I got off the train and adjusted the backpack on my shoulder, looking around. The Gare de Lyon railway station in Paris was fairly crowded but not as crowded as India’s railway stations. The walls and benches were various shades of grey and there were railway workers every twenty feet or so in case anybody was in need of assistance. I noticed that the station was much cleaner than the ones back home in Mumbai as I went to throw my empty Doritos packet in a nearby trashcan. I pulled the handle of my suitcase higher as I started towards the board that read “Sortie, Exit”. As I walked towards the nearest exit, the signs kept coming up implying that I was headed in the right direction. Soon the bright afternoon sun hit me. I shielded my eyes by pulling down the sunglasses perched on the top of my head. I took a deep breath and stepped outside, dragging my well-worn suitcase behind me and relishing the thought of beginning my mission. I was in Paris to find out for myself whether the mysteries surrounding Italian artist Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa were real or a figment of various people’s overactive imaginations.
My interest in Mona Lisa had started with my education in art at Yale. No education in art is complete without studying the works of Leonardo Da Vinci and specifically the Mona Lisa, perhaps his most popular work. We had studied all the usual stuff – that the Mona Lisa is a portrait of a woman which has been acclaimed as "the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world". It is believed to have been painted in the early sixteenth century and is now displayed at The Louvre in Paris where it continues to be the centre of attraction. The painting is best known for the lady’s enigmatic smile, but various other uncertainties and mysteries surround it.
The uncertainties begin with its origin. The identity of the painting’s subject itself is unclear though it is widely believed to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco Del Giocondo. The very reason of its existence is not known – it could either be on the purchase of a new house or to mark the birth of a son. The period over which the painting was created is also uncertain – it is believed to have been painted over 1503 to 1506, but work may have continued till 1517. Da Vinci also appears to have experimented with new techniques / approaches for the painting – various layers have been discovered under the painting using modern methods.
While the painting’s origins are uncertain its recent history has been quite eventful. In 1911 it was stolen by an Italian patriot working at The Louvre only to be recovered 2 years later. 1956 saw two attacks on it – one vandal threw acid at it while another hurled a rock. It was then shielded by bullet proof glass but even that didn’t discourage a woman from hurling red paint at it in 1974, while another threw a tea cup at it in 2009. I have always wondered why the Mona Lisa attracted so much negative attention.
All of this together encouraged me to take a break from my rail tour across Europe to visit The Louvre in Paris to meet the lady and try to find out more about her. I had arranged a meeting with the curator of The Louvre who was a very busy man but had very kindly agreed to indulge the curiosity of a young art student. It was an indeed an honour to be granted a meeting with the curator of the best known museum in the world, but in order to capitalise on it I had to stop thinking of the painting and actually make my way to his office at The Louvre. This was my first time in Paris and I wasn’t familiar with it at all. The simplest would have been to catch a taxi to the museum but I was a student on a shoe string budget and couldn’t afford the luxury. Besides, I had to first locate a student hostel or similar cheap place to spend the night and leave my bag there – it wouldn’t be polite to meet the curator dragging a heavy bag.
I strolled back into the railway station to find tourist information counter. Knowing well that the French used mainly their national language and not English I had to choose a counter which was marked as being an English language counter and noticed that the queue was much longer for that one. Quite understandable, I thought, but also wondered whether accents and discomfort with what was very obviously a foreign language would hinder the conversation. Once my turn had come I was glad to find out that the officer was fluent in English and I was able to quickly to obtain the addresses and phone numbers of a few student hostels and information on buying discounted student passes for travel on the metro. I also obtained a map of the Paris metro system and was amazed to find that the system was so extensive that one could get within walking distance of any place in Paris. My next task was to find a phone booth from where I could call the various student hostels and book a room. Though the phones would cost me while the metro pass was already paid for, going to each one to find out whether a room was available would take too much time and make me late for the meeting. Communication was a challenge since the receptionists at the hostels were not as good at English as the tourism officer had been. But they were very willing to help and by using basic English and relying on the fact that most students calling the hostel really wanted the same thing – a cheap clean room to spend the night – I was able to book a room at a hostel that wasn’t too far from The Louvre. However it was too difficult to try and get directions from the receptionist so I just asked her which the nearest metro station was. With that piece of information and my reliable metro map I was able to find out which metro line to take to reach the hostel. Having been impressed with the vast network on Paris metro shown on the map I was expecting a quick, comfortable journey to the hostel. However, when I reached the starting metro station I realised that not all metro stations in this old historical city have escalators or elevators and most have long walks. So it was quite a task to carry my heavy bag up and down staircases and to drag it along endless connecting corridors. By the time I reached the hostel I was quite tired and could have done with a nap to rest my body which was suffering from the strain of the train journey to Paris and then the metro ride to the hostel. However my mind was eager to go see the curator and further my quest for the secrets behind Mona Lisa.
After a quick shower in the common bathroom to wash off the dust of my journey I put on the one pair of formal clothes I had carried with me and set off to meet the curator. When I checked in to the hostel the receptionist had given me a map of the area so that I wouldn’t get lost. The map pointed that The Louvre was within walking distance of the hostel, although it would be a long walk. I was glad that I took the walk through central Paris and was able to see the beautiful buildings, wide roads lined with trees and soak in the atmosphere. However I could not concentrate on those since my mind kept wandering to the Mona Lisa, the enigmatic smile, the mystery of missing eyebrows, the possibility of it being Leonardo’s self-portrait, the suggestion that it was actually a depiction of Jesus and his rumoured wife Mary Magdalene.
With these thoughts running through my mind I entered the curator’s magnificent office. I was right on time and his secretary immediately took me to see him. The curator was a distinguished looking man with white hair on his head and his French beard. He politely offered me a seat and a cup of coffee before asking “Yes child, what can I do for you?” I told him how excited I was to be in Paris and see him and how much I was looking forward to view the Mona Lisa, which brought us to the topic of his question. I explained to him my interest in the mysteries surrounding Mona Lisa and my wish to be the person to get to the bottom of these. He smiled and said, “Yes, we are indeed privileged to have such an interesting painting in our museum. However, and I must apologise in advance for what I am about to say, only the naïve really believe in these mysteries and expect there to be strange reasons or truths behind them. Each of the mysteries is easily explained.”
“Take the enigmatic smile for instance. This is not the only Da Vinci painting to have such a smile. There is at least one previous painting with a similar smile. It is also said that the women of those times were taught to smile only from one corner of their mouths since these gave them a mysterious look. So, the matter could be as simple as the painter depicting the actual way the women of the day smiled. At best the painter had immense skill to create a mysterious look. Surely, it’s no surprise to you that Leonardo Da Vinci had exceptional skills.”
I was dumbfounded to hear such a simple explanation but could not think of anything that might contradict this. The curator continued “Now take the missing eyebrows. Again, it is said that eyebrows were not considered good looking or fashionable on women at that time and many women removed them. So Da Vinci may have just been showing reality. Some researchers also claim to have discovered the remnants of eyebrows on the painting and believe that the portrait did have eyebrows originally but these were lost during the various restorations and perhaps unknown acts of vandalism in the distant past. Either way, there is a perfectly plausible explanation for the missing eyebrows.”
He paused for a minute to take a sip of his coffee before it started going cold. Having taken a long sip, he quickly jumped back to his monologue “The supposition that it was Leonardo’s self-portrait is really just someone’s over active imagination. They say it is his self-portrait because he never gave the painting to the person who supposedly commissioned it but kept it with himself and worked on it till his death. But remember Leonardo once said that ‘Art is never finished, only abandoned.’ Perhaps this was the painting that he was most attached to, so much so that he kept working on it till he died.”
“About the rumour that it was a depiction of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, remember child that this first appeared in a novel. Surely there is no reason to believe such statements from a work of fiction.”
“So you see child, there are perfectly reasonable explanations for all these so called mysteries. The reason I was keen to meet you was to share the realities of the art world with a young student. I would like to say to you that take up the study of art to learn what it really is and to do so you have to see beyond the false excitement created about various pieces of art.”
“I do hope that I have been able to provide you some valuable insight, but now if you would excuse me, I must really get on to my next appointment. It is always a pleasure to meet young students and do feel free to contact my office if I can ever be of help to you. I will do my best to help you.”
As I stood up I realised that I had been so engrossed in what he was telling me that I had not even touched the coffee he had offered me. I was simply aghast at the crashing down of my dream world of mysteries about Mona Lisa. But then, all that he said was completely believable. Though all my beliefs about Mona Lisa had been shattered I could not leave without seeing the painting and made my way to the gallery where the Mona Lisa was displayed. There was a huge crowd gathered around her, looking at her, taking pictures and discussing the various “mysteries”. I could not but help wondering if so many would still visit if they also had the privilege of listening to the curator’s cold but thoroughly professional explanation of these so called mysteries.
The crowd was so large that I decided I could not be satisfied by looking at Mona Lisa in this chaos. I wanted to spend some time with her on my own, without the noise of a crowd and repeated flashes of light from various cameras. But I was sure that the crowd would remain till the gallery closed. The only way I could be alone with Mona Lisa was if I found a way to be in the gallery after it closed. It was then that I noticed the janitor’s closet in the room. I decided that it was the best place to conceal myself till closing time which was only an hour away. I entered the closet hoping that the last cleaning of the day had been done and no one would open the closet till tomorrow. The closet was small and I could barely fit myself in. It was uncomfortable which was actually good because I would have fallen asleep if it had been comfortable. Standing in the closet my mind wandered back to Mona Lisa and the sadness I felt at losing the main reason I had taken up art – the mysteries of this painting. I could not bring myself to believe that there really weren’t any mysteries but the curator was one of the most learned and experienced persons in the art world and he had himself told me the facts behind the so called mysteries. Yet, I clung on to the unreasonable hope that the painting was indeed mysterious. I decided that I was going to look at Mona Lisa very carefully and find a sign – any sign – that would uphold my naïve belief in its mysteries.
At last the hour passed and I could slip out of the closet to look at Mona Lisa. The crowd had disappeared and I was alone with her. I stared at it, feeling sad that my reason for studying art had been taken away from me. I was seriously considering giving up art and then remembered my resolve to look for a sign. I looked very closely at every inch of the painting trying to study it in detail and find the sign I was looking for. But, alas, there was no sign and I consoled myself that I had at least learnt a lesson in art. I started to walk away but could not help turn back for one last look at the painting. This time I looked directly into the eyes of Mona Lisa and it seemed like she was looking directly back at me. I felt the hollow in my heart again, when suddenly Mona Lisa winked at me, as if to say “Don’t give up on me and on yourself, I still have a few mysteries left in me – you just have to look for them.” I could have jumped for joy! I decided to study her in even more detail. It would take a lot of time, but then I had the whole night in front of me.