The double dative chronicles

Sometimes I have opinions on things. An example would be the “Isleworth Mona Lisa,” in the news lately. It is not, definitely not — even by a wild stretch of the imagination, while rubbing at bedbugs in both eyes — not, by Leonardo. How do I know this? By looking at a picture of it on the Internet.

This was before learning a few other things, about this painting that washed up from some old manor house in Somerset, England, just before the First World War. The crackerjack who spotted it saw that it resembled the Mona Lisa. Once cleaned, it still bore a family resemblance to Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, the Florentine merchant who commissioned Leonardo’s extremely famous portrait now in the Louvre. She looks perhaps a decade younger, according to some viewers, but is posed in the same way, and is wearing some attempt at the same winning smile.

Everyone agrees the background of this Isleworth painting was dabbed in by some clumsy oaf. Only the face and hands are optimistically attributed to Leonardo, with the plausible suggestion that it was his first draught. The plausibility comes from the master’s work habits, or rather, a satirical misunderstanding of them. He painted few formal works, and when he did was slow to start, and even slower to finish. (He held exalted views on the possibilities of his art.) When he repainted a picture, as for instance the Paris and London versions of the Madonna of the Rocks, both are breathtaking; but in different ways, and there are many significant variations. He was not some duffer just trying to get it right.

It was anyway not the background, which I hardly noticed, but the foreground that convinced me, very quickly, that the “Isleworth” could not be from Leonardo’s brush. This is because it is glib. While it will pass as a likeness of the same sitter — not so much younger, I think, as bereft of intensity — it lacks entirely the spirit with which Leonardo infused not only the Mona Lisa, but all of his paintings. It was not in him to paint so glibly. He was not a clown. But if he had actually painted this damp squib, it would not have survived him. Elementary self-interest, if not aesthetic revulsion, would have caused him to toss it in the fireplace right away.

Now, the clincher for those who are motivated by “reason,” very narrowly defined, is the canvas it was painted on. Leonardo painted on wood. The real Mona Lisa is on poplar (which has slightly warped); others of his paintings are on walnut; infamously, The Last Supper went on rotting plaster. Leonardo had used linen: but only as a sketching medium with tempera, and then only when he was art-student young. He would not have begun a formally commissioned painting on such a support, which came into common use for serious painting only a century later, and on sail canvas, at Venice.

That would be the final killer for any attempt to attribute the painting to Leonardo “scientifically,” but the mysterious Swiss foundation that claims to have proved “scientifically” that the Isleworth portrait was by him, shuffles around this insuperable fact. They claim to have employed “research physicists” who established “with 99 percent certainty” that “the two versions” were by the same hand. I am therefore 99 percent certain these employees knew nothing about art. I leave their knowledge of chemistry to the chemists.

No serious Leonardo connoisseur or scholarly expert has ever bought into the authenticity of the Isleworth painting, and none ever will. There are many other bad copies of the Mona Lisa on which they have also never wasted their time. Among those living, Martin Kemp, Luke Syson, and Frank Zöllner are now on record contradicting the Swiss foundation, and sneering at the thing. The scienticists in Geneva, who did not consult them, now dismiss them for not having examined the painting themselves. Why would they?

I mention this matter only because it illustrates one of my bugbears: the use of “science” to perpetrate frauds on the ignorant public. I have no idea what the relationship is between the Swiss foundation, and the current owners of the painting, now kept in a Swiss bank vault. But I note this is a secret, of the sort that should inspire the Ciceronian question, Cui bono?

Natural science is of some use in certain specialized circumstances, and I have no desire whatever to suppress it. It can sometimes answer questions that are extremely specific, and shallow. It absolutely cannot answer intelligent questions. Those who claim it can should be ignored; or punished, should that prove impossible.