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Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa (also known as La Gioconda or La Joconde), often called the Mona Lisa, is a 16th century portrait painted in oil on a poplar panel in Florence by Leonardo da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance. The work is owned by the Government of France and is on the wall in the Louvre in Paris, France with the title Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. It is perhaps the most famous and iconic painting in the world.

The painting is a half-length portrait and depicts a woman whose facial expression is often described as enigmatic. The ambiguity of the sitter's expression, the monumentality of the half-figure composition, and the subtle modeling of forms and atmospheric illusionism were novel qualities that have contributed to the painting's continuing fascination. It is probably the most famous painting that has ever been stolen from the Louvre and recovered. Few other works of art have been subject to as much scrutiny, study, mythologizing, and parody. A charcoal and graphite study of the Mona Lisa attributed to Leonardo is in the Hyde Collection, in Glens Falls, NY.

Background

Da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503, during the Italian Renaissance and, according to Vasari, "after he had lingered over it four years, left it unfinished…." He is thought to have continued to work on it for three years after he moved to France and to have finished it shortly before he died in 1519. Da Vinci took the painting from Italy to France in 1516 when King François I invited the painter to work at the Clos Lucé near the king's castle in Amboise. Most likely through the heirs of da Vinci's assistant Salai, the king bought the painting for 4,000 écus and kept it at Château Fontainebleau, where it remained until given to Louis XIV. Louis XIV moved the painting to the Palace of Versailles. After the French Revolution, it was moved to the Louvre. Napoleon I had it moved to his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace; later it was returned to the Louvre. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871) it was moved from the Louvre to a hiding place elsewhere in France.

Mona Lisa was not well known until the mid-19th century when artists of the emerging Symbolist movement began to appreciate it, and associated it with their ideas about feminine mystique. Critic Walter Pater, in his 1867 essay on da Vinci, expressed this view by describing the figure in the painting as a kind of mythic embodiment of eternal femininity, who is "older than the rocks among which she sits" and who "has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave."

Subject and title

Mona Lisa is named for Lisa del Giocondo, a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. The painting was commissioned for their new home and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea.
The sitter's identity was ascertained at the University of Heidelberg in 2005 by a library expert who discovered a 1503 margin note written by Agostino Vespucci. Scholars have been of many minds, identifying at least four different paintings as the Mona Lisa and several people as its subject. Da Vinci's mother Caterina in a distant memory, Isabella of Naples or Aragon, Cecilia Gallerani, Costanza d'Avalos—who was also called the "merry one" or La Gioconda, Isabella d'Este, Pacifica Brandano or Brandino, Isabela Gualanda, Caterina Sforza, and da Vinci himself have all been named the sitter. Today the subject's identity is held to be Lisa, which was always the traditional view.

The painting's title stems from a description by Giorgio Vasari in his biography of da Vinci published in 1550, 31 years after the artist's death. "Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife…." (one version in Italian: Prese Lionardo a fare per Francesco del Giocondo il ritratto di mona Lisa sua moglie).In Italian, ma donna means my lady. This became madonna, and its contraction mona. Mona is thus a polite form of address, similar to Ma’am, Madam, or my lady in English. In modern Italian, the short form of madonna is usually spelled Monna, so the title is sometimes Monna Lisa, rarely in English and more commonly in Romance languages such as French and Italian.

At his death in 1525, da Vinci's assistant Salai owned the portrait named in his personal papers la Gioconda which had been bequeathed to him by the artist. Italian for jocund, happy or jovial, Gioconda was a nickname for the sitter, a pun on the feminine form of her married name Giocondo and her disposition. In French, the title La Joconde has the same double meaning.

Aesthetics

Da Vinci used a pyramid design to place the woman simply and calmly in the space of the painting. Her folded hands form the front corner of the pyramid. Her breast, neck and face glow in the same light that models her hands. The light gives the variety of living surfaces an underlying geometry of spheres and circles. Da Vinci referred to a seemingly simple formula for seated female figure: the images of seated Madonna, which were widespread at the time. He effectively modified this formula in order to create the visual impression of distance between the sitter and the observer. The armrest of the chair functions as a dividing element between Mona Lisa and the viewer.

The woman sits markedly upright with her arms folded, which is also a sign of her reserved posture. Only her gaze is fixed on the observer and seems to welcome them to this silent communication. Since the brightly lit face is practically framed with various much darker elements (hair, veil, shadows), the observer's attraction to Mona Lisa's face is brought to even greater extent. Thus, the composition of the figure evokes an ambiguous effect: we are attracted to this mysterious woman but have to stay at a distance as if she were a divine creature. There is no indication of an intimate dialogue between the woman and the observer as is the case in the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione (Louvre) painted by Raphael about ten years after Mona Lisa, and undoubtedly influenced by da Vinci's portrait.

The painting was among the first portraits to depict the sitter before an imaginary landscape and Leonardo was one of the first painters to use aerial perspective. The enigmatic woman is portrayed seated in what appears to be an open loggia with dark pillar bases on either side. Behind her a vast landscape recedes to icy mountains. Winding paths and a distant bridge give only the slightest indications of human presence. The sensuous curves of the woman's hair and clothing, created through sfumato, are echoed in the undulating imaginary valleys and rivers behind her. The blurred outlines, graceful figure, dramatic contrasts of light and dark and overall feeling of calm are characteristic of da Vinci's style. Due to the expressive synthesis that da Vinci achieved between sitter and landscape it is arguable whether Mona Lisa should be considered as a traditional portrait, for it represents an ideal rather than a real woman. The sense of overall harmony achieved in the painting—especially apparent in the sitter's faint smile—reflects the idea of a link connecting humanity and nature.

Mona Lisa has no visible facial hair—including eyebrows and eyelashes. Some researchers claim that it was common at this time for genteel women to pluck them out, since they were considered to be unsightly. For modern viewers the missing eyebrows add to the slightly semi-abstract quality of the face.

Theft and vandalism

The Mona Lisa painting now hangs in the Musée du Louvre in Paris, France. The painting's increasing fame was further emphasized when it was stolen on August 21, 1911. The next day, Louis Béroud, a painter, walked into the Louver and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years. However, where the Mona Lisa should have stood, he found four iron pegs. Béroud contacted the section head of the guards, who thought the painting was being photographed for marketing purposes. A few hours later, Béroud checked back with the section head of the museum, and it was confirmed that the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers. The Louvers was closed for an entire week to aid in investigation of the theft.
French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louver to be "burnt down," came under suspicion; he was arrested and put in jail. Apollinaire tried to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning, but both were later exonerated.

At the time, the painting was believed to be lost forever, and it would be two years before the real thief was discovered. Louver employee Vincenzo Peruggia stole it by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet and walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. Peruggia was an Italian patriot who believed da Vinci's painting should be returned to Italy for display in an Italian museum. Peruggia may have also been motivated by a friend who sold copies of the painting, which would skyrocket in value after the theft of the original. After having kept the painting in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was finally caught when he attempted to sell it to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; it was exhibited all over Italy and returned to the Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was hailed for his patriotism in Italy and only served a few months in jail for the crime.

During World War II, the painting was again removed from the Louver and taken safely, first to Château d'Amboise, then to the Loc-Dieu Abbey and finally to the Ingres Museum in Montauban. In 1956, the lower part of the painting was severely damaged when a vandal doused the painting with acid. On December 30 of that same year, a young Bolivian named Ugo Ungaza Villegas damaged the painting by throwing a rock at it. This resulted in the loss of a speck of pigment near the left elbow, which was later painted over.
Conservation

The Mona Lisa has survived for more than 500 years, and an international commission convened in 1952 noted that "the picture is in a remarkable state of preservation." This is partly due to the result of a variety of conservation treatments the painting has undergone. A detailed analysis in 1933 by Madame de Gironde revealed that earlier restorers had "acted with a great deal of restraint." Nevertheless, applications of varnish made to the painting had darkened even by the end of the 16th century, and an aggressive 1809 cleaning and re-varnish removed some of the uppermost portion of the paint layer, resulting in a washed-out appearance to the face of the figure. Despite the treatments, the Mona Lisa has been well-cared for throughout its history, and although the panel's warping caused the curators "some worry", the 2004-05 conservation team was optimistic about the future of the work.

Poplar panel

At some point in its history, the Mona Lisa was removed from its original frame. The unconstrained poplar panel was allowed to warp freely with changes in humidity, and as a result, a crack began to develop near the top of the panel. The crack extends down to the hairline of the figure. In the mid 18th to early 19th century, someone attempted to stabilize the crack by inlaying two butterfly shaped walnut braces into the back of the panel to a depth of about 1/3 the thickness of the panel. This work was skillfully executed, and has successfully stabilized the crack. Sometime between 1888 and 1905, or perhaps at some point during the picture's theft, the upper brace fell out. A later restorer glued and lined the resulting socket and crack with cloth. The flexible oak frame (added 1951) and crossbraces (1970) help to keep the panel from warping further. A butterfly brace prevents the panel from further cracking.

Legacy

The avant-garde art world has made note of the undeniable fact of the Mona Lisa's popularity. Because of the painting's overwhelming stature, Dadaists and Surrealists often produce modifications and caricatures. Already in 1883, a Mona Lisa smoking a pipe was shown at the "Incoherents" show in Paris. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp, one of the most influential Dadaists, created L.H.O.O.Q., a Mona Lisa parody made by adorning a cheap reproduction with a moustache and a goatee, as well as adding the rude inscription, when read out loud in French sounds like "Elle a chaud au cul" (literally translated - "she has a hot ass". This is a manner of implying the woman in the painting is in a state of sexual excitement and availability). This was intended as a Freudian joke, referring to da Vinci's alleged homosexuality. According to Rhonda R. Shearer, the apparent reproduction is in fact a copy partly modeled on Duchamp's own face.
Salvador Dalí, famous for his surrealist work, painted Self portrait as Mona Lisa in 1954. In 1963 following the painting's visit to the United States, Andy Warhol created serigraph prints of multiple Mona Lisas called Thirty are Better than One, like his works of Marilyn Monroe (Twenty-five Colored Marilyns, 1962), Elvis Presley (1964) and Campbell's soup (1961–1962).

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Hatem Salah

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1 comment:

Joe Medeiros said...

I'm working on a documentary about Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa. It was shot on location in Paris at the Louvre, in Florence and in Dumenza, Peruggia's home town. We've interviewed his daughter Celestina and have combed through the French and Italian archives looking for the truth about the man and his amazing theft. Just one piece of information, Peruggia didn't hide in a closet overnight. He walked into the museum on a Monday when it was closed for its weekly cleaning. He was dressed as a workman. He took the painting (minus frame) wrapped it in his workman's smock and walked out the door unseen less than 45 minutes after he walked in. Check out our website: www.monalisamissing.com

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