The Critical Mass

Art Appreciation: CSI

Using the same kind of ground-penetration radar favored by police in their searches for bodies buried in shallow graves, art archaeologists plan to dig up the floor of a convent in Florence, Italy, in the hope of uncovering the remains of Lisa Gherardini, who has long been one of the prime candidates as the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.”

If they’re really lucky, they say, skull fragments may lead to a facial reconstruction. After all of these years – Gherardini died in 1542 – she may be able to tell us that, yes, she was the one with the bewitching smile. A smile, after 500 years, that only a forensic sculptor could love.

But let’s reconsider this particular use of modern technology. Who is the stressed-out head in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream?” Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Did Michelangelo allow himself some artistic license while carving the genitals of his “David?” Could a pile of stones on a Mediterranean island possibly be the Atlantis that Homer wrote about? Who is this “Michelle” that The Beatles sing of, anyway?

We do not definitively know the answers to these questions. Art history is a bit different than, say, the history of arctic exploration, where it might be helpful to know that ice-bearded Englishmen such as John Franklin seeking the Northwest Passage may have died from lead poisoning from their canned foods.

But with art, which is always shot through with creative thinking, our ignorance of what combination of sparks fed that brilliance doesn’t affect our appreciation of the final piece in the least. In fact, the uncertainty, and the debate, actually enhances the experience.

And what of the indignity we are putting Lisa Gherardini through? Sifting through the dirt for what time has left of her, carbon dating, DNA testing against the remains of her children known to be buried nearby. Her bones spread out on a cold lab table beneath harsh florescent light, just to settle our curiosity, wasn’t a part of the deal when, or if, she sat for Leonardo.

Let the mystery be.

%d bloggers like this: