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boldly, sure of herself and of her power, she shows them her forehead, the temples throbbing with eager thought ; her eyes, that sparkle with subtle raillery; her delicately curved lips, with their scornful and voluptuous smile; the firm outline of her bosom ; the exquisite oval of her face, her patrician hands lying restfully before her. She shows them her whole self, in fact. And yet she gives them nothing. The source of her thoughts, the deep reason of her smile, the spark which has put that strange light in her eyes, are all mysteriously hidden. That is her secret !—the impenetrable secret of her mighty attraction. Time has touched the masterpiece with his magic hand, and the violet atmosphere which seems to bathe the great artist's matchless model adds an indescribable fascination to the picture.
Let me add a note or two more. Leonardo's heroine has full, almost puffy cheeks and heavy eyelids ; on her mouth is that indefinable smile which every art-lover knows. The eyebrows and lashes are lacking, owing, no doubt, to some bygone restoration. Faint traces of them, and of the shadow they cast on the cheek, are still discernible through a magnifying glass. One detail which has been overlooked is that the portrait is enframed by two beautiful painted columns; these are hidden by the frame, but they are distinctly visible in the (unfinished) engraving by François Gaillard, and in several old copies. Their presence is a further proof of the artist's worship of the antique.
The chief characteristic of the execution is the care for relief; certain parts, as the hands, for instance, with their matchless modelling, are quite deceptive. They would almost be classed as a deliberate essay in illusion, if the touch were less broad and flexible.
What knowledge, what calculation is involved! None but the mightiest genius, such as a Phidias or a Leonardo, could have evolved so perfect a synthesis from vast meditations !
The rocky landscape is as full of detail as those of Mantegna. It shows us, besides its dolomite rocks, a winding road, a bridge, and many other things. Nothing could be further removed from the ample and harmonious landscapes of the Umbrian school.
With regard to this landscape, and those of Leonardo in general, M. Emile Michel, whose own reproductions of the most picturesque scenes are as skilful as his written comments on the work of former
landscapists, writes to me as follows: "In a letter addressed by Rumohr to Alexander von Humboldt, he declaims against the idea put forward by the author of Kosmos to the effect that the steep mountains which appear in the pictures by the early masters were a memory of the dolomite cones to be seen on certain Italian slopes of the Alps. He considers them as being more probably conventional imitations of antique bas-reliefs, or even perhaps fanciful forms. I believe that Humboldt and Rumohr are both right ; that the Primitives, and after them Mantegna and Leonardo, may have found the elements of their picturesque backgrounds in nature, but that they have exaggerated the details according to their own fancy, after a fashion which may be remarked in early Flemish landscape art, where also the Primitives multiplied detail, spreading out wide panoramas, accumulating buildings and mountains and watercourses. In Leonardo's case,” adds M. Michel, the ground is treated as by Mantegna, cut up, in the foreground, in regular strata, hewn into sharp ridges, as in the works of the Primitives. The vegetation, on the other hand, is carefully studied. The artist's manuscripts prove how much botany occupied his attention."
Posterity has lavished expressions of admiration, almost of adoration, on the masterpiece in the Salon Carré.
But does any one of these approach, either in eloquence or scope, the analysis of the picture left us by the earliest of all Leonardo's biographers, Giorgio Vasari? “He who would know,” he writes, “to what point nature may be imitated, can easily discover it by considering this head, in which Leonardo has represented the smallest details with an extreme subtlety. The eyes have the light and moisture to be seen in a living person : they are circled with reddish and leaden shadows of perfect truthfulness; the lashes fringing them are painted with excessive delicacy. The eyebrows, the way in which they spring from the flesh, their vary
ing thickness, the manner in which they curve according to the pores of the skin, could not have been rendered in a more natural fashion. The mouth, its opening, the corners, where the vermilion of the lips fades into the flesh of the cheeks—this is not painting, it is real flesh. An attentive observer might almost see the artery throb in the hollow of the throat; it must be acknowledged, in fine, that the execution of this figure is calculated to make the most skilful artist in the world draw back at the idea of attempting to imitate it.”
Vasari adds that after four years of assiduous labour, Leonardo left his work unfinished. What must have been the perfection of the ideal that floated in the master's brain, if he held such a finished masterpiece to be incomplete? We know the portrait in the Louvre has passed through some cruel experiences. What must have been the original beauty of the incomparable work, which, even defaced as it now is, still shines with so much radiance ?
Leonardo, in his Trattato della Pittura, has treated at length of the relative superiority of painting over poetry. Was he not thinking of La Gioconda when he penned those memorable lines : “What poet, O lover! can make thine idol live before thine eyes as faithfully as does the painter ? Can any poem in the world, indeed, contend for mastery with such a picture ? 1
It is hardly probable that the portrait of Mona Lisa was the female portrait ordered by Giuliano de' Medici, and seen in Leonardo's studio by the Cardinal d'Aragon, in 1516. However that may have been, it is certain that this artistic gem was acquired by Francis I., at the price, we are told, of 4000 gold crowns--somewhere about £8000. La Gioconda was one of the glories of the Palace of Fontainebleau till after the reign of Louis XIV.
The masterpiece has been even more cruelly treated by man than by time. Over-zealous custodians have ruined it in their desire to ensure its preservation. As early as 1625, the Commendatore del Pozzo 2 noticed the ravages made by varnish on the dress.
'Qual poeta con parola ti mettera innanzi, O amante, la vera effigie della tua idea con tanta verità qual farà il pittore ? ” (cap. xviii.).
2 I think it well to reproduce the very curious account (part of it hitherto unpublished) left by Cassiano del Pozzo. “Un Ritratto della grandezza del vero, in tavola incorniciato di noce intagliato, è mezza figura, ed è ritratto d'una tal Gioconda. Questa è la più compita opera che di quest' autore si veda, perchè dalla parola inpoi altro non gli manca.
M. Durand-Greville's research has elicited the fact that before time and varnish together had done their work, the sky of the picture was of a pale delicate blue, the face dazzlingly clear and fresh, every eyelash carefully studied, and the eyes at once brilliant and liquid. 1
Leonardo's relations with the Giocondo family were not limited -according to the anonymous biography published by Signor Milanesi—to his portrait of Mona Lisa. The artist appears to have also painted a portrait of Piero Francesco del Giocondo.2 not this be simply a confusion of names ?
The same anonymous pen informs us, as does Vasari, that while at Florence, Leonardo painted a portrait of Ginevra Benci, daughter or wife of Amerigo Benci.3
Of late years, a learned critic of Tuscan art, Signor Ridolfi, has questioned Vasari's statement, upon the following grounds. 4 Ginevra di Amerigo Benci was born in 1457, she married Luigi di Bernardo Niccolini in 1473, and died the same year.
Leonardo, then, must have painted her picture before he went to Milan, and not after his return to Florence.
her, in fact, as Vasari asserts, while she was still a child, quando era una fanciulla, e bellissima.” Two other young girls of the family did, it is true, bear
La figura mostra una donna di 24 in 26 anni, di faccia, non al tutto alla maniera delle statue Greche di Donne, ma alquanto larghetta con certe tenerezze nelle gote e attorno ai labri e agl’occhi che non si può sperar d'arrivar a quella esquisitezza. La testa è adornata d'una acconciatura assai semplice, ma altre tanto finita, il vestito mostrava o negro, o lionato scuro, ma è stato da certa vernice datali cosi malconcio che non si distingue troppo bene. Le mani son bellissime, e in somma, con tutte le disgratie che questo quadro habbi patito, la faccia e le mani si mostrano tanto belle, che rapiscono chi le mira. Notamo che a quella Donna per altro bella mancava qualche poco nel ciglio, che il Pittore non glie l'ha fatto molto apparire, come che essa non doveva haverlo.
Il Duca di Buckingham mandato d'Inghilterra per condur la sposa al nuovo Re hebbe qualche intention d'haver questo ritratto, ma essendone stato distolto il Re dall in'stanze fatteli da diversi, che misero, in consideratione che S. M. mandava fuor del Regno il più bel quadro che havesse, detto Duca sentì con disgusto questo intorbidamento e tra quelli con chi si dolse fu il Rubens d'Anversa, pittor dell'Arciduchessa.” (Barberini Library, lx. no. 64, fols. 192, 194 verso.)
1 L'Artiste, June, 1894.
3 “ Ritrasse in Firenze, dal naturale, la Ginevra d'Amerigho Benci, la quale tanto bene fini che non il ritratto, ma la propria Ginevra pareva” (p. 10). Leonardo mentions the Benci several times. “Mappamondo de' Benci. Giovanni Benci, il libro mio, e'diaspri, ottone per li ochiali” (Richter, vol. ii. p. 437).
4 Giovanna Tornabuoni e Ginevra de' Benci, nel Coro di Sta. Maria Novella in Firenze. Florence, 1890. (Archivio storico italiano.)
the same name, Ginevra di Bartolommeo di Giovanni d'Amerigo Benci, who was two years old in 1480, and Ginevra di Donato d'Amerigo Benci, who was three years old at the same period.
Rosini, the historian of Italian painting, quoted, in support of Vasari, a portrait in his own possession which he asserted to be Leonardo's original portrait. But this very mediocre work, which was bequeathed to the National Museum at Florence by Signor L. Carrand, shows no traces of Leonardo's hand.
These portraits lead me, by a natural transition, to consider
Leonardo's ideal of female beauty, and the place occupied by woman in his life and work. I a long and fascinating array, from the Three Dancing Girls, or Bacchantes, one of the young master's earliest drawings (p. 36), down to La Gioconda.
There is recognised and authentic female portrait executed by Leonardo in his youth. All we have are a few drawings, and and two
three sacred pictures (the authenticity of only one
of which, the
Virgin of the Rocks, is above discussion), whereby we may guess at the type which then hovered before the eyes of the young beginner.
Something vague, indeed, there is about these faces. We should find it hard to discover any of what I will call a well-assimilated and well-matured type.
Both the form of the faces and their expressions are still somewhat uncertain. The artist's hand had not as yet the full command of his instruments.
If the drawing in the Uffizi Gallery, representing a young woman with bent head, in profile (see our pl. iii.), and the Annunciation in the Louvre, with which the said drawing is closely connected, are really Leonardo's work, we see in them some of the master's