[NetBehaviour] The Mona Lisa as Medical Theory, Practice, Mirror, and Map

Max Herman maxnmherman at hotmail.com
Sat Apr 11 22:36:05 CEST 2020


Hi Cassie,

I just listened to your interview with Marc on the "news from where we are" podcast and found it really thought-provoking.  The proliferation of global crises and their highly interconnected nature really does change the calculus it seems for solutions being modular, scalable, adaptive, and participatory as you describe, in many aspects of how we live but also in health care.

It also makes great sense to me that you locate the fabric for this participatory, improvisational, and collaborative adaptation at least partly within an aesthetic framework.  This allows for the greatest versatility of practices I think, embraces the network reality of our times, and synergizes with the human instinct for social care and expression as having intrinsic beauty.

Last week I received an article from a Leonardo scholar in the UK in reply to my question about the meaning of the landscape in the Mona Lisa.  To my very great surprise, the article's second paragraph centers on a medical reference:

"In his article on the Mona Lisa published in 1952, Charles de Tolnay made the suggestion, so far as I know, that the painting has cosmological significance.  He calls the figure the 'personification' of the landscape; he cites Leonardo's use of the phrase '[the hu]man is the model of the world.'  Kenneth D. Keele, in his article 'The Genesis of Mona Lisa,' 1959, then made the first sustained attempt to see the picture as a kind of philosophical statement.  Using passages from [Leonardo's] Notebooks together with his own, specialized knowledge of the practice and history of medicine, Keele argued persuasively that the Mona Lisa represents 'Leonardo's conception of the formation of the earth and the analogy so vital to him of the macrocosm of the world and the microcosm of [the hu]man.'  Martin Kemp has reaffirmed this interpretation in his recent book on Leonardo, remarking, again, on certain parallels between what Leonardo says in his notes on the human and terrestrial bodies and how in the picture he relates the figure-microcosm to the landscape-macrocosm."  (Webster Smith, "Observations on the Mona Lisa Landscape," The Art Bulletin, June 1, 1985.)

The article goes on to discuss a lot of interesting details about how the Mona Lisa relates to geologic, hydrodynamic, and anatomical ideas in Leonardo's notebooks.  I only started studying Leonardo last year in honor of his 500th anniversary, after visiting Florence for the first time, but find great relevance in his attempts to integrate art with science and liberate both from stultifying conditions of scholastic conventions.  However, I have been able to find only the very vaguest discussions of what I believe are two key aspects of the painting: the bridge in the background (the only human artifact in the background, but almost never discussed) and its relationship to the sitter's garments.  (The garments are briefly discussed in the Smith article, such as by Leonardo's quote "patience is like a warm garment," but not fully in my opinion.)

This could be a huge step forward in the field of Leonardo studies, and indeed of art history itself, because the painting may very well be a map and guide to finding the proper balance between humanity (exemplified by experience, creativity, and communication) and technology (a constructed fabric of engineering, accumulated learning, and historical data).  This balance, between the human and the technological, is at the core of human survival; it is therefore at the core of the human medical history in which we find ourselves so intensely implicated during the present phase of planetary economics.  To remember that our human capacities for creativity, compassion, and collaboration are still ours, neither negated by nor subordinate to the garments and ornaments of technology (no matter how all-pervading they sometimes seem), is a fundamentally health-affirming and Hippocratic message perfectly ideal for our current moment.

Below is part of an essay I'm working on to elucidate the bridge/garment idea.  If you have any thought or views as to how this might be relevant to the Hologram project I'd be very interested to hear or discuss.

Thanks again for sharing the Hologram project with Netbehavior!

Max

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What is the meaning of the bridge in the Mona Lisa?  Specifically, in the context of the ideas about science, the natural world, and the quest for beauty and truth as discussed in Leonardo's notebooks and in Webster Smith's article.  What does the bridge mean?  It is the only human artifact in the background of the painting and potentially of wide symbolic scope.  As Smith shows, the winding form in the left background is a river, not a road, thus making the landscape one of two rivers -- one bridged, the other not.  Since the bridge visually flows precisely into the sitter's garment, specifically into a twisted fabric which strongly echoes the hydrological form of the vortex, might the bridge/garment relationship reflect the following prominently featured passage from Leonardo's notebooks in which he contrasts the "borrowed robes" of academics to direct creative experience and scientific observation?  Because Leonardo was born out of wedlock, he was prohibited from attending university and learning Latin, the official language of scholarly learning in his time:

"I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause certain arrogant persons to think that they may with reason censure me, alleging that I am a man without letters.  Foolish folk!  Do they not know that I may retort by saying, as did Marius to the Roman patricians: 'They who themselves go adorned in the labour of others will not permit me my own?' They will say that, because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others? And experience has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will acknowledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evidence."

I find this passage to be evocative of the idea that Leonardo may be presenting a highly complex map of sorts in the Mona Lisa, which is a map of nature and natural history, human biology, but also culture itself, and the history of technology as a "flow" and fabric which is comparable to those in nature but not identical.  All of these complex systems are thus integrated, and centered gravitationally on the sitter as "Experience": Leonardo's highest value in both science and art.

Experience in the painting is therefore a complex and hybrid agent, functioning as peer, subject, artist, advocate, teacher, companion, and portrait; moreover it is an interactive personification which we cannot but identify with, and indeed, communicate with in present immediate time.  This fundamentally interactive gaze is, I would further hypothesize, a powerful thesis regarding what we would now call cognitive neuroscience, including questions of intersubjective intelligence and what Francisco Varela calls "the embodied mind."

Importantly, the garment is portrayed as non-identical to the human agency being portrayed, but complementary and ultimately secondary to it.  Experience, in addition to representing empirical science and aesthetic creation, is also akin to contemplative concepts of mindfulness or grace, which are also found in indigenous philosophies of the macrocosmic/microcosmic Great Spirit.  This facet of experience in the painting is in part a pre-neuroscientific mapping and aesthetic "performance" perhaps akin to what Francisco Varela described as "enactive cognitive science" in his 1991 book "The Embodied Mind."

This interpretation seems to me to be vastly preferable to Freud's still-cited idea that Leonardo was unconsciously painting his mother, and worthy of further scholarly exploration (by contextualization with the Notebooks) as well as mass communication to the artistic public during a time when to view the painting in person is impossible due to the pandemic.

Max Herman
4/11/2020

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