About a year ago I was reading about Leonardo in Calvino's Six Memos (pp. 77-80), and this prompted me to revisit the Mona Lisa. I had seen some other works by Leonardo while visiting Florence, and had gotten a museum shop book about how the ML includes ideas from Leonardo's notebooks about hydrology (flow of water and rivers), geology (including erosion and something like plate tectonics), human anatomy (such as how blood vessels resemble river systems), astronomy (including heliocentric ideas), and optics (like perspective, atmospheric effects, light/shade, sfumato, etc.).
Having learned of the above, I wondered if the bridge had any comparable significance, such as a reference to engineering work in Leonardo's notebooks. It seemed to me that visually the bridge connected to the shawl draping over the sitter's left shoulder, and since the shawl looked like the water-vortices in the notebooks perhaps the bridge represented a "flow" too, such as the flow of the history of science and engineering over long time spans.
I started researching how the bridge is interpreted but I found very little. Then I contacted many experts via email including the chair of an Ivy League art history department about what the bridge in the Mona Lisa might be about, and what it might mean or be doing in the painting. It seemed to me that this could be very important, and since there was so little material about the bridge it could mean something was being overlooked.
The chair did not know what the bridge might be about, even though they specialized in Italian Renaissance painting. They recommended I check with a few experts on the Mona Lisa, famous scholars who have written the books you might find about Leonardo in a Target or Walmart, or in a Barnes and Noble if those existed anymore.
Virtually all of these experts were kind enough to reply to my email inquiry. Some stated that the bridge did not mean anything, not even as a reference to Leonardo's own bridge designs and engineering work, and moreover could not mean anything, because bridges did not mean anything in Renaissance painting. (I found this last argument to be circular, but since I am not a trained art historian I wasn't sure what to make of it.) Some experts stated that they did not know of anyone who had written anything about what the bridge might be doing in the painting.
One expert at a leading university in the UK told me that they knew of only one scholar who has written anything about the bridge: Carlo Starnazzi, who published a book in 2008 about Leonardo's travels in Italy and France and how certain locations might have inspired certain works. Starnazzi proposed that the bridge in the Mona Lisa was a depiction of a particular stone arch bridge near Aruzzi in Italy. He also proposed that Leonardo included it in the painting as a reference to his lifelong work as an engineer (including many bridge designs, as detailed in Leonardo's notebooks such as the Codex Leicester currently owned by Bill Gates).
All this confirmed that according to the great preponderance of human thought today, the bridge in the Mona Lisa neither means anything, brings in any sort of context to the painting, serves any visual or compositional function, nor has any impact at all on what the painting does or was designed to do.
This is a rather odd state of affairs, I think. What if the bridge, like everything else in the painting, did mean something and did relate to some larger context in Leonardo's encyclopedic work in science and art? Well, that would mean that the meaning of the bridge is one of the greatest disparities between an amount of people-hours spent looking at, thinking about, and writing about a work of art and the actual meaning of the work. Perhaps it would be the "overlooked element" nonpareil in all the history of human art.
Just in case, just to check the details, dot one's i's and cross one's t's, it seems proper to ask at least for a little time (which we all have some of) what the bridgecould mean or be doing in the painting. This requires setting aside the settled doctrine that it means nothing, and has no function, at least for a brief time of hypothetical inquiry.
Could the bridge have a visual compositional function in the work? It seems to me that it does align with the line of the sitter's shawl, carrying the eye as it were from the background back to the foreground. That is a very simple compositional function, and could plausibly be considered intentional. Many paintings use similar methods to guide the viewer's visual attention "around" the composition, among its elements so to speak, like a geometry, architecture, or map (all of which Leonardo was expert in).
Could the bridge be a reference to any parallels to bridges in Leonardo's notebooks? Most scholars agree that at least some aspects of Leonardo's paintings are related to content in his notebooks -- for example, the many rocks and rivers in the paintings are thought to be references to Leonardo's study of geology, geologic time, and water flow. Could the bridge be a similar reference to the many drawings of bridges and ideas about bridges in Leonardo's notebooks? Designing and planning bridges was one of the main occupational duties Leonardo performed for the Italian nobility of his day. This is at least a plausible context.
Furthermore, might there be a thematic function of the bridge that interacts with the other thematic functions in the painting?
Some of these might include:
- The representation of flow, connection, generation, interconnectedness, weaving, time, art, etc. (various scholars)
- Water-flow as represented in the sitter's garment. (Martin Kemp, see link and quotation below)
- Could it also relate to the "fabric" of present-day technology that we wear? (novel hypothesis)
- The hair represents water-spiral (Kemp).
- The rivers represent slow geologic erosion over vast time-spans (Kemp and others).
- The shifting facial _expression_ represents mutability of interpersonal communication.
- The direct eye contact represents direct connection of subject to viewer.
- Comparison to the bridge in the Madonna of the Yarnwinder, and by implication, the yarn-machine Leonardo invented (links below).
- Bridge as synapse or "pointing" -- network theory, category theory (novel hypothesis)
- Pointing of right hand to left sleeve, in an interwoven form. (novel hypothesis)
- Other examples of hands pointing in other works by Leonardo.
- Possible comparison to the Sistine Chapel (Creation of Adam), which was contemporaneous to the ML. (novel hypothesis)
After reading many of the recommended authors, I wrote to the Ivy League art history chair who said "You are talking to the wrong person. No one has ever figured out the Mona Lisa."
Perhaps a "solution" is possible but will require a fresh, thorough look at the bridge. Being wrong is no great misdeed, since testing even a false hypothesis can help us make progress toward true ones. I am fairly certain that no one has established a solid rationale on any grounds that the bridge cannot possibly have any meaning or function. So even as a fun exercise in conversation, a crossword puzzle for art-fanciers, and a way to get a new perspective on a longstanding ingredient of European aesthetic life, it is good clean fun that might even lead to something of great benefit. Since politics and economics have become so saturated with aesthetics in the European-oriented world, addressing this simple yet overlooked element -- the bridge -- could even have transformative benefits specifically relevant to the 21st century.
All very best wishes and regards,
Quotations from other Leonardo scholars:
"Leonardo's magical landscape of fluid and structural transformations finds its echoes in the sitter and her costume. Lisa's hair obeys the water principle of flow.... The very fine cloth of Lisa's costume adopts analogous patterns of flow -- spiral in the case of the stole over her left shoulder and cascading in little rivulets below her neckline. These are analogous to the coursing fluids that vivify the woman's body. Leonardo could not but have projected his knowledge of the inner into the description of the outer."
[Martin Kemp of Oxford University, from his 2017 book Mona Lisa.]
“Leonardo considered the … mechanics of fluids… [writing that] ‘The great weight of the boat that passes through the river supported from the arc of the bridge, does not increase the weight to the bridge, because the boat weighs precisely, how much the weight of the water that such boat drives away from its place.’ Similar…investigations had accompanied also his grandiose plan to realize…at the confluence of the Main Channel into the Arno and at a very short distance from the Bridge of Buriano, subsequently consecrated for its symbolic valence in the background of the Mona Lisa and of the Virgin with the Yarn Winder, a work of high engineering: a bridge-channel, that might … put in communication the two water courses….”
[Carlo Starnazzi, Leonardo from Tuscany to the Loire
, p. 24, 2008.]
“Zwijnenberg admits to feeling uneasy before the Mona Lisa, feeling that something is not right: the bridge in the right landscape, which ‘is a carbuncle disfiguring the painting’. The landscape is connected with the sitter only by the bridge; there is no other sign of human activity. Mona Lisa is a microcosm within the macrocosm of the landscape; the bridge ‘bridges’ the microcosm and the macrocosm….”
[The Leonardo da Vinci Society Newsletter number 39, p. 9, from 2012.]
Quotes from Leonardo:
“My little work [the ML] will comprise an interweaving of these functions, reminding the painter of the rules and methods by which he may imitate with his art all these things – the works by which nature adorns the world.”
"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."
“Though I may not, like them, be able to quote other authors, I shall rely on that which is much greater and more worthy: on experience, the mistress of their Masters. Why go about puffed up and pompous, dressed decorated with [the fruits], not of their labors, but of those of others. And they will not allow me my own.”
“[People] who desire nothing but material riches and are absolutely devoid of that wisdom which is the food and the only true riches of the mind.”
“No [person] has a capacity for virtue who sacrifices honor for gain.”
Various links and images:
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