I just wanted to post a quick finding based on finishing Keizer's book yesterday.
In ancient Greece, the debate as to which art was supreme -- poetry or painting -- centered on the famous Apelles. His fame equalled that of all other Greeks, poets, sculptors, or architects, but zero of his works survive.
A story does however, of his work Calumny, which may or may not have existed. It is said to have depicted court intrigue allegorically, with a caricatured figure representing malicious rumor and other
participants such as courtiers, citizens, the ruler, and so forth. Even into the Renaissance era it represented the idea that pictures could create stories, narratives, ideas, characters, and the like without using words. This helped place painting on a
more equal footing with the written word, a parity accepted in antiquity but not during medieval times.
In Leonardo's time, the debate continued with poets and visual artists competing, often viciously, for positions at court (which provided a living stipend and other resources) and paid commissions. At the court of Milanese
Duke Ludovico Sforza in the 1490's, the debate was particularly acute and Leonardo was the chief advocate for the power of painting to express anything words could at least as well and perhaps better.
Leonardo prevailed in the debate, including one hosted as an official court event, and became the de facto authority on allegory in the Sforza court. This meant that he was put in charge of creating allegorical festivities
in which the full court could celebrate in costume, on a theme such as Paradise, for which he was in charge of everything from music to clothing design to set mechanics, in addition to the visual decorations and theatrical sequencing.
Still, the debate raged on. Could painting express allegory? The poets (including Boccaccio and Petrarch) argued that visual artists could only depict objects, and couldn't articulate stories or philosophy without recourse
to words and symbolic language. For example, one could portray Justice as a person, with the attributes of Minerva (such as helmet, spear, shield, etc.) as identification, but this was a symbolic reference to a narrative only possible through language.
Hence the challenge continued to follow Leonardo into the 1500's and throughout the last two decades of his life. His study of literature during this period intensified, as did the quantity of his writing (largely outpacing
his visual art, certainly his painting). He was also forced during the 1500's to work on military projects due to the escalating chaos and war afflicting the Italian city-states at that time, working for the notorious and brutal regime of Cesare Borgia in
1502-03. (The increasing violence and instability of Italian politics, from which Leonardo ultimately had to flee to the safety of the French court of Francis I, also colored his sense of the future course of a modernity dominated by technology of the sort
it had been his life's work to advance.)
Reading in Keizer last night that for Renaissance painters "Allegory was a means to experiment with the period's expectations of art" (p.141), it finally occurred to me that not only is the Mona Lisa a
portrait of Leonardo's written allegory of Experience (Esperienza), which he argued should guide all the arts and all the sciences, a portrait meant to not just represent but instantiate such Experience in the viewer by way of something like what today
we call mindfulness or meditation, it is also an embodied allegory of Experiment, i.e., of science itself. The Italian word esperienza, as used by Dante and in its Latin root experientia, refers to both what we call
experience, or cognitive awareness in time present or past, but also to the scientific method of experimental proof. What is an allegorical portrait of Experience is equally an allegorical portrait of Experiment; and the portrait is not meant to depict these
symbolically as by the aid of language but to make them real without the need of words.
Which is to say, the Mona Lisa is Experience, and it is Experiment, but it is also an experience and
(what I had previously overlooked) an experiment. This unifies science and art, as Leonardo hoped to do, in the single term Esperienza. The allegory which expresses this is completely of Leonardo's
own invention, with no reference to any previous allegory, and does not require any symbolic or linguistic referentiality. It fulfills Leonardo's stated philosophical assertion that painting can be universal in ways that language cannot. It also places the
painting in the company of the most self-referentially complex and rigorous modernity of any cultural artifact before or since.
The timeline of the experiment is on the scale of centuries. The year 1500 was seen as a possible apocalypse, and was interpreted as such by the famous Florentine firebrand and cleric Savanarola (born the same year as
Leonardo) who orchestrated the archetypal "Bonfire of the Vanities." Savanarola's message had significant support, including from artists such as Botticelli, and to a degree Michelangelo, but not from Leonardo. As a student of nature and geology, Leonardo
knew that some processes were very slow and that's just the way it is. So the timing of his Experiment was equally slow. (In fact, he often wrote that the hectic and consumerist pace of the Renaissance disconnected people from Nature, rendering them "unfree"
and inclined to follow princes blindly; the unfree "stand like goats one behind the other, filling every space with stinking smells and sowing seeds of pestilence and death.")
In one of his very last notations at the end of his life, Leonardo wrote "Painting does not speak, but rather demonstrates itself in itself." This is the Mona Lisa, a one-word allegory like Apelles'
lost archetype: Esperienza. The experiment still underway after over five centuries have passed is whether humans can perceive the meaning without its having been spelled out in words. Finding and understanding the word Esperienza,
the never-written title, without specific guidance to do so is the proof Leonardo hoped for and designed into one of the most massive human experiments ever attempted.
All best regards,