The headline reads: “Hidden Literary References Discovered in the Mona Lisa” Go To : (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/01/110106153123.htm)
Well maybe and you know, maybe not. The press release goes on to say: “Queen’s University Classics professor emeritus Ross Kilpatrick believes the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, incorporates images inspired by the Roman poet Horace and Florentine poet Petrarch. The technique of taking a passage from literature and incorporating it into a work of art is known as ‘invention’ and was used by many Renaissance artists.
‘The composition of the Mona Lisa is striking. Why does Leonardo have an attractive woman sitting on a balcony, while in the background there is an entirely different world that is vast and barren?” says Dr. Kilpatrick. “What is the artist trying to say?’”
I have no real problem with this analysis, it is a valid question and common practice not just in the Renaissance but throughout history and across many cultures. I think the question should be, not what is the artist saying but is the artist saying anything of importance? Poets inspire artists, artists inspire poets, both inspire musicians and around the circle it goes. I find this nothing unusual in the least. I think by combining my artistic background (>40 years of photography) and my science credentials an alternative hypothesis is possible.
In my view, the only reason the great Leonardo painted such a dull and mundane background, the inspiration for which is more curiosity then anything else, is the need to present his portrait subject with absolutely nothing that is to distract from the subjects beauty. That is the fundamental philosophical and aesthetic view of all portrait artists. Just review the work of the late Canadian master Joseph Karsh or think of the old Dutch masters.
“’The Mona Lisa was made at a time when great literature was well known. It was quoted, referenced and celebrated,’ says Dr. Kilpatrick.” I do not disagree in the least, it was often quoted but I suggest in this instance, of this type of portrait, of no real importance. The background is obviously his imagination if inspired by some poetic reference fair enough. Perhaps in those official kind of portraits bckground or context is important but not in this case. Poetic references that do nothing to enhance our understanding of the subject are useless. Do we or any viewer, learn anything about Mona by knowing this? We do learn that Leonardo was well read but we knew that already.
“Dr. Kilpatrick has been looking at literary references in art for the past 20 years. He has recently found references to the mythical wedding of Greek gods Ariadne and Dionysus in Gustav Klimt’s famous painting The Kiss.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Kiss_%28Klimt_painting%29) I was doing just such, i.e. looking for classical references in works of art as an undergraduate in the 1960′s. My roommate in those days was an Art History major. Many of the methods of scholarship are the same be it science or art.
I do not doubt or dispute this as I have never inspected “The KIss” in great detail. One interesting thing I do notice; the subject of these two paintings is so radically different that I am not sure why the press release writer has even brought it up. Perhaps to lend credibility to Kilpatrick? I do not think the comparison does this, however.
I take it this press release was picked up by science press because they understood the commonality of scholarly methodology. Dr. Kilpatrick’s Mona Lisa findings have now been published in the Italian journal MEDICEA. I have not knowledge of this journal either so will just leave it with a reminder, i.e. Franciscan friar Father William of Ockham (d’Okham) — Occam’s razor (or Ockham’s razor).