Just before I visited Paris last week, a new app had gone viral at uni – it’s called Yik Yak, and me and my friends felt like we were really old as we had to have it explained to us by someone in the year below, having no clue what it is. Basically, for those of you who, like me, haven’t got the faintest idea what Yik Yak is, it’s a bit like Twitter, but local to your area and anonymous, and you can rate what people say up and down your news feed, so a post that is rated down lots of times will fall off the news feed. At uni, it kept us very entertained, and when I was up early one morning whilst on holiday, excited to get going and do more exploring, I thought to check Yik Yak and see if people used it in Paris… and to my surprise, they did, and it was in English! To illuminate the purpose of this story and the very bad pun in the title of my post, somebody had posted (amongst the slightly dodgy invitations on nights out and modern equivalents to lonely hearts ads) “I Louvre Paris” and the pun really made me smile so I kind of stole it for my title… so thank you anonymous person who posted on Yik Yak in Paris!
The beautiful Louvre in June early evening sunshine
To return to what I originally wanted to write about (and I promised no tangents… sorry!)… the Louvre. Absolutely huge, it used to be a royal palace, and the Tuileries Gardens at the back, flanking the River Seine, were ornamental gardens designed for Catherine de Medicis, the new queen who was missing the ornamental gardens of Italy. To summarise, it is absolutely HUGE, comprising three wings, several floors, several thousand objects not even on display, a shopping centre (Le Carrousel – lots of cute shops here, including Fragonard and Maxim’s) and, what it is most renowned for, some of the most incredible art treasures known to man. What most tourists enter the distinctive glass prism entrance for is to catch a glimpse of the most famous art work in the whole entire world – Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, begun in 1503, a jewel in Renaissance portraiture. The painting is so famous and so valuable that the Louvre don’t actually insure it, as nobody has attributed a specific value to it (I wonder how many 0’s would be on the end of that number…), but plough all their money into protecting it and the upkeep.
The Mona Lisa has always seemed shrouded in mystery, despite the prevalent theory of the identity of the sitter to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo. This could explain the alternative title, La Gioconda, but could also refer to the subtle state of happiness shown in her enigmatic smile; in Italian, it can be translated to “she who smiles”. Leonardo liked playing on names and the like, as seen in his portrait of Ginevra de Benci, in which she is portrayed in front of a juniper tree, a play on the name Ginevra. It has been suggested that it was painted to commemorate either the purchase of their house or the birth of their second son.
Leonardo’s Mona Lisa – I was in two minds about posting my horribly blurry picture, but at least it shows how far back you have to stand to look at it (I also cropped out the back of some people’s heads…)
Giorgio Vasari, widely seen as the first art historian, wrote effusively about this painting in his biography of Leonardo da Vinci. He declared it to appear as living flesh rather than a painting, explaining that whilst painting her, he enlisted the help of musicians and jesters to perpetuate her smile, so as not to produce a typical sombre portrait. Whether this was the case or not, Leonardo certainly manipulated the conventions of portraiture – Mona Lisa is seen to be the earliest Italian portrait to have such a close focus on the sitter in a half-length image. Behind her is a masterful landscape that testifies to the extensive studies of nature Leonardo undertook, which can be seen in his notebooks (and also in his execution of the rocks in his two copies of The Virgin of the Rocks, one in the Louvre close to the room holding Mona Lisa and the second, quite recently restored, in the National Gallery in London).
Ultimately, Mona Lisa is enigmatic and masterful – perhaps this is why it attracts so much attention and causes so many tourists to clamour for a picture in a dense crowd in front of it. Vasari eulogised the achievements of Leonardo in this painting, opining that “Altogether, this picture was painted in a manner to make the most confident artist – no matter who – despair and lose heart … in this painting of Leonardo’s there was a smile so pleasing that it seemed divine rather than human; and those who saw it were amazed to find that it was as alive as the original.” It is well worth a visit to see if you can detect the lifelikeness in the mysterious smile too – but don’t expect to be able to linger, as every visitor is desperate to get a look to say they have seen the most famous painting in the world.
IF YOU’RE INTERESTED, TRY…
- Giorgio Vasari’s Leonardo da Vinci has now been published as number 58 in Penguin’s Little Black Classics series for only 80p (they have released eighty little classics, each selling for 80p, to celebrate eighty years of Penguin publishing) – it is really interesting, a great way to access the words of the first art historian and it also includes his biographies of Fra Filippo Lippi and Sandro Botticelli
- If you want to try a historical fiction angle, try Jeanne Kalogridis’ fantastic Painting Mona Lisa (I think it’s also known as I, Mona Lisa) – I bought it on holiday and absolutely devoured it – full of romance, history and artistry in Renaissance Florence, it is a really gripping story!