Art / Paris
43. Canvas conversations
A quiet night at the Louvre might be a welcome break from the gawking crowds but the enigmatic Mona Lisa is missing her admirers more than she’d like to admit.
These past few months have been heaven. I mean actual heaven, not like the background Mr da Vinci gave me, which some jokers seem to think signifies eternity. I’ve been told that the whole world has been conducting its business behind glass too; on screens not much smaller than the frame they’ve squeezed me into – but that everyone can choose their own background. Chance would be a fine thing. I was just put in front of… well, what, exactly? A gravel pit? A renaissance rendering of the Florence bypass? I’ve always been envious of my old friend the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, she’s just a few rooms away here at the Louvre. She was painted by that nice Mr van Eyck, who clearly knew how to treat a lady; and so he had her (and her little boy) sit in a villa in Burgundy with the river and the fields all stretched out beyond. Beautiful.
But no, to be honest, it’s been a welcome break for us lot who, for centuries, have had to take a deep breath and just get through the day. Sometimes you hardly dare draw breath in case they notice. Imagine. Monsieur Martínez – our dear director here at le musée – has dimmed the lights and we’ve all been able to have a rest and catch up with old friends. The odd cleaner comes round with the vacuum but they’re often lost in conversations with faraway friends and relations from parts of the world that scarcely had names when I was a girl. When they’re not, though, when they’re looking up at us, there’s a moment – perhaps something like Michelangelo was trying to do with his so-called Creation of Adam (excuse the sneer but he and Mr da Vinci never got on). Anyway, I think it’s a moment of understanding; we’re all far from home.
The last time I left here there was a bloody commotion, let’s be honest. I wasn’t quite the same belle of the ball that I am today but certain people with good taste, like that Mr Picasso, would come and stare at me for hours. Take a liberty? He made me feel like Liberty – she’s a friend too. Mr Delacroix painted her topless and I won’t say she doesn’t have the figure for it but to be stuck like that for the rest of art history? Well. That’s how Mr Picasso made me feel. Undressed.
I mean, I’ve been lucky, looking across at The Wedding Feast at Cana because there’s so much going on. If you’re going to spend a century staring at something, at least make it busy. Was Mr Veronese paid for every person he could cram onto the canvas? He might have been born in Verona but he became a Venetian – and trust them to be good with the old abacus. But it’s a lovely picture. Always reminds me of one of Mr da Vinci’s other ones: The Last Supper. It’s not a patch on me, of course. But it’s always nice to see pictures of my old friend the Madonna’s little son and how he grew up to be so handsome. I’ll tell you, though, I drop that “enigmatic” smile pretty quick when I lay eyes on any of the crucifixions you all seem so keen on. Horrible.
Speaking of which, you’d be keeping it together with an enigmatic smile if you had to sit for Mr da Vinci. He was never what you’d call a quick worker and neither did he have much of an interest in how to please a lady. Picture the scene: Mr da Vinci in his big pink gown, as gaudy as a Florentine gift he was, with paint in his beard and always sketching something else on the side. It’s a funny thing to say but he didn’t seem to be looking at me so much as looking inside me, as if I were just muscle and bone. Well, you can see the result, can’t you? I can’t say I’m unhappy. Or am I? Enigmatic, aren’t I?
In truth, I’ve missed the crowds. And when you come back you’ll look that much more keenly yet somehow more softly. Maybe you will understand what it is that you missed.
About the author: The Mona Lisa was painted in 1503 by Leonardo da Vinci. She was seen whispering to our senior correspondent Robert Bound.