Becoming Mona Lisa

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

As a painting, the "Mona Lisa" is not very large: 77 cm high by 53 cm wide, or a little over 30 inches tall and 21 inches across. Its "content" is simple--the portrait of a woman whose identity remains, after all these years, unknown. Some have suggested that the figure may actually be a self-portrait of the artist himself, Leonardo da Vinci. Even the English title is incorrect: it should not be "Mona Lisa" but "Monna Lisa," since the title is a contraction for the title Madonna (mia donna, "my lady") and not a name.

No matter. It is the best known art work in the world and a convenient short-hand for human-made beauty. When the Victorian English critic Walter Pater wished to suggest the subliminity of high art, he turned to the "Mona Lisa." Modern American popular singer Nat King Cole expressed classic beauty when the song he sang was entitled "Mona Lisa." And when visitors from around the world visit the Louvre the one object they must see--the one work they universally recognize and accept--is the "Mona Lisa."

As Donald Sassoon's detailed but quickly moving history shows, there has always been something special about this painting and its impact on the public. From the moment that Leonardo's "smoky" technique (sfumato) captured the attention of Renaissance viewers, to today's use of the iconic image on everything from t-shirts to soup cans, the "Mona Lisa" has bridged the gap between "art" and "life." It was partly responsible for establishing the modern art museum and the high seriousness that surrounds painting--and yet, it also inspires debunking subversives such as Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Like its subject's enigmatic smile, the painting can mean anything and everything to its multitude of viewers.

Although created by Leonardo as a painting, the "Mona Lisa" has been transformed into the ultimate art work through five centuries of an exciting, sometimes threatened and always intriguing career that would challenge the most inventive novelist. Through a careful account of the facts, Donald Sassoon has done justice to "Mona," her creator, and her centuries of admirers.