High Renaissance: Florence and Rome
Leonardo, Mona Lisa Salman Khan and Beth Harris discuss Leonardo da Vinci's painting, "Mona Lisa," as a symbol of Western culture and as a renaissance portrait.
Leonardo, Mona Lisa
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- [music playing]
- We thought we would start by looking at what is perhaps the most famous painting in the world,
- and whether we can actually even really still see it.
- Right. 'Cause I have seen this before.
- I've even visited it at the "Louvre," and I'm pronouncing it wrong.
- Yes, you're right. This is probably the most famous painting in the world.
- And I just read that most people spend about 15 seconds in the Louvre
- looking at the painting, which is a funny statistic.
- Well, it's stressful! Because there's people behind you.
- And on top of that, it's actually surprisingly small,
- when you see it in real life.
- I mean, now that I'm able to take my time
- and not worry about the tourists behind me,
- and I'm looking at it for real, I'm already . . .
- things are jumping out at me that I actually had never noticed before.
- Like what?
- Well, it looks like the scenery is some kind of like Vulcan territory or something.
- [chuckling] There's this, it's like mountainous,
- and there's a little bridge in there, there's a road;
- I guess I never paid much attention to that before.
- Yeah, actually I had never even noticed this chair she was on before, either,
- you can see her hand resting on.
- Actually, and I never noticed that there's a ledge right behind her
- where there's like, jars. [chuckling]
- I could probably keep going.
- I like your analogy to Vulcan territory, as a Star Trek fan myself.
- That landscape is otherwordly and very mysterious.
- But it's interesting, isn't it, how the bottom part of the landscape
- at her neck and below looks like an inhabited landscape,
- with a winding road and a bridge;
- but the landscape that's at her neck and head
- is more mysterious and looks very much like another planet.
- That's right.
- And actually, when you point that out,
- and how that painting is divided based on
- where those landscapes and the ledge divide the painting,
- I don't have my ruler out,
- but I would guess that it's pretty close to the "golden mean."
- I think you're probably right.
- Those things that look like jars
- are actually the bottom of columns cut off on either side of the painting.
- So, so Leonardo da Vinci actually painted the columns,
- and it was cropped.
- That's right. And so the space that she's in
- would have made a lot more sense as a balcony.
- You know, all of this, actually, if you just take a step back,
- we started with this presumption that it's the - and it's true -
- that it's probably the most famous painting in the world,
- but I guess I've never quite gotten why.
- I mean, is this just a case of marketing?
- I think it happened in 1911 when the painting was stolen
- from the Louvre and disappeared for a couple of years,
- and became notorious at that point.
- In the 19th century,
- the Mona Lisa was not the most popular painting at the Louvre.
- Paintings by other artists like Titian and Raphael
- were much more popular,
- and even valued more highly for insurance purposes.
- So, it really probably is only in the 20th century
- that she became as important as she is now.
- If you go back 150 years ago,
- Mona Lisa was not something that was just ingrained in our culture.
- She was important; people were interested in her,
- and people were writing about her,
- and they said some interesting things;
- but she wasn't as famous as she is now.
- And also, don't forget that the technology to reproduce her
- existed only really in the 20th century,
- in terms of mass color reproductions.
- And so, her currency has certainly increased, I think,
- in the last hundred years or so.
- I see. If you go back 150 years,
- there was probably no such thing as super-famous paintings.
- I think that might be true, actually.
- There were paintings that were famous, or important,
- but not celebrities, in the way that the Mona Lisa is.
- Right, right. Not something that every person on the street would recognize.
- Yeah. And of course, now I think most people would say
- that what's so interesting about her is her look and her smile,
- which have been interpreted in many different ways.
- Yeah, I know, and I know that's kind of what,
- I guess, one of the claims to fame of the painting.
- And you see that, I mean, you know,
- people like to look at it, is she smirking, is she happy,
- is she sad, all of these things, is she looking at you,
- all of these things that people try to . . .
- but I guess, trying to look at it without all of the social programming
- that I've had around this painting,
- it strikes me as an interesting painting,
- and it seems very technically well done,
- and there's something very bright,
- and there's kind of an aura around her face.
- I don't know, if I wasn't programmed to really know this painting,
- and if I were to see this in the museum
- amongst many, many others, that I would . . .
- that it would really jump out at me.
- Portraits really took off during the Renaissance,
- beginning in the 1400's in Italy, and Leonardo painted this in Florence;
- and that's because of Humanism.
- And the way that we define Humanism is
- taking an interest in human beings and the things of this world
- and human achievement and individuality,
- all of those values becoming more important in the 15th century.
- And so we begin to see a lot more portraits.
- Also with the beginnings of a wealthy merchant class
- in Florence in the 15th century,
- people can afford portraits and begin to want them.
- At first portraits were painted with the figure in profile.
- But later, especially in Northern Europe, artists like Dürer or Memling
- started to put their figures in believable spaces.
- And so, Leonardo is really the first artist in Italy
- to do those things: to make an oil painting,
- which is a relatively new medium, in Italy -
- -What did people use before oil?
- They used fresco and tempera painting.
- Tempera for panel paintings.
- So this is oil on wood,
- whereas before artists would paint tempera on wood.
- Tempera tends to look more flat than oil paint,
- where you can really get a sense of modeling,
- and light and dark; so Leonardo's making this three-dimensional figure,
- and he's using another technique called sfumato,
- which means a kind of smoky haziness;
- so he obscures the hard outlines around the forms, which tend to flatten them.
- One of the things that's fun to talk about with the Mona Lisa, too,
- is all the things that people have said about her over the years.
- You might not be aware of the fact that
- Sigmund Freud actually had a particular interpretation of the Mona Lisa.
- Yes, I'm sure he did. [chuckling] I'm somewhat skeptical of it.
- I would like to interpret his interpretation someday. But yes.
- Freud said that the Mona Lisa's smile combined the two ways
- that we tend to look at women in our culture.
- In one way she's very mothering and nurturing;
- and in the other way she seems very seductive.
- I think that says more about Freud than about Leonardo.
- You could be right. And later artists,
- another artist that you already know, Duchamp,
- Duchamps, my favorite.
- -your favorite, he took a reproduction of the Mona Lisa
- and drew a mustache on her.
- I could imagine him doing that.
- I think the mustache is interesting. Because there is something
- not entirely feminine about her, something a little bit masculine.
- Do you think it's that? or I mean, I guess that there's a certain,
- I mean, it's kind of old now, especially because Duchamp did it,
- I'm guessing, you know, 80, 90 years ago.
- But there is something hilarious about drawing a mustache on a feminine form.
- We all remember doing it as schoolkids, just getting a kick out of it.
- And I could see it's especially funny for this painting.
- Taking something that's so high art, and making it silly.
- Recently, the Prado in Madrid found what turns out to be,
- after some scientific testing, a copy of the Mona Lisa,
- which in and of itself is not that unusual.
- But it turns out that their copy was made by another artist
- sitting right next to Leonardo, copying what he did stroke for stroke.
- And they can tell this by analyzing the underdrawing.
- She looks much younger.
- She has eyebrows . . .
- Oh, that's right. I mean, it makes you appreciate it.
- That's where the creepiness comes from,
- because the Mona Lisa we see looks jaundiced. It's yellow.
- And so, the painting is a little bit different.
- The face is a little bit different.
- But we can assume that the colors might not have been that different.
- Exactly. And it's a really interesting thing to think about
- what she would look like if she was cleaned,
- and if she would still mean what she means to us if she -
- Oh, I don't think she would.
- Because when I look at this cleaned painting, it . . .
- it loses a lot of the mystery.
- Yeah, I agree. And you can then understand the Louvre's decision not to clean her.
- I mean, the cleaned one, she looks better, she looks younger.
- She loses a lot of the motherly aspects that Freud seems to want to ascribe to her.
- Yeah, because the colors are brighter, more vibrant;
- it's not as muted as the one that we've learned to like.
- Yeah. Although, her reputation has grown over the years.
- Who's to say that we won't care so much about her again.
- There might be a post-celebrity world at some point. [laughing]
- [music playing]
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