By Donald Sassoon
Harcourt, 275 pp., $30
On February 6, 2000, the Musée du Louvre in Paris (visitors per year: 5.5 million and counting) conducted a survey of the most frequently asked questions at the museum's information desk. On this one date and earning a whopping one inquiry, the question was "Where is the Venus de Milo?" A larger number of more existentially minded museum-goers wanted to know "Where am I?" But the most asked question, not only on this date but day in, day out inside the world's foremost storehouse of Western art, was, if you're French-speaking, "Where is the Joconde?" If you're Italian, make that "Where is the Gioconda?" If you're an art historian, make that museum inventory number 779. But if you're English-speaking, make that the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's 1506 portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo di Zanobi del Giocondo, aka "the happy one" (la giocondo).
"She" has reason to be happy, and it's not because we've made a mistake contracting mia donna (my lady) to mona (not monna). Or because this 30-by-20-inch oil painting of her -- its varnish dark with age, its surface a network of 500,000 hairline cracks -- is currently protected behind two sheets of bulletproof triple-laminated glass housed in a special container set in concrete. Lisa's happy because at any given moment 50 or so tourists are elbowing to give her the eye. Or because in a poll conducted last year in Italy for the pages of Donald Sassoon's entertaining study, Becoming Mona Lisa, she beat out by a long shot Van Gogh's Sunflowers, Botticelli's Spring, and Munch's Scream as the best-known, most popular artwork in the world. Or maybe she's happy to learn that in a lonely lodge in Nepal an anthropologist discovered a large reproduction of the Mona Lisa beside pictures of Abba and Michael Jackson, a sure sign of Lisa's global dominance.
What she cannot be smiling at is contemporary medical theory regarding that smile of hers. One Danish specialist believes it indicates "an asymmetrical hypofunction of the facial muscles." A California doctor blames it on Bell's Palsy and "the everchanging relation between the eye blink ... and a deepening of the nasolabial fold." Leave it, though, to the French to get to the bottom of it: According to Professor Jean-Jacques Comtet of Lyon, "bits of her brain had gone."
And what of our brains? What are we even doing addressing an inanimate object as "she"? Elevating her to the realm of the Eternal Feminine in one century. Reducing her to the level of kitsch in the next. Viewing the Mona Lisa not as the 16th century saw it -- a masterpiece of revolutionary portrait painting -- but as the 19th century saw not it but her, a "type," what writers such as Théophile Gautier, John Ruskin, and Walter Pater made into an archetype of the femme fatale. This is good-going for a woman who Sassoon argues "did nothing exceptional during her entire life."
The art historian Roberto Longhi would have none of it. For all the talk of Mona Lisa's beauty, it was Longhi (and George Sand before him) who challenged prevailing notions of the painting's greatness but to no avail. Leonardo's portrait, he declared, was "grossly overrated," "an admixture of styles." The lady's puffiness: a sign of "inner emptiness." Her pose: "dreadful." The landscape behind her: "an Antarctic fantasy." Altogether a "wretched woman." No eyebrows, thinning hair. Longhi doesn't mention possible hemiplegia, but he had the good sense to stop short of more recent weirdness: theories proposing that Mona Lisa is a transvestite or Leonardo himself in drag.
The opening chapters of Becoming Mona Lisa make for some very painless and informative cultural history -- from the circumstances of Leonardo's life to the judgment of figures such as Georgio Vasari to the 18th-century market for engravings to the history of the Louvre to the "cult" of Leonardo to the eras of Duchamp and Pop, pop songs and Web sites. And not the least of Sassoon's virtues here is his relaxed style -- a style comfortable with calling the man who stole the Mona Lisa in 1911 "a classic loser" and with calling historians such as Sassoon himself "supercilious."
On the subject of Web sites, though, see the 93,800 pages under "Mona Lisa" and the further 2,110 under "Joconde." Among them you'll find Monalisamania.com and an invitation to propose your own "Mona Lisa Theory below." Submit? Don't bother. Every well-meaning, art-loving nut case has beat you to it.
The woman can't speak for herself, so leave it to an optimistic curator at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, who said it best when he said it all: "The Mona Lisa will survive this crap."