La Gioconda

Newsletter 41 (18 September 2019)

Ekphrasis is a term for the vivid description of an object, often a work of art. Often it is a verbal representation of a visual representation. Images and objects, however powerfully they appear to express an idea, are mute and unknowable. Words can make them speak in many voices, attach opinions and ideas to them, lead them in many directions, embed them in many different narratives. Here is Walter Pater’s celebrated (and easily mocked) ekphrastic reverie on the Mona Lisa:

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, 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 the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life.

W.B. Yeats took the first long sentence of this passage, a list of the imagined history of La Gioconda, Pater’s ‘fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences’, and presented it as the opening poem in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse, chopped up into poetic lines of different lengths. Framed as a poem this kind of purple passage is perhaps more acceptable to our way of thinking (poems can take the imagination anywhere), than finding it in a work that purports to be art criticism or history, though in Pater’s chapter about Leonardo in The Renaissance, it is just a small part of an ordinary enough account of the artist’s life and works.

   More than ten million people visit the Louvre every year, of whom the vast majority want to see the Mona Lisa. Every day about thirty thousand people wait for up to two hours in a queue that snakes right up and around the glass pyramid outside the gallery entrance, so that they will achieve a glimpse of the painting, for perhaps thirty seconds before they are moved on, with luck, just enough time to take a photo, or a selfie (for which they have to turn their back on the image). So this single painting, plausibly the most famous and recognised work of art in the world, is an acute centre for the maelstrom of contemporary tourism, the blight that there are too many of us, yet to which we all hope we do not contribute.  

   One wonders why the Louvre authorities don’t provide a copy of the Mona Lisa to alleviate the queues (as does the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam with ‘The Sunflowers’).  But copies are not authentic, and art galleries need to uphold authenticity and value. After the invention of printing with moveable type, literature escaped this tyranny of the unique and priceless object. We can all own and carry a copy of Pater’s The Renaissance in our pocket, and it is the real thing, not a fake.

   The locus classicus of a poetic description of an art object is Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, a discursive ekphrasis revolving around the young writer’s obsessions with the permanence of art and his own short mortality. Interestingly, no one has unearthed a real urn as described, so the object too seems to be a product of Keats’s imagination, just like the shifting points of view that he brings to bear on the scenes that he perceives. The poem is brought to an end in a famous conclusion which terminates the argument and yet explains nothing at all. It simply restates the paradox of art and language, the mystery of the mute and unknowable, or the idea of that mystery, and it must be this that bring the crowds to see La Giaconda, with her reputation as notoriously enigmatic:  Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought/ As doth eternity… / When old age shall this generation waste,/ Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe/ Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,/ “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know”.