essay, in Dillon’s account, is both erotic and absent, lapidary and profuse, and is at its best when always concerned with its own realisation of its inherent sense of failure. Before this discussion of etymology, though, comes a bravura cadenza of topics, placed to make us realise the essay is never about what it claims to be at all.

The close readings of various essayists are counterpointed by chapters headed “On Consolation”. This is some of Dillon’s most autobiographical writing to date. In Essayism he both excoriates and exorcises, using the essay as a flail and a balm. In other
essayists he finds mirrors of his own joys and despairs, particularly in a wonderful piece about Cyril Connolly, which deserves commendation simply for not mentioning the pram in the hall.

Essaysism resists defining its subject. As the critic David Shields has said, you don’t have a drawer labelled “non-socks”; and “non-fiction” is a singularly slippery notion. Dillon’s “essays” range from aphorism to such glorious sprawls as Robert Burton’s 17th-century treatise The Anatomy of Melancholy. Some are journalistic, others are philosophic. To an extent, it is the very fluidity that Dillon admires; but above all he claims to admire style, and he is exceptionally good at defining the styles he likes. He reads more into the placing of a comma in a piece by Elizabeth Hardwick than most critics might find in the whole of her work.

This neatness, as it were, typifies the book. It is about noticing, and scrutinising, and reflecting. He has a keen ear for when a sentence has a word that is somehow out of key – “porcupine”, “broccoli” – yet possesses a strange beauty.

The book shifts into a higher gear when Dillon writes about his own depression. There is never a moment where he asks the reader to feel sorry for him. There is a steeliness in his descriptions of the nebulous haze that anti-depressants led him into; a stoic willingness to face one’s own sadness. Books, and the tiny curlicues of beauty he notes in them, were a kind of redemptive force for Dillon, far more so than Prozac. That at one point he found consolation in the pages of the NME is remarkable.

His account of depression is reflected in thinking about the essay. Is it something composed of fragments and shards? Is it a coolly organised progression? Is it about confession? Is it about concealment? The book’s excellence lies in the way these paradoxes are held suspended.

It seems churlish to mention omissions, but I do so because I would like to read what Brian Dillon would have to say about figures such as William Hazlitt, Richard Steele, Matthew Arnold or Iain Sinclair (perhaps our most essayistic novelist). And Dillon’s assertion about the absence of a literature of sickness is unjustifiable if one considers Thomas Mann, Knut Hamsun, Céline. His canon is, as all are, arbitrary: they are the pieces of writing that mattered to him when they mattered most.

The book, ultimately, is about how literature can make a difference. It is a beautiful and elegiac volume. I can give no greater compliment than to say that having read it, I re-read it. 

Essayism
Brian Dillon
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 228pp, £10.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder