By David Finkle
In presenting the following manuscript, I’m asking you, the reader, to recognize as true a series of (almost entirely) serendipitous incidents that will strain credulity to the breaking point, and possibly far beyond it, as far beyond as the other side of the grave.
I ask you to take my word that what are included here are no more nor less than events experienced by myself and others over several years. The others are men who trusted me with their accounts after they had learned of mine.
I have to confess that I never recorded the men’s stories as I listened attentively. I only relay them as I remember them—as accurately as possible, to be sure. They are too indelible to be forgotten. They are absolutely not the sort of unexpected happenstances I—or they—would have been able to concoct out of whole cloth. I am not convinced that anyone could, though others might deem it possible.
Nevertheless, without further explanation, here the manuscript is for your perusal. Whether or not you believe what you read is not up to me—any more than what I maintain as occurring in the first place was, or is, a matter of my volition or that of those whom I represent.
I also ask that, if you choose to reject what you’re about to read as a series of impossibilities in the world you know—or think you know—please withhold your scorn and simply dismiss the accounts as fantasies dreamed up in the kind of fertile mind I only wish I had.
“And in the work of Leonardo’s
there was a smile so pleasing
that it was a thing more divine
than human to behold…”
—Giorgio Vasari, Lives of the Most Eminent Artists, Sculptors and Architects
There she was: Mona Lisa—known in her time as Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo—smiling noticeably, famously (enigmatically? cryptically?) in the portrait commissioned by her husband.
The explanation for the smile is something art lovers and non-art lovers alike have wanted to know off and on (mostly on) for just over five centuries. I say, art lovers and non-art lovers, but I don’t include myself in either category. This might sound strange coming from an art historian, but I consider myself as having gone past the art-loving stage. It’s something more profound now, which should be understandable.
It absolutely goes far beyond standing amid the camera-flashing crowd ogling the Mona Lisa, that you see whenever you’re at the Louvre. All the same, as fed up as I’d been for years with the Mona-Lisa-smile question, I do have the answer to the puzzler, and it should satisfy the inquiring minds wanting to know why and how it came to her lips. I have it so conclusively that now the world can move on to agitating over where the Venus de Milo lost her arms and to whom.
I cannot say why it’s fallen to me to have received the Mona Lisa answer. I’ll simply say I was informed by the lady herself. In Paris. Not in the Louvre, but not far from it.
I’d just left the Louvre on my annual trip, where I do a fair amount of my research and, during breaks, reacquaint myself with the contents. I was ambling along the Right Bank of the Seine, thinking about some of what I’d seen—not necessarily the Mona Lisa, although I had glanced that way again. Who can get over the phenomenon that the painting is?
Yet, if I was thinking about it—about her, about the portrait—at that particular moment, I wasn’t thinking hard. I will say, yes, I’ve always been intrigued by her appearance but no less intrigued than thousands of other viewers at the Louvre, where I’ve seen her under glass as she is now, and not under glass as she was for many years before that.
Just as she’s now a woman of a certain age, I, Anton Reynolds, am a man of a certain age. I’ve gone from lean and fresh-faced graduate student to portly and ruddy-nosed professor emeritus, and like the rest of us, no matter what age, I’ve seen countless Mona Lisa reproductions. But I have to believe I haven’t been intrigued by her appearance—up close or in repros—that much more than millions the world over have been intrigued. I can only attribute attaining the explanation of the age-old Mona-Lisa-smile conundrum to my honed powers of observation joined with enormous good luck.
One person I spotted on my Right Bank walk was a woman sitting on the Solferino pedestrian bridge, or “passerelle.” What I noticed initially was the way the woman’s arms lay across her lap while she sat as comfortably as you can on those wooden benches. I noticed how her hands were positioned, the right hand over the left. I noticed how her dark hair, parted in the middle, fell to her shoulders. I noticed that, even though there was a slight breeze, her hair remained still.
What also struck me was how she sat facing the Louvre, with the Seine curving away in the hazy late afternoon light, and far behind her, over a stretch of typical low-rise Paris buildings, just the very top of the Eiffel Tower.
I readily admit I’m familiar with the phenomenon whereby on leaving a museum or gallery, everything you see looks like the contents of the exhibit you just exited. I’ve left El Greco retrospectives when everyone I looked at was thin, attenuated, gaunt and greenish-tint pale. I’ve left Botero retrospectives when everyone I looked at was rosy-cheeked and top-to-bottom round. I’ve left Picasso retrospectives when everyone I looked at struck me as cockeyed.
Call it an occupational hazard. So it didn’t seem odd that I was so dramatically reminded of the Mona Lisa as I looked at the woman sitting calmly on the sturdy wooden bench occupied with her own thoughts.
That she had a straight nose and soft brown eyes and a curved chin also seemed not unusual to me. That her shoulder-length parted hair was not unlike that of many women I see—and you see—every day, and that she was wearing a tailored oatmeal tweed suit on a late March afternoon, hardly seemed out of the ordinary.
Yet she made me think of the renowned portrait I had just seen—among many (unfairly) less-renowned portraits, landscapes, domestic and Biblical scenes. Just a fleeting impression, I said to myself. Yet something tempted me to look again without staring too openly.
But I had already strode past her. Giving in to the temptation required that I turn around. So I did one of the things you do in those kinds of situations. I made a show of pretending I’d forgotten something—or forgotten about something—and was halting in my tracks to think over whether I wanted to retrace my steps.
While thinking over what to do, I would naturally look around but without really meaning to look at anything in particular. You’re preoccupied, and in that state, it’s natural, as your gaze wanders, to take in—without anything registering strongly—whatever is around you.
I would take in the woman seated with her hands placed just so. If I happened to let my gaze linger on that one object—a woman who happened to be seated there—it wasn’t because I was intentionally looking at her. She just happened to be where, innocently enough, my eyes rested while my mind concerned itself with something else.
Doing this, I was able to bring the woman into sharper focus and concluded within only seconds that she definitely resembled Ma’am Lisa. Only older perhaps. Although how old did the woman in Leonardo’s portrait seem to be? I’d always thought she was in her thirties or maybe even early forties. But knowing she sat for her portrait no earlier than 1503 (Leonardo worked on the portrait sometime between 1503 and 1506) and that she was born in 1479, I had to accept that at the most she was in her mid-twenties.
The woman I was eyeing, however—without, I repeat, deliberately eyeing her—looked as if she were in her forties or maybe even early fifties. The more I regarded her surreptitiously—with the regard of a man thinking he was fooling someone—the more I felt that the woman’s resemblance to the Monna Lisa, as the Louvre spells it, was uncanny.
As my late mother might have said of something that astonished her, I couldn’t get over it. So instead of getting over the unmistakable likeness, as others might have—and had if they’d passed her before I did and thought to themselves that she resembled the renowned lady but kept going—I decided to do something rash and potentially rude.
I kept up the pretense of something disturbing me and made as if I needed to sit down on the closest horizontal surface, which just happened to be the bench on which the unidentified woman, whose identity I unrealistically thought I knew, was sitting.
Having been so bold as to do that, I figured I couldn’t continue looking at her. I’d have to look around, fix my attention elsewhere for what I thought would be an acceptable minute or more. Then I could look around again and take her in as part of the nearby scene.
That way I’d also get a good sense of what someone as near to an exact double for Mona Lisa looked like from other than the three-quarter view Leonardo gave us, and in his process established a precedent for myriad portraits that followed her in the expanding history of art, as I knew it from lengthy study over more decades than I care to mention.
So there I was, seated next to Mona Lisa, gazing here and there at the astonishing Paris surroundings and the gauzy Paris sky until I judged enough time had passed for me to give her another once-over. Since I’d already given her a sufficiently long once-over, I suppose you could say I was gearing up for a good long twice-over.
It wasn’t to be quite as I designed it. In my calculations I was about forty-five seconds to a minute away from that twice-over when I heard a voice—a mellifluous voice speaking in Italian, a voice with the consistency of an exotic confiture—say, “You know who I am, do you not?”
Swiftly turning to her, I said in my best Italian accent, in the most affronted tones, “Senora?” I said it as if I hadn’t heard what she said, due to my having fallen so deeply into my supposedly Solferino Bridge reverie. Or if I had heard her, couldn’t imagine what she meant.
What I saw as I turned, attempting to keep up my inane ruse, was that, in her turning towards me, she maintained Leonardo’s signature three-quarter view. She sat, as Mona Lisa always has, with her right hand over the left, the fingers of one hand visible, the fingers of the other partially hidden. What was even more noticeable was that she wasn’t smiling. Well, she was smiling, but it wasn’t the smile with which the world is familiar. It was far more wry.
She only held it for a second, because she spoke again. She repeated what she’d said. “You know who I am,” and added, “It is no use to pretend you do not. Remember I have been looked at for over five hundred years. By millions of people. That is, my portrait has been. By now, I should know when I am being regarded. Signore, for reasons I do not understand, I am the most famous face in the world, photographed constantly. And do not get me started on digital cameras. You cannot name another personage whose face has been more familiar than mine for five hundred years. And do not say Jesus.”
She went on, “He has been portrayed many times, to be sure, but no single painting of Him is considered definitive. There are many faces of the Christ. I, on the contrary, am singular. Perhaps I will fall into obscurity again, as has transpired for short periods of time in the past, but at the moment I am still the face all the world knows. I am Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo.” A firmer tone that had crept into her voice then mellowed. “You recognize me.”
What was I to say? I’d been found out. I’d sat silently through her declaration, but now I was obliged to speak. I had to admit I’d recognized her. I said, uncertainly but gaining traction as I went on, “I thought so, but you can understand my reluctance to assume you are who you say you are. You’ve been dead since sometime in the mid-to-late sixteenth century. You can see why I wouldn’t be absolutely convinced it was you sitting on the Pont Solferino.”
She acknowledged this. “You are forgiven. You are not the only one who stopped and tried to figure out if I could be who I appear to be. You are the only one who has had the nerve to sit down. And all I am allowed to do is to sit. In my pose. ‘Do not move,’ Signore da Vinci said. ‘You are exactly right as you are.’ So sitting like this has become the condition of my renewed presence. Thank heaven, it is a comfortable pose. What if he had posed me balancing on one hand?”
At that she smiled again, but again it was not the smile. It was broader and revealed two neat rows of even teeth. That’s right. I have seen Mona Lisa’s pearl-like teeth—small, pearl-like teeth. I never did see her ears. If they’re shell-like, I can’t presume to report.
“To tell you the truth,” she said, “I am glad of the company. I am used to being looked at, but I am not used to being spoken to. Do you know I hung in Napoleon’s bedroom for several years, and in all that time he never addressed a word to me? Not one. Not a single ‘How do you come to be smiling?’ Perhaps he was embarrassed. The things I saw him get up to when he thought no one was looking—standing on his toes to appear taller, tickling the maidservents. If he had had any humor, he might at least have bowed comically in my direction, but he was a humorless man.”
Then she did something for which I was totally unprepared. (That Napoleon owned her portrait, I already knew, but not the part about his never addressing the canvas, not even on his tiptoes.) She bowed comically in my direction and quickly resumed her pose.
“But that is not what you want to see or hear from me, is it?” she said. “You want to know about the smile. That is what they all want to know. Why am I smiling? What am I smiling about? Where does the slight, the even sly smile come from?”
By the time she said this, I’d done enough pretending. I couldn’t do anymore. I knew it was time to fess up, and I was on the verge of saying, “Yes, yes, you got me, what’s with the semi-grin?” when she said, “It amazes me no one notices I am not the only one smiling in a Leonardo da Vinci painting. There is a painting of his hanging less than thirty meters from mine where anyone can see another woman smiling the half-smile supposedly exclusive to me. I am talking, of course, about the Virgin in ‘La Vierge aux Rochers.’
“But, do they look at her? No. Most of the people who pass through the Galerie d’Italie not looking here or there—even casually—just want to see me. Or if they do look at her, they see her with Jesus and the young John the Baptist and Saint Anne and think, ‘Oh, she is smiling at them.’ So is Saint Anne. She is smiling, too, for the sake of heaven. Look at ‘La Belle Ferronniere’ right next to them. She is beginning to smile as well. Yes, smiling. Hasn’t anyone yet realized that Signore da Vinci liked his women smiling? In a commissioned portrait, he certainly was not going to show me frowning.”
I was just about to say, “Yes, but what are you—were you—smiling about?” when she read my porous mind and said, “But what am I smiling about? At this point, I could just as well say I am smiling about all the people looking at me, taking photograph after photograph of me—often with themselves in it—and thinking how special I am, how unique. I am unique, but no more than every painting is unique—certainly every painting by a master. In every other capacity, I am not unique.”
As she spoke—always remaining as she appears in whatever frame she’s been put over the centuries or on whatever poster—she was becoming just another woman sitting on a bench on a bridge in the middle of Paris, a city where at that very moment many women were sitting on many benches on many bridges. So I took her point. She became less and less unique as the seconds ticked by and she continued chatting in her pleasantly conversational way.
“You could say I am nowhere near unique,” she said, “and I would not give you an argument. I could not give you an argument. I am a middle-class housewife who married a modestly successful merchant older than myself and then had six children with him. A couple of them went into convents. A couple died young. I have had my ups and downs, good years and bad. Like anyone else. I lived to my seventies and died. As everyone else does sooner or later.”
She looked at me with sympathy and said, “I could say I am smiling because I had a life no better than most people’s but no worse, either. But that is not why I am smiling. I could say I am shown smiling because I knew I was being painted by Leonardo da Vinci and none of my other friends were being painted by him. That is not quite true. I did know some of his other subjects—or knew who they were. But that is not why I am smiling.
“Ask yourself this. Who was Leonardo da Vinci, anyway? At the time he painted me, he had a reputation. People in arts circles thought he was all la-di-da, but I had married at sixteen and led a relatively sheltered life. What did I know? He was always polite—very polite for a man with the kind of artistic bent he had.”
By this time I’d started thinking that as someone who’d so long sat closed-mouthed, she was making up for lost time. She did confine herself to subdued speech—something of Sophia Loren’s timbre—and though I stole a look around from time to time to see if anyone was taking this in, I saw that no one was. I satisfied myself we weren’t attracting even an audience of one.
Or was I satisfied? I was sitting in the center of my idea of the most beautiful city on the planet with the most famous woman in the art world for the past half-millennium, and no one, other than myself, was there to record the occasion.
And I thought, if I were to record it—only for my personal satisfaction—I must do everything I can to make the record as good as it can be. What, I asked myself, would guarantee that? The answer came back loud and clear: I’d have to find a way to make her smile the Mona Lisa smile.
So far I’d gotten a panoply of smiles but not that one. “I’m sorry to interrupt,” I said to her—and she nodded her acceptance of the interruption—“but aside from being polite, did Signore da Vinci do anything else to put you at your ease? They say he employed singers and jesters to keep those sitting for him entertained.”
“Yes,” she said, “that was something he did.”
She merely had to confirm the fact of Leonardo da Vinci’s in-the-atelier doings when, not allowing myself the time to think, I leapt off the bench. On the Solferino pedestrian bridge—with pedestrians to the left of me and pedestrians to the right of me—I started to do something so uncharacteristic of me, that had colleagues and other friends seen me, they’d have been at a complete loss for words but possibly not at a loss for deepening concern. After all, over the years I’d put a good deal of effort into my professor’s professorial manner. On the other hand, I’d put sufficiently less effort into an exercise regimen.
Forget that. Right then and there, I began to caper as I thought a jester might but without, needless to say, a cap and bells. (O, for a cap and bells!) “Like this?” I asked after indulging about thirty seconds of this impromptu buffoonery.
“Something like that,” she said but cracked no smile of any sort. Not at all did she readjust her lips—the thin upper lip, the fuller lower lip.
Yet her “something like that” suggested I was on the right track. So I kept up the mad pogoing for another minute or two. Mona Lisa may not have been smiling, but children passing with mothers or fathers or nannies pointed at me and giggled, giggled and pointed enough that I finally stopped hopping about like Danny Kaye or Eddie Murphy in one of their calculatedly physical screen comedies.
I stopped only to substitute music for jesting. Maybe that’s what turned her smile on—someone warbling a tune. But what to sing? A comedy song seemed best. Since I knew no early-sixteenth-century comedy songs (are there early-sixteenth-century comedy songs? There must be), I thought quickly and came up with one of my all-time favorite nonsense ditties, “Mairzy Doats.” You know how it goes: “Mairzy Doats and dozy doats and liddle lamzy divey/A kiddley divey, too, wouldn’t you?”
Adapted from an English nursery rhyme, it’s not a number you hear too often anymore. Even when I was a kid and it was top of the charts in the United States, it may have never been heard on a Paris pedestrian bridge. But I thought the silliness of it just might be the musical feather to tickle Mona Lisa’s funny bone and get that smile back in its proper place.
It didn’t. While it attracted other pedestrians, a sizable number of whom (Americans?) sang along, it did nothing for the Mona.
So singing was out. Maybe straight-on comedy would be the thing to catch the humor of the apparently discerning housewife and mother. Aha, I thought, Shakespeare. I know he didn’t begin to write his plays and verses until much later in Mona Lisa’s century, and I had no idea whether when he did, his fame spread to Italy, despite “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” being set in Verona. Still, I hoped the English sensibility that the Bard reflected might be acceptably close to the Italian sensibility.
I chose to recite what I remembered of Malvolio’s speech when he comes cross-gartered before Olivia. I’d never seen that sequence fail to get an audience chuckling. I launched into the speech—“Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them…”—recalling more of the exchange between Malvolio and Olivia than I had any notion I would. To indicate the crossed garters I drew imaginary crosses down my calves with my right forefinger.
Since I got caught up in what I was doing, and so did the accumulating crowd watching me—some, I noticed, even looking around for a hat or another substitute receptacle into which they could throw coins—it took me a minute or two to realize none of what I was doing had any effect on its non-smiling target.
Thinking fast, I switched to old Henny Youngman one-liners—“Take my wife, please.” “There was a girl knocking on my hotel room door all night—finally, I let her out.” “Those two are a fastidious couple—she’s fast and he’s hideous.”
When she’d had enough without cracking a Mona Lisa you-know-what, she said, “I probably should let you know that although Signore da Vinci tried to entertain me, I never found singers, jesters and like divertissements truly entertaining. I was more readily amused by other, simpler things.”
Now she tells me.
Sheepishly, I sat down next to her—amid, I should probably say, a smattering of applause from my dispersing audience. Flattering, in a way, but also galling, because a few of them, I noticed, were wearing Mona Lisa smiles I had put there.
But what good was that to me? Wearing one, she wasn’t. She had given me a hint, though. She said she was amused by simpler things. Then I had to ask myself what she meant by simpler things. What would a woman who was born in the last quarter of the fifteenth century and who lived until the middle of the sixteenth century consider simple things?
Would she find a peddler slipping on a cow patty amusing? Would she find a milkmaid blushing at a swain amusing? Would she find a rustic thumbing his nose at an aristocrat amusing? Would she find a toddler taking his or her first steps amusing?
What if any situation along those lines amused her, what good would it do me? I wasn’t about to impersonate a rustic thumbing his nose at an aristocrat, let alone a peddler slipping on a cow patty. Yet I was determined to make Mona Lisa smile that smile, moue that moue, if it was the last thing I ever did. All that effort at my age? It might be.
Wait a sec. What if I mooed like a cow? Absolutely not. I wasn’t going to sit in the middle of Paris mooing like a cow. Or quacking like a duck. Or ribbeting like a frog. I don’t care whom I was trying to make smile.
Sure, I was prepared to do anything in my power but not any of that. Nor was I going to admit defeat. I did some fast brain-wracking and, lo and behold, remembered that there’d been speculation the Mona Lisa’s disposition could have been attributed at the time to her children—to, more particularly, the recent birth of her second son. Some have it the birth was the impetus for her businessman husband’s commissioning the portrait.
Children! That could be the ticket. Mothers smile when thinking of their children, when they recall things their young children said and/or did during the day. Thinking to introduce the subject obliquely, I said to her, “Mona, Ms. Lisa, do you like children?”
Clearly, she did. Her face relaxed. Her eyes shifted in such a way I could see visions of children were running through her mind. The set of her mouth began to change. I was right, I thought. Here it comes. I’m about to get the smile. I’ll be able to establish once and for all the smile’s origin.
I watched her mouth closely—only to see it widen into a full-blown smile, the kind of expectant-mother smile that lights up a room. Not the smile I was after. Then she said with a tilt of her head, “Of course, I like children. I had six of them.”
Liked them too much for my purposes, obviously. There had to be something. What simple sally would amuse a woman like her? Household follies, cooking mishaps, fashion don’ts, the behavior of pets? I tried making light of them all. I won’t bother to repeat what I tried right there on the Solferino Bridge. Everything I tried was entirely in vain. All I got for my efforts was an expression that mixed indulgence with pity.
After this had gone on for—I don’t know—twenty minutes, a half-hour, she held up her right hand to stop me and immediately put it back in place on her lap.
I stopped. I could see she had something to say. “You must be wondering why I have let you go on like this,” she said. To tell the truth, I had been so involved with what I was doing that I hadn’t wondered any such thing, but I nodded as if I had been thinking as much.
“Because,” she said in earnest explanation, “I had seen it all before. What you were doing was almost exactly—gesture for gesture, pleasantry for pleasantry—what Signore da Vinci, that bearded old man, did while trying to get me to smile. As I have said, he liked his women smiling. When he had finally run out of things that failed to provide the desired response, he threw his hands up in the air. His paint brush went flying. He said, ‘I have never in my life had so much trouble getting someone to smile.’
“That amused me. The famous Signore da Vinci having trouble getting me—the humble wife of a merchant, a virtual nobody—to smile. At that, I had to smile. When I did, he said, ‘Cosa c’e. There it is. The smile I want. Hold it.’ I held it.”
Then, to my astonishment, she smiled the very smile—and held it. She held it and reached over and touched me on the forearm. Only briefly. She withdrew it. The smile, she held until, right before my eyes, she began disappearing and all that was left of her was the smile. Then, slowly as the sun falling below the horizon, that disappeared, too.
What didn’t disappear and still hasn’t is the astounding and incontrovertible fact I had added to my knowledge of the history of art and to the knowledge of others—and at my age. It’s a small contribution to the art history annals I’ve longed to make, but even if it’s only a footnote, it’s something after all these years.
David Finkle is a New York-based writer and the author of People Tell Me Things and The Man With The Overcoat. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Village Voice, The New York Post, The Nation, The New Yorker, New York, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and American Theatre. He is currently chief drama critic on The Clyde Fitch Report, the only magazine of arts and politics.
This is a series that David Finkle has written for Manhattan Book Review. Read his other short stories:
Great Dates With Some Late Greats: Archie Horgan’s Story, or Jesus, Meet Elvis
Great Dates with Some Late Greats: Paul Engler’s Story, or Marilyn Monroe is Hamlet
Great Dates With Some Late Greats: Doug Reithauyser’s Story, or Babe Ruth Rounds Home
This page was created by an SFBR staff member.