Will the Real Mona Please Stand Up
WE'RE told the art world has something new to amuse it. Another Mona Lisa has been found in a bank vault down in New Jersey. I, too, am excited about this, but not very, and as an experienced dilettante in the realms of gold, or whatever, I can assure all who are worried about this that it, too, shall pass away. Two, as a quantity, are not all that much, and surfeit, I believe, is still far ahead.
I went to see Mona one time in the Louvre and learned two important things about her in less than 10 seconds. One, that she's not very big. I had supposed that she would have proportions consistent with her fame and would be at least three feet in the beam, but she's smaller than that. Then, that's not her real name. The lady was, in life, a wife to somebody named Giocondo, so the painting is really La Gioconda, and I have carefully kept that in mind ever since, should I be a contestant on ``Jeopardy.''
The gallery in which La Gioconda is exhibited at the Louvre devotes the whole far end to her, and I suspect if you sneezed in her presence the lights would flare, the horns would blow, and the gendarmes would boil out of the woodwork. But as you enter that long room, seeing the gracious lady up ahead on her easel, to your left is an arrangement of a dozen or so inferior paintings that were certainly selected in whimsy by a wag. `Twas so when I was there. Each of these paintings has the same ``dewey shimmer of the eyes and that subtle smile about the mouth'' that makes La Gioconda the great canvas it is and cost Leonardo da Vinci four years of his remarkable life.
I did not learn if any, or all, of these paintings were also by Leonardo, and the guard who stood close by was haughty and aloof and would not tell me. But they certainly were arranged with bemused purpose, and seemed to me to be something of a spoof. At least they showed that the Mona Lisa smile was not licensed exclusively to La Gioconda.
When I was very young, I was exposed liberally to art. We had a neighbor across the fence who was an Italian sculptor. He was Mr. Gironi and always looked as if he slept in his clothes. But my mother was kind, and we children were permitted to believe this was an artistic oddity permitted to the talented.
The Neapolitan Ice Cream Girl was an advertising item owned by the Neapolitan Ice Cream Company of Boston. Mr. Gironi had been commissioned to make 3,000 of them on a first order. She was a small statue, maybe a foot tall, postured to sit on a shelf on a soda fountain. In her hand she held a dish of Neapolitan ice cream, which she was eating with a spoon. Around 1918, every sweet shop in Boston had at least one of Mr. Gironi's statues displayed. The statues were molded of plaster of Paris, and when Mr. Gironi took them from the mold he would set them on his dooryard fence railings to dry.
About the same time, Mr. Gironi was making cherubs for gift-shop sale, and I have one of those still. It sits on a shelf of our china cabinet, a sentimental souvenir of my lost youth, and time has dulled its plaster white to a drab olive. The angel's features are well done. The wings cover the shoulders as a shelter, the hands are folded inside the knees, and the ankles are crossed as any proper seraphim would have it. Mr. Gironi did, indeed, have a talent. His angel is admired by all who see it, and over the years it has been kept on a shelf high enough to foil childish fondling.
I never did come to have a Neapolitan Ice Cream Girl for my own, but I could see 3,000 of them from my bedroom window, and 3,000 have a way of staying in focus. As soon as the dry ones were taken in a truck to be distributed to ice cream parlors, Mr. Gironi would replace them on the fence railings with wet ones.
My recollection of the Louvre is not so vivid. I remember that the flow of foot traffic, as the visitors moved, had a pattern from Venus to Mona, and so on, and there was an American family looking for a booth that sold hot dogs. I remember the ticket cost me a franc. I remember two artists, set up side by side, who were copying the detail of the same painting - one was doing the face of the lady and the other the tapestry against which the lady was posed. Chacun a son gout. The tapestry was handsome. And I found the architecture of the Louvre a treat, without reference to the plunder inside.
But 3,000 Neapolitan Ice Cream Girls are a striking recollection. What's another Mona Lisa?