Walter Pater (1839-94) is now remembered primarily as Oscar Wilde’s tutor at Oxford, and for one or two famous paragraphs in his most important book The Renaissance. Here is Pater’s oft-quoted description of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, in which art criticism took off into the realms of poetry. Some might regard this as a “purple passage”, but the Victorians were uniformly enthused by it and considered it one of the most evocative examples of English prose.
“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 philosophy has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life. Certainly Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.”
Click HERE to see the picture of the Mona Lisa again in an expanded version.
One cannot help wondering what Leonardo himself would have made of Pater’s bravura description of the Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile. Allow me to copy a few passages from my copy of Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Painters (1550). Here he is speaking of Leonardo:
“. . . Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty who displayed infinite grace in everything he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.”
LEONARDO DA VINCI
— Leonardo, who bought birds in cages to set them free: “Leonardo’s disposition was so lovable that he commanded everyone’s affection. He owned, one might say, nothing and he worked very little, yet he always kept servants as well as horses. These gave him great pleasure as indeed did all the animal creation which he treated with wonderful love and patience. For example, often when he was walking past the places where birds were sold he would pay the price asked, and take them from their cages, and let them fly off into the air, giving them back their lost freedom.”
— Leonardo, who never forgot a face: “I must mention another habit of Leonardo’s: he was always fascinated when he saw a man of striking appearance, with a strange head of air or a beard; and anyone who attracted him he would follow about all day long and end up seeing so clearly in his mind’s eye that when he got home he could draw him as if he were standing there in the flesh. There are many drawings of both male and female heads which he did in this way.”
— Leonardo and the Mona Lisa: “For Francesco del Giocondo Leonardo undertook to execute the portrait of his wife, Mona Lisa. He worked on this painting for four years, and then left it still unfinished…. Altogether this picture was painted in a manner to make the most confident artist—no matter who—despair and lose heart. Leonardo also made use of this device: while he was painting Mona Lisa, who was a very beautiful woman, he employed singers and musicians or jesters to keep her full of merriment and so chase away the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits. As a result, in this painting of Leonardo’s there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and all those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original.”
— From Giorgio Vasari’s Life of Leonardo da Vinci (trans. George Bull, 1965)