JULY 22, 2002
Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon by Donald Sassoon (Harcourt, 337 pp., $30)
One of the most extraordinary but least remarked upon features of paintings and sculptures is their persistence as actual, physical objects from other times and places. When we come face-to-face with the Mona Lisa in the Louvre today, we are in the presence of a portrait of a flesh-and-blood woman named Lisa Gheradini (Monna being a contraction for mia donna, or "my lady"), the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant named Francesco del Giocondo (which is why the Italians have always called the painting La Gioconda), painted in oil on wood between 1503 and 1507 by Leonardo da Vinci, one of the three greatest masters of the Italian Renaissance. We rarely pause to reflect on how miraculous it is that this object, this fragment of a world that disappeared hundreds of years ago, continues to exist in present-day Paris. Where other once-celebrated works of art also linger on as physical entities into our own time--museums are brimming over with statues and paintings of Venuses and Apollos, Madonnas and Christs, by masters of ancient, Renaissance, and Baroque art--most of them no longer speak to us, or we no longer know or care enough about them to hear what they might still say. So even though they occupy the same physical space as we do, they are hopelessly stranded in their own time and place; the gap that has opened up between their world and ours can no longer be bridged. But not the Mona Lisa. In starkest contrast to the fate of most art, it has transcended such spatial and temporal limitations. This transcendence can be measured quantitatively: the picture draws an astounding 5.5 million visitors to the Louvre each year. Such is its fame that when visitors enter the gallery that is its home (and home, too, to beautiful paintings by Titian, Veronese, and Tintoretto), they find their path blocked by a crowd of fellow tourists who angle with one another for the best viewing spot. The art lover who longs to fall under the spell cast by the Mona Lisa's legendary smile is inevitably pained to find the picture encased in a bulletproof glass box, the glare of which makes viewing an ordeal. He or she is surprised, even disappointed, by the small scale of Leonardo's masterpiece, which measures a scant twenty inches high and fourteen inches wide. As for the tourists who rarely set foot in a museum but know that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world and have been constantly bombarded by reproductions of it in postcards, advertisements, posters, T-shirts, and knickknacks, what do they see? Their immediate reaction is fairly uniform: they take out their cameras and start shooting. (Never mind that flash photography is expressly forbidden by the Louvre. No guard dares enforce the rule.) From the moment that the Mona Lisa was first seen by Leonardo's contemporaries, it has been an object of admiration and fascination. The most important early commentator on the picture was Giorgio Vasari, whose chapter on Leonardo in his celebrated Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1568) established a tradition of viewing the Mona Lisa. In one particularly memorable paragraph, Vasari praised above all else Leonardo's "divine" skill, his unsurpassed ability to "imitate nature," which was held during the Renaissance to be the highest office of art. Vasari, himself a painter, was enraptured by every aspect of Leonardo's depiction of the beautiful face, describing in lavish detail the eyes, the lashes, the brows, the skin, the nose, the lips, the cheeks, and the "pit of the throat," which appears so "natural" that the viewer "cannot but believe that he sees the beating of the pulses." Such is the portrait's "perfection" that it makes even "the boldest master tremble and astonishes all who behold it, however well accustomed to the marvels of art." And the smile, which Vasari described as "so sweet that while looking at it one thinks it rather divine than human"? He furnished a rather prosaic explanation: concerned that the lady might become bored during long sittings, Leonardo hired singers, musicians, and jesters to entertain her. La Gioconda, as the painting was known well into the nineteenth century (La Joconde in French), did not achieve fame only because Vasari, the first and most influential art historian, was dazzled by its extraordinary likeness to nature and wrote a beautiful (if now historically questionable) paean to it. Almost immediately, the distinctive pose of crossed hands and turning body became an exemplar of portraiture. Indeed, it was imitated so often by Leonardo's contemporaries that it came to be known as the Gioconda pose, and among the most famous artists to employ it was Raphael. His Portrait of Maddalena Doni (1505), Lady with a Unicorn (1506), and La Muta (1507) all assume the easy naturalness of La Gioconda and were painted just after he had visited Florence and seen the work of Leonardo. But it was not only the innovative composition that was widely admired. Painters from all over Europe paid tribute to the perfection of Leonardo's art by making copies and derivations of the portrait itself. We know of sixty extant works painted before the eighteenth century. For close to one hundred years after Vasari, however, the painting that astonished Leonardo's contemporaries and set a new style in portraiture was seldom mentioned by writers, and few engravings were in circulation. This temporary neglect was most likely due to its location at Fontainebleau, in the private and largely inaccessible collection of Francois I, Leonardo's last patron, who had acquired the painting sometime during the 1530s. It came back into public attention in the middle of the seventeenth century, when a catalogue of the works at Fontainebleau described the Mona Lisa as "first in esteem, a marvel of painting." Throughout the rest of the century, whenever the painting was discussed, it continued to be lauded, following Vasari, for its startling fidelity to nature. But during the eighteenth century its fortunes again began to suffer as Louis XV dispersed the royal collection to obscure places. The Mona Lisa was relegated to the dark offices of the Directeur des Btiments (the Keeper of the Royal Buildings). The painting was saved from further obscurity only as a consequence of the French Revolution, when it was moved to the newly formed Louvre Museum in 1797. For a few years Napoleon claimed the Mona Lisa and hung it in his bedroom in the Tuileries, but in 1804 the Louvre reclaimed it and installed it in the Grande Galerie. Yet even in its new public location Leonardo's portrait was largely overlooked or mentioned only in passing. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the works for which Leonardo was admired, even worshipped, were The Last Supper, which was already in a state of irreparable deterioration, and The Battle of Arghieri and the equestrian statue executed for Lodovico Sforza, both of which no longer existed. How, then, did the Mona Lisa come to occupy its unparalleled place in the pantheon of Western art? The discovery of Leonardo the scientific genius, coupled with the nascent myth of Leonardo the artistic genius whose perfectionism prevented him from bringing but a few works to completion, was the first crucial step in the artist's deification. Early in the century, Goethe set the tone when he spoke rhapsodically of Leonardo's "universal genius. " But it remained for literary men of the next generation, who were mesmerized by a new Romantic image of women as femmes fatales, enticing but dangerous, to apotheosize the Mona Lisa. Although many writers associated with the art-for- art's-sake movement in France and England paid enthusiastic tribute to the painting, Thophile Gautier and Walter Pater are now best known for launching it on its modern path to what is now inelegantly called "iconicity." They had left the aesthetic universe of Vasari far behind. Appreciation for an artist's gift for imitating nature, no matter how extraordinary, seemed a rather paltry pleasure in the eyes of these highly refined aesthetes, whose single aim in life was, in Pater's famous words, "to burn always with [the] hard, gem-like flame, to maintain [the] ecstasy" that came from impassioned engagement with works of art. Such an elevated, if extravagant, ideal of art demanded a new kind of criticism that would match, and even surpass, the intensity of the impressions that a painting evoked in the sensitive viewer, and the aesthetic critic responded with ardent prose poems of his own. This kind of criticism amounted to a kind of worship, an abdication of reason for feeling, a surrender to the object of a cult; and it is no wonder that proper Victorians thought such a view of art and criticism immoral and irreligious. They were appalled by what they perceived as its decadence. But a younger generation was inflamed with the desire to see whether they could experience the kind of rapture described by Gautier and Pater before paintings such as the Mona Lisa. And what did they see? Gautier wrote of the "strange, almost magic charm which the portrait of Mona Lisa has for even the least enthusiastic natures." What was most "irresistible and intoxicating" was the expression, wise, deep, velvety, full of promises ... the sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners in a violet penumbra, mocks the viewer with such sweetness, grace, and superiority that we feel timid, like schoolboys in the presence of a duchess. So the head, with its violet shadows, half-perceived as through a black gauze, makes you dream for hours, and pursues you in memory like the motif of a symphony.... Repressed desire and desperate hopes struggle painfully through a luminous shadow. And you discover that your melancholy springs from the fact that the Joconde received, three centuries ago, the confession of your love with the same mocking smile that she still wears today. As Roy McMullen observed in his exhaustive study Mona Lisa in 1975, "This is the world of Poe's tales, of Baudelaire's substitution of one sensation for another, and of Wagnerians listening with their heads in their hands." This world of luxurious aestheticism has long become alien to today's dulled sensibility, just as the image of the Mona Lisa as mocking seductress had become difficult to see for modern eyes, long accustomed to graphic photographs and X-rated movies. (Though the ideal of a solemn, mindless enthrallment in the presence of art survives, in a degraded way, in today's rock audiences.) But for viewers of the second half of the nineteenth century, the lady really was "irresistible and intoxicating," and writer after writer tried to capture the exact nature of her spell. The most influential attempt, at least in English, was Pater's, which appeared in a chapter on Leonardo in his pathbreaking book The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (1873). In an incantatory paragraph, Pater portrayed the Mona Lisa in language that eclipsed Gautier's rhapsody and would relegate Vasari to history. Indeed, this single passage so completely formed the imagination and the vision of art lovers who read it that no one--from Oscar Wilde to Bernard Berenson to Kenneth Clark--could speak of the Mona Lisa without uttering in the same breath that he, like everyone else of his generation, had committed Pater's luminous words to memory. Pater was captivated by the "unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it"; but as a classicist he imbued the image of the femme fatale with a timeless aura, seeing in the portrait a "presence ... expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire." For Pater and for all those who knew his words by heart, "strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions" were "deposited cell by cell" upon the beautiful flesh of Mona Lisa's face. The portrait expressed nothing less than the incarnation of eternal womanhood: All the thoughts and experience of the world have etched and moulded there, in that which they have of power to refine and make expressive the outward form, the animalism of Greece, the lust of Rome, the mysticism of the middle age with its spiritual ambition and imaginative loves, the return of the Pagan world, the sins of the Borgias. The long serpentine sentence that followed struck many readers as poetry in a new, highly resonant key. Pater, the Oxford don, did travel in the same aesthetic universe as the French poets Gautier and Baudelaire and the English poets Browning, Rossetti, and Swinburne (especially Swinburne, whom he knew personally). What Pater once wrote about Coleridge could be said with equal justice about their sensibility and his own: that he "represents that inexhaustible discontent, languor, and homesickness, that endless regret, the chords of which ring all through our modern literature." (This was the same sensibility that rediscovered Botticelli and made a cult of his wan, unearthly female figures rivaling that of the Mona Lisa.) Pater's distinctly modern style was canonized forty-two years after his death by Yeats in what at first glance appears to be an eccentric gesture: he rearranged Pater's sentence as free verse and placed it first in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935 so as to underline what he called its "revolutionary importance": She is older than the rocks among which she sits; Like the Vampire, She has been dead many times, And learned the secrets of the grave; And has been a diver in deep seas, And keeps their fallen day about her; And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants; And, as Leda, Was the mother of Helen of Troy, And, as Saint Anne, Was the mother of Mary; And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, And lives Only in the delicacy With which it has moulded the changing lineaments, And tinged the eyelids and hands. Just as Pater's style was a harbinger of modernity, so, too, was his vision of the Mona Lisa, and he ended his fantastic reveries with the statement that "Lady Lisa" was "the symbol of the modern idea." Whereas a number of his contemporaries took Pater to task for his overly subjective writing, accusing him of using Leonardo's masterpiece as a mirror for his own feverish imaginings, others, most famously Wilde in "The Critic as Artist" (1890), judged the passage as "criticism of the highest kind" on the grounds that "it treats the work of art simply as a starting-point for a new creation." While this sort of outrageous aestheticism is to be expected from such a self-conscious provocateur as Wilde, he was on to something far more serious when he continued: "It is the beholder who lends to the beautiful thing its myriad meanings, and makes it marvelous for us, and sets it in some new relation to the age, so that it becomes a vital portion of our lives, and a symbol of what we pray for, or perhaps of what, having prayed for, we fear that we may receive. " Bringing the Mona Lisa back to life by these highly aestheticized and erudite means had an ironic outcome: Pater's rhapsodic vision, endlessly repeated word for word in art criticism, novels, and poetry of the day, quickly degenerated into a clich and an object of satire, and within a few decades it seemed thoroughly dated. So it is no surprise that some sensitive souls began to chafe under what they felt was Pater's increasingly tyrannical hold on their imaginations. One response was Marcel Duchamp's infamous drawing of a moustache and a goatee on a postcard of the Mona Lisa with the obscene title (when read aloud in French) L.H.O.O.Q. (1919), which made explicit the aesthete's sublimated erotic longings. But for those who self-consciously followed in Pater's way, Duchamp's iconoclasm was out of the question. The connoisseur's inwardness and exquisite sensitivity would never allow for such vulgarity. If the Mona Lisa were to be repudiated, it would have to be on aesthetic grounds.; "...not only is there something callous and even cruel, aesthetically and morally, about using exquisite objects meant for higher purposes as marketing ploys, there is also something world-destroying in it, for neither the work of art nor aesthetic feeling can survive such brash treatment unscathed." In Bernard Berenson's reappraisal of Leonardo in 1916, we have a firsthand account of the connoisseur's reckoning with Pater's Mona Lisa. The essay begins with what had by then become a set piece, in which Berenson recounts how, as "a youthful aspirant for artificial paradises," he spent "the hours of long summer days trying to match what I really was seeing and feeling with the famous passage of Walter Pater, that, like so many of my contemporaries, I had learned by heart." It is significant that he describes Pater's influence in terms of the "powers of a shaman"--"an affair of mesmerism, hypnotism, and suggestion"-- for it sets the stage for his eventual disenchantment that came with sustained looking at the picture: "What I really saw in the figure of `Mona Lisa' was the estranging image of a woman beyond the reach of my sympathies or the ken of my interests, distastefully unlike the women I had hitherto known or dreamt of, a foreigner with a look I could not fathom, watchful, sly, secure, with a smile of anticipated satisfaction and a pervading air of hostile superiority." Berenson confessed that at first he tried to quell his doubts by forcing himself to appreciate the many excellent formal qualities of the painting. But in the end the very layering up of thoughts and feelings, of mythological and symbolic associations introduced by Pater--what Berenson called the "over- meanings"--led him to depreciate the Mona Lisa. The many beautiful intimations that for Wilde had made the portrait breathe again had a stifling effect upon Berenson, who felt overwhelmed and distracted by them. All the overcivilized hyperbole made the sought-after experience of "ecstasy"--that "immediate, instantaneous, and unearned act of grace" which he held to be the essence of "the aesthetic moment"--impossible for Berenson. He had made his name as a connoisseur of Italian "primitives," and had little sympathy with Leonardo, whose paintings appeared excessively intellectual and mechanical to him. What is more, Berenson had come to appreciate art from other traditions, with unexpected consequences: his aesthetic horizon was enormously expanded at the same time that the enigmatic and bewitching qualities of the Mona Lisa began to seem less and less unique. So when Berenson gazed at Leonardo's masterpiece, he saw "nothing in her expression that is not far more satisfactorily rendered in Buddhist art," just as he could find "nothing in the landscape that is not even more evocative and more magical in Ma Yuan, in Li- Long-Men, in Hsai Kwei." A gap now opened up between the new-style connoisseurs and the nineteenth-century aesthetes that was almost as wide as the one that had separated Pater's world from Vasari's world. Whereas Pater's sensibility was literary and associative in the extreme, Berenson's sensibility was more visually acute and exacting, for he was entranced with the sheer experience of looking. Berenson knew that "the aesthetic moment" was the fruit of "a long and severe training," but he thought it was "unaware of what preceded it" and was "completely isolated, not to be modified and not to be qualified." (Today, following Kant, we call this autonomous aesthetic experience.) Yet Berenson's sensibility, because it disdained flights of imagination and reverie, did not exercise the same powerful hold over art lovers as Pater's, and it remained confined, at least initially, to a coterie of connoisseurs and art historians. Still, that Berenson could, as he put it, "expose and bring down" what had come to be known as "the greatest achievement of artistic genius" reveals the fragile nature of artistic fame, and especially of fame wrought from the hypnotic effusions of an influential writer. The status of any work of art, it turns out, is secure only to the extent that it continues to speak directly to later viewers. The Mona Lisa has somehow managed to do this. Even Freud was intrigued by the famous smile, and tried to interpret it in his Leonardo da Vinci: A Study in Psychosexuality (1910), which added yet another associative dimension, this time having to do with the unconscious longings of the artist: the Mona Lisa's smile was actually the mysterious smile possessed by Leonardo's own mother. Throughout the twentieth century, the portrait continued to fascinate art historians, writers, poets, artists, and spectators. Indeed, by 1950 the Mona Lisa had been reproduced so often and had acquired so many interpretive layers that E.H. Gombrich worried aloud in The Story of Art whether anyone could still see it with "fresh eyes." Gombrich advised his readers "to forget what we know or believe we know about the picture and look at it as if we were the first people ever to set eyes on it." And if this were possible, what would we see? Gombrich presented the painting through Vasari's eyes (without ever naming him): "What strikes us first is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive." But when it came to the smile, it was still Pater's vision that reverberated: "Sometimes she seems to mock us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile." Except for a few such remarks, however, Gombrich had no interest in evoking lyrical associations. His account was concerned with formal analysis and Leonardo's place in art history, the knowledge of which would overcome the distance that separated works of the Italian Renaissance from the uninformed modern viewer. But even Gombrich could not resist closing with a tribute to the portrait's aesthetic power: Leonardo "knew the spell which would infuse life into the colors spread by his magic brush." Fifty years later, in a world flooded with ever more reproductions of the Mona Lisa but sorely lacking in aesthetic sensibility--whether of the Vasari, Pater, or Berenson kind--one wonders what the tourists streaming into the Louvre need to forget in order to see the painting with "fresh eyes." Perhaps something about the smile or about the artist's repressed longings; but if Donald Sassoon is right, they come to the painting not with any particular aesthetic aspirations or expectations but rather to gawk at a "celebrity" whose status is based exclusively on the fact of its being well-known. After all, this is the painting that traveled to the National Gallery in Washington and then to the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 1963 and was mobbed by more than 1.6 million people in two months, and made another triumphal tour in 1974, first to the Tokyo National Museum and then to the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, and was mobbed again by an astounding two million more people. (In Tokyo, it was estimated that each viewer got about ten seconds before the painting.) Thus Sassoon is not exaggerating when he describes the scene at the Louvre-- crowds of fans, flashing camera lights--as the kind of "commotion" typically associated with "a renowned personality from the world of cinema, television, fashion, or music, or a member of a major royal household." It is the aim of his book to understand this phenomenon. And the beginnings of this distinctly modern way of seeing a work of art as a celebrity can be traced back to 1911, when the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. Sassoon finds this event so significant that he devotes an entire chapter to it. While the theft is largely forgotten today, it generated enormous publicity at the time, since mass-circulation newspapers, which were also a new phenomenon of the early twentieth century, were always hungry for sensational events and printed story after story about it. People who ordinarily cared little for art were inundated both with countless images of the painting and tales of its many legends, the enigmatic smile always occupying center stage. The publicity so excited curiosity that when the Louvre re-opened after a week- long investigation, thousands of people--many of whom had never before set foot in a museum--stood on line to view the vacant space previously filled by the Mona Lisa. For the first time in its career, the painting left the rarefied air of royal collections, fine-art engravings, and the refined imagination of aesthetes and entered the world of entertainment: commemorative postcards, photographs, cartoons, ballads, waltzes, silent films, music halls, and theaters all took up, often with a good deal of humor, the Mona Lisa's disappearance. The painting's fame was further enhanced two years later, when Leonardo Vincenza, a decorator-painter and self-avowed Italian patriot, attempted to sell it to a Florentine antique dealer, leading to his arrest and the painting's recovery. Vincenza confessed that he had walked out of the Louvre unnoticed with the small portrait hidden under his workman's smock because he had briefly worked at the museum. For a fleeting moment, there was the question of whether the Italians would surrender their patrimony to the French. As compensation to the Italian people for their impending loss, the painting was exhibited in Florence, in Rome, and then, for two days, in Milan, where an estimated sixty thousand Italians desperately vied for a final glimpse of "their" painting. Upon its triumphal return to Paris, it was mobbed. And so the Mona Lisa once again began appearing in popular songs, postcards, cartoons, and even greeting cards, and the mass-circulation press excited public curiosity with endlessly detailed reports of all the events, the painting's now-famous image prominently displayed on front pages everywhere. For Sassoon, the "kidnapping," as he calls it, and the innumerable ways in which the Mona Lisa has subsequently been exploited by popular novels, poems, children's books, songs, satirical postcards, avant-garde art, movies, television, and most significantly advertising and merchandising, provide the key to understanding its celebrity status. His aim is to "examine how a product of `high culture' became an object of popular consumption"; and this project first occurred to him, as he explains in the preface, when he was "researching the history of cultural markets." That Sassoon came to this complicated and vexing episode in the history of taste and sensibility by chance, and that he thinks of it primarily in socio-economic terms, is what distinguishes his study from the many others that have come before it. As a social historian whose earlier books include One Hundred Years of Socialism, he believes that such an undertaking does not require "special insights into the Meaning of Art or the Soul of Man" or, for that matter, "a particular artistic sensibility." Sassoon might mock such "special insights" and "artistic sensibility," but without them he is lost. When he reviews the well-known historical sources of the painting's fame--its aesthetic innovations and provenance, along with the myth of Leonardo the genius and the cult of the Mona Lisa as femme fatale--his account neither revises nor deepens the thoughtful accounts already provided by George Boas's The Mona Lisa in the History of Taste (1940), Roy McMullen's Mona Lisa: The Picture and the Myth (1975), or A. Richard Turner's Inventing Leonardo (1993), to name only a few. Instead, Sassoon's accumulation of pointless details and digressions turns what was a historically sound and intellectually compelling narrative into a muddle. And without a deep grounding in aesthetics or intellectual history, his account fares no better when trying to explain the portrait's shifting fortunes. Sassoon is thus reduced to saying of the Mona Lisa's transfiguration into a femme fatale: "Threatening women are so much more interesting than tranquil housewives"; or of Gautier's influence: "He was in the right place at the right time"; or of Pater's: "This Oxford aesthete, in love with the past, was at one with the Zeitgeist"; or referring to Berenson's devaluation of Leonardo not in aesthetic terms as a harbinger of modern, formalist connoisseurship and art history, but instead as one response to the painting's theft from the Louvre. When it comes to what is original in Sassoon's account--how the painting has become "a global icon"--his method of endlessly amassing information, the only criterion being some connection to the Mona Lisa, no matter how insignificant, tangential, or tenuous, sheds very little light on this pernicious and destructive strain in modern life. If we are to understand the means and the consequences of the merciless commodification of art, we will need interpretation and criticism, taste and judgment. Instead Sassoon provides boring plot summaries of novels, short stories, movies, and plays, as well as countless lists: lists of artists who have used the image; lists of singers who have performed songs referring to her smile; lists of merchandise, of advertisements, of every last thing that bears the name or the image of the Mona Lisa. Sassoon demonstrates in tedious detail that we live in a world where what avant-garde artists once dared to do as an act of iconoclasm--use the Mona Lisa as an object like any other--is now routinely accomplished by advertising and merchandising. But he is silent about the consequences: not only is there something callous and even cruel, aesthetically and morally, about using exquisite objects meant for higher purposes as marketing ploys, there is also something world-destroying in it, for neither the work of art nor aesthetic feeling can survive such brash treatment unscathed. And Sassoon himself contributes to the painting's further trivialization by repeatedly calling it an "icon of popular culture," as if there were no difference between the "divine" Leonardo's "marvel of art" and real icons of popular culture such as Mickey Mouse. His end "product" is a collection of all manner of Mona Lisa memorabilia: Vasari and Pater and Duchamp and Warhol are here, but so are Nat King Cole, a letter from a sixteen-year-old girl to the Louvre, Erico Baj's The Revenge of Mona Lisa, computer mouse pads, and "Mona Lisa-Cu375" (an intra-uterine device). All too often the book has the suffocating feel of a matron's living room stuffed to the gunwales with her "collection" of knickknacks based on her love of bumblebees or frogs--that is, when it does not simply read like a print-out from a computer search under "Mona Lisa." (Sassoon informs us that as of October 2000, there were 93,800 Web pages on "Mona Lisa" and another 2,110 on "Joconde." What sort of learning is this?) And after 275 pages of undigested facts culled from a twenty-page bibliography, Sassoon delivers the stunning historical news that "nothing has a single cause," "nothing is static." That is his last word on the puzzle of the Mona Lisa's unparalleled fame. The Mona Lisa has survived periods of neglect. Yet over and over again particular aesthetic qualities have captivated art lovers who have dreamed of being transported by the painting of a woman who smiles. In those times when taste and sensibility (and, later, imagination) have been cultivated and valued, the extraordinary beauty of the Mona Lisa has closed the temporal and spatial gap that might otherwise have alienated later viewers from it. Today, when museumgoers are as accustomed to looking at flat, lifeless, mediated images of art on television and computer screens as they are to looking at animal corpses submerged in formaldehyde by Damien Hirst, the anticipation--let alone the experience--of the manifold pleasures of beauty has receded into the distance. In these changed circumstances, it is celebrity and commercialism that keep the Mona Lisa alive, but only by running saline solution rather than blood through her veins. The Mona Lisa may be the most "popular" painting in the world today, but it remains to be seen whether it can survive such popularity, or whether, like other mass-marketed celebrities of the twentieth century, the portrait that stunned generations of art lovers will eventually lose its place to the next new thing.
By Rochelle Gurstein