A new way of looking at things
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” –  Henry Miller

Curt Veeneman, Ph.D.


la Gioconda

What's Mona Lisa been up to lately?

Part 1

2 March 2012

Mont Blanc (French) — or Monte Bianco (Italian), as it is located on the border between the two countries — pokes up its nose above Chamonix, France.


At this moment in Chamonix, France, and Courmayeur, Italy, two different parties could be sitting in a café / caffè at the foot of Mont Blanc / Monte Bianco under a waving flag — le drapeau tricolore (blue, white, and red) / Il Tricolore (green, white, and red) — munching on a croissant / cornetto and discussing the psychological makeup of Pierrot Lunaire / Pedrolino in the history of le théâtre / il teatro or possibly in regard to Europe’s favorite sport, soccer, the upcoming Coupe du monde de football / Campionato mondiale di calcio.

Or perhaps they are discussing some recent theories about la Joconde / la Gioconda, as the Mona Lisa is known respectively in these two countries.

France and Italy, despite their obvious differences — the former is shaped like one of the hexagonal faces of a soccer ball, the latter like a boot about to kick it — actually have quite a bit in common.  Both countries speak Romance languages (the lexical similarity of French with Latin is 87%, of Italian with Latin, 89%).  The populations of the two countries are quite similar (65,312,249 vs. 61,016,804), as are the populations of their capitals, Paris and Rome (2,138,550 vs. 2,563,240).  Likewise their GDP per capita ($33,100 US vs. $30,500 US), literacy rates (99% vs. 98.4%), along with many other statistical similarities that seem to culminate in both countries being leaders in fashion and design.

Ernest Hemingway, in attempting to illustrate the two countries’ profound bond in A Moveable Feast, even claimed that Italy’s Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace), built under Napoleonic rule in Milan at more than 800 kilometers away from Paris, was aligned with the axe historique (historical axis), the imaginary line that connects the Arc de Triomphe and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, and includes the Louvre, Jardins des Tuileries, Place de la Concorde, Avenue des Champs-Élysées,and La Défense.

While this may have been true in the past, perhaps a surfeit of pasta has caused the Milan arch to angle slightly to the south since then.  On the other hand, since Hemingway lived before Google Maps, he couldn’t have been expected to be totally precise.


The Arc de Triomphe is seen from the avenue des Champs-Élysées, Paris.


The Arco della Pace is seen from the Parco Sempione, Milan.


Now, the item associated with both Italy and France that seems to generate news most reliably, year after year, is a solitary painting that hangs in the Louvre — the Mona Lisa.  Speculation about the Mona Lisa abounds:  what’s going on with her eyebrows? Which region of Italy laying claim to the sfumato landscape that is featured in the background are we in fact looking at?  Had Lisa suffered from high cholesterol?  Were there originally columns on both sides of her in the painting that were subsequently lopped off?  Exactly how many versions are there underneath the painting that we see now?  Are those really letters and numbers and what are they doing in her eyes?  Who, indeed, was Lisa, and if she is who some think she is, is she really buried in a dump?  Or, was she Leonardo’s mother, or even Leonardo himself?  What’s this about a lion, an ape and a buffalo lurking in the painting?  And the biggest question of all, to which psychologists, scientists, engineers, art historians, and other scholars return regularly: what is it about that famous, enigmatic smile?

Perhaps one or another of these questions is what draws six million visitors a year to view the 77 cm x 53 cm (30 in x 21 in) painting behind bullet-proof glass and with its own personal climate-control system.  After all, these visitors have to choose out of 35,000 artworks at the Louvre — which might take more than nine months to see every one — and they pick Mona Lisa.  And then there are those who can’t be there.  They send her fan mail.



Leonardo da Vinci (1452 – 1519), when he wasn’t puttering about with The Last Supper, recreating The Battle of Anghiari, making 13,000 pages of mirror-image notes and drawings including the Vitruvian Man, buying caged birds and releasing them, inventing new musical instruments, conceptualizing helicopters, tanks, calculators, and solar power, designing a bridge to span the Golden Horn for Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II (which it looks like the Turkish government is finally getting ready to construct), and in general being a polymath, painted the Mona Lisa during the years 1503-1505, possibly putting some finishing touches on it as late as 1519, just before his death.

The subject of the painting, believed by most art historians to be Lisa Gherardini Giocondo, aka Mona Lisa (mona, or monna, being a contraction of the Italian ma donna — my lady), who was born in 1479.  At the age of 16, she married Francesco del Giocondo, who was at least twice her age and quite well off.  It is thought that he commissioned Leonardo to paint her portrait when she was about 24 years old.  Musicians were hired to perform in order to lift her spirits during the sitting for the portrait, as these things take so long.

Leonardo created the atmospheric effect in the portrait through a technique called sfumato, which derives from the Italian sfumare, meaning "to evaporate."  He applied up to 40 layers of extremely thin glaze, possibly rubbing them with his fingers, thereby softening the outlines and hiding the brush strokes.

For some reason, the portrait never ended up with the Giocondos.  According to Leonardo’s biographer, Giorgio Vasari, the painter had left it unfinished after working on it for four years.  In any case, Leonardo carted the portrait around for years, taking it with him to Milan, back to Florence, to Milan again, then to Rome and finally to Amboise, France.  There he lived for the last three years of his life at Clos Lucé, not far from the chateau of King François I, whose service he entered.  In the basement of Clos Lucé today are several recreations of Leonardo’s inventions, including tanks, flying machines and bridges. 


Clos Lucé, located in Amboise, France, is where Leonardo lived the last three years of his life.


The garden at Clos Lucé is seen from the chateau.


 Vasari, in his biography of Leonardo (Lives of the Artists, 1568) wrote probably the most succinct accolade of this Renaissance man:

“In the normal course of events many men and women are born with remarkable talents; but occasionally, in a way that transcends nature, a single person is marvelously endowed by Heaven with beauty, grace and talent in such abundance that he leaves other men far behind, all his actions seem inspired and indeed everything he does clearly comes from God rather than from human skill. Everyone acknowledged that this was true of Leonardo da Vinci, an artist of outstanding physical beauty, who displayed infinite grace in everything that he did and who cultivated his genius so brilliantly that all problems he studied he solved with ease.” (translated by George Bull)


A statue of Leonardo by Pietro Magni stands in Piazza della Scala, Milan.


When Leonardo died in 1519, as stipulated in his will, sixty beggars followed his casket.  The king purchased his estate, including the Mona Lisa, for the French royal collection at Fontainebleau.  Once the palace  at Versailles was completed almost two centuries later, in 1695, the Mona Lisa was moved there.

Then, in 1797, after the French Revolution, the Mona Lisa was moved to the Louvre.  In 1799 Napoleon had the painting moved from the Louvre to his bedroom at the Tuileries Palace, but in 1804 it was transferred back to the Louvre.

There the Mona Lisa stayed until, in 1911, one Vincenzo Peruggia, with a mistaken notion of history (he thought that the reason the painting was in France was because Napoleon had stolen it), decided to do some patriotic shoplifting.  An employee of the Louvre, Peruggia removed the Mona Lisa from its frame, hid it under his smock, slipped out of the museum, and eventually returned with the painting to Italy where he thought it belonged.  Both the painter Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire were initially implicated but then cleared of the crime.

Finally — more than two years later — la ravisseur de la Joconde (the kidnapper of the Mona Lisa, as the newspapers referred to Peruggia) was caught and by 1914 the painting was back in the Louvre.  After spending some time in jail, Peruggia returned to France and, still the art lover, opened a paint store.


The Musée du Louvre is the home of the Mona Lisa.


After enduring a vague status during World War II — no one is quite sure of the painting’s whereabouts at the time — the Mona Lisa was safely returned to the Louvre in 1945.  Since then, it has been assaulted a few times —sprayed with acid, hit with a rock, infested with insects, splashed with red paint, and attacked with a coffee mug, although, in the last case, disaster was averted thanks to the bullet-proof glass — but the Mona Lisa seems to have survived the last five centuries quite well.  That is, with the exception of the taunts of numberless parodies — those and equally numberless scientific inquiries — which I think I’ll go into next.



This blog entry, due to its equal relevance to Italy and to Paris, France, has been posted under both of those thread headings.

The photographs used in this blog, unless otherwise noted, are by Curt Veeneman.

Related Posts (Italy)

Who started Travel Con Brio®?

Composer, scholar (in music theory, ethnomusicology, and music history), performer, educator, conference organizer, and entrepreneur, Curt Veeneman received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley.

His additional interests, subsumed in wonder at the beauty of God’s entire creation, include art (he was an art major before the balance tipped ever-so-slightly toward music), literature, architecture, photography, mathematics, history, languages, cultural studies, world-cuisines, and, of course, travel.
photograph by Colleen Veeneman

In founding Travel Con Brio®, Curt was eager to synthesize all of these interests to create imaginative, stirring, and enlightening experiences to be enjoyed by both young and mature travelers alike.  The tours that he organizes reflect his extensive travel experience and familiarity with the art, music and culture of numerous countries, with each tour being richly enhanced by local experts.

Curt and his wife Colleen live near San Francisco.  They have three children.

What is this blog about?

Culled from a number of trips abroad, this blog compiles various experiences in an attempt to reveal the cultural nuances of places visited on Travel Con Brio® tours.  Sometimes humorous, sometimes serious, Curt’s observations are intended to describe and appreciate the personalities, character, idiosyncrasies, conventions, mood, and ambiance of places visited.  Contemplations of topics ranging from language and customs to climate and bureaucracies are freely offered alongside art and music reviews.  Any cultural issue, if illuminating, can become the focus.

These musings on the personal impact of various cultures are offered so that you, as a traveler, may compare and contrast your own impressions with them.  Do you share a similar interest?  Do you agree with a specific conclusion?  Or is there a fine distinction to be made regarding a particular point?  You are invited to leave your comments; please, however, be respectful of other readers.

And last, a caveat:  flukes, asymmetries, and twists of fate may suggest more about Curt than about any foreign culture under discussion.

What are some of Curt Veeneman’s musical activities?

As a composer, Curt has spoken and/or his works have been performed throughout the United States, in Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Poland, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Bulgaria.  He is the winner of several awards, including the ASCAP-Hubbell Award for composition.

Curt Veeneman's compositions include Les Cloches, inspired by the life of Joan of Arc (premièred by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra), The Wiry Concord for 5-string banjo, dulcimer, cimbalom, harp, harpsichord, piano, viola and percussion (available on Capstone Records), Mountain Thyme, based on Bulgarian folk music (recorded by the Sofia Symphony Orchestra), Alcuin's Riddle, for orchestra and 15 soloists who cross the “audience-river,” Hommage for voice, flute, 'cello, piano, and percussion, Windmills, computer music featuring sampled wind turbines on California's Altamont Pass, and Pneuma for solo flute, (also available on Capstone Records).

Of this last work, the following comments have been made:  “J’ai beaucoup apprécié le lyrisme et la rigueur de Pneuma pour flûte de Curt Veeneman”  (I greatly appreciate the lyricism and the precision of Curt Veeneman’s Pneuma for flute) —Gérard Condé, Le Monde, Paris, 29 August 1996; “a well written piece”  — Robert Dick, flutist, author of The Other Flute; “it is quite exciting!” — Molly Alicia Barth of eighth blackbird; and “strong and imaginative” — Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice, 13 March 2006.

As a new music promoter, he directed the new music ensemble Sonor Borealis at University of Alberta, Canada, and founded and directed the concert series, PACIFIC MARKET: Fresh Music From Around The World, at the University of the Pacific.  As a performer, Curt Veeneman is recorded on Music and Arts.

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