Tell us a bit about your new book?
The obvious reaction is, “Not another book about the Mona Lisa…!”
Is there really anything left to say? The answer is a resounding yes, in two respects. Firstly, my co-author, Giuseppe Pallanti has been working for years in Florence to uncover new documents about Leonardo, his family, Lisa del Giocondo and her husband, Francesco. We are able to provide a vivid picture of real people doing real things in real places in real time. On this basis we can look afresh at the actual portrait, asking why a painting of a bourgeois Florentine woman has become the picture of all pictures. What happened was the portrait ceased to become a simple portrait and became a "universal picture" into which Leonardo poured all his knowledge about the human body, the body of the earth, optics and psychology. His science of art becomes fused with the romantic image of a beloved lady in Italian love poetry. Mona Lisa literally embodies rational science and poetic imagination at the highest level.
Your book throws up a few surprises about what is probably the most famous painting of all, such as Leonardo’s mother was a penniless 15 year old orphan and how his birthplace wasn’t where historians previously believed it was – how has your journey and research evolved over the years to get you to where you are today - presenting a fresh new interpretation of the artist’s work?
I was trained as a scientist and was taught to seek the hard evidence. I hope I have never lost sight of that. I have written about the Mona Lisa in various books, but never with this intensity of focus. I was surprised at how much we had all overlooked in understanding a picture which is so familiar that we find it almost impossible to see it clearly.
Once we cut through all the accretions of rubbish, so that we can really look at Leonardo, the portrait is seen to be even more remarkable than the Mona Lisa of legend. We are aiming to rout the “Leonardo loonies”, who endlessly come up with barmy theories. One popular fantasy is that Leonardo was the son of a north African slave. We now know who his mother really was. We know who Lisa really was.
When did you become interested in the life and work of Leonardo da Vinci and why?
Early on I’d avoided Leonardo, who looked big and difficult. Then a trainee TV producer was making his graduation film on Leonardo’s water drawings. Someone must have recommended me - even though I knew little about the subject. The great art historian, Ernst Gombrich, lent us his unpublished paper on Leonardo’s studies of water and air in motion. I felt I had come home. As a biologist I started my personal quest for Leonardo with the anatomical drawings, and progressively aimed to grasp the “whole” Leonardo.
What three things will we learn by reading your book?
That Lisa was an “ordinary" person - if special like everyone is.
That Leonardo invested all his genius in the portrait.
That he realised nothing like it had been done before, and we know that nothing quite like it has ever been done again.