Sunday, August 28, 2011

Thinking About La Gioconda (The Mona Lisa)

My aunt was traveling around Europe this week and visiting some of my favorite historical sites. As she posted pictures and announced which great museum she was onto next, I was at home and back to work from summer vacation. Up popped a picture on my computer from her, the camera gazing up at the Eiffel Tower. Meanwhile, I was answering phone calls from concerned parents and checking students for lice in the health office.

The best thing I could to do as I slipped away on my lunch break, a 45 minute vacation from my day, was to pretend that I too was in one of the most interesting and historically rich cities in the world. In 2009, I was fortunate enough to go on a field research trip with my university's history department. The first stop on that trip was to Paris. We hit all of the must- sees: Versailles, the Eiffel Tower and of course, the Louvre! I was so excited for the Louvre!

Part of our responsibilities on the trip was to prepare a short presentation about something we'd be visiting. My friend talked about the Arc de Triomphe. Another person discussed the Battle of Waterloo as we sat atop the battle's monument. My presentation was on the Mona Lisa.

We had a tour guide at the Louvre who led us underground where the moat once was, up the stairs past the Winged Victory and through the Italian Gallery where many Da Vinci's are on display. When we walked into the Grand Gallery, she stepped aside, handed me her "official tour guide pass," and let me take over. What an amazing moment to stand in front of the Mona Lisa, hold an audience and teach people about the most famous painting in the world. Its a painting that most people recognize by name and has a history that few people really know.

The Mona Lisa or "La Gioconda," is believed to be a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. The title for the  painting that we use in America comes from a contraction of the word, "ma donna," which means "my lady." Da Vinci began working on the piece in 1503 and it supposedly took him four years to complete. She is painted on a poplar wood panel that currently has worm holes and an eleven centimeter crack in the back.

At the time of his death, Da Vinci bequeathed the portrait to his friend, King Francios I of France. As time went on, ownership passed to such notables as Louis XIV and Napoleon.  Caretakers of the painting took it upon themselves to add coats of varnish to the piece. In doing so it has caused the portrait to grow darker and darker. Scans of the piece show that La Gioconda once had eyebrows. Perhaps their absence today is a result of the layers of varnish.

The Mona Lisa came to the Louvre in the early nineteenth century when Napoleon was exiled to St. Helena. The piece was revered by artists and art lovers for its technique and realism. The museum had a million other objects in its collection but, the Mona Lisa was the only that had its own mailbox. Despite this fact, La Gioconda's value was substantially less than that of several other paintings. And paintings by other artists were copied more frequently than the Mona Lisa.

On August 21, 1911 it was discovered that La Gioconda had been stolen from its home in the museum. The only evidence that remained was the painting's new, 87 pound, double frame that had been removed and left near a staircase. Two years later a man calling himself Leonardo Vicenza contacted an art dealer about selling the painting. The dealer in turn got in touch with the director of the Uffizi Museum in Florence, Italy. The three men set up a meeting to discuss and inspect the painting. Police were notified and Vicenza was arrested at the meeting. The Mona Lisa was found in a trunk in the Vicenza's room. Leonardo Vicenza (or Vincenzo Peruggia if one prefers his real name) was given a light punishment for his crime. The Italian court had sympathy for the thief's ideal of returning to Italy what he had believed to be stolen by Napoleon.

The theft of Da Vinci's painting actually helped to grow the popularity of the portrait. Newspapers continually printed pictures of the Mona Lisa which increased familiarity with the painting around the world. The number of articles that were published in the span of two years helped expand awareness as well. Museum goers would stand in line and walk past the empty spot on the wall where the piece was once displayed.

" ' For many, the Mona Lisa is the Louvre,' the Paris-Journal echoed. ' In the eyes of the public, even the uneducated, the Mona Lisa occupies a privileged position that is not be accounted for by its value alone.'" Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

The majority of my research came from Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti as well as the Louvre website.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

I'm your Vitameatavegimin girl

   Lucille Ball turns 100 today. Like a lot of people, I've grown up watching I Love Lucy. It is one of my favorite shows of all time. And so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that the show's star is one of my favorite cultural/ historical figures as well.

Lucy became one of my favorite figures because of her television show. Then she reinforced everything I thought I knew and felt about her with her autobiography. On the show, I saw a woman who despite being a 1950s housewife, was her own person. Lucy was silly, creative and defiant. In real life, Ms. Ball was courageous, a trailblazer, and someone who never gave up. Whether on stage or in real life, these qualities were presented to me in a manner which I whole heartedly responded to. They made me love and appreciate her for more than just the comedy. 

By the time I hit the sixth grade I had seen every episode of I Love Lucy at least a dozen times. Sometime during that school year I discovered Ms. Ball's autobiography on one of my family's frequent Saturday morning trips to the bookstore. My dad bought the book for me and I brought it with me to school for our afternoon reading time. I devoured and mastered as much of the material as my 12 year old brain could absorb. Later, in my junior year of high school I used it as the source for my history book report. What could be better than a book about one of the most famous Americans of all time, who discussed Old Hollywood, unions, the Red Scare and of course one of the most popular television shows of all time? As far as I was concerned it had a wonderful combination of American and cultural history. My teacher disagreed with me and told me I could have made a better book selection. (He clearly never read Love, Lucy.) I got a "B" on that paper. 

Through the years I've continued to love, memorize and learn from the show. My sister and I committed the famous Vitameatavegimin speech to memory. We can decipher which episode is on air after only a few seconds.  I learned my first few words of french, spanish vowel sounds and the difference between the bow and stern of a boat from the series. (I also learned not to exchange my dollars for francs on the streets of Paris. Always use the American Express office instead, so as to avoid the risk of getting arrested for counterfeit!)

So today on her 100th birthday, I want to shout out a big thanks for the lessons, comfort, and many laughs that Lucille Ball has given me. 

My favorite I Love Lucy episodes include:
Pioneer Women
Women from Mars
Lucy dancing with Van Johnson