“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.