The Truth about My Lady of the Fat Fingers; Alan Ventob's Trumpeted BBC Series on Leonardo Is a Mishmash of False Claims, Flawed Research and Missed Opportunity

By Sewell, Brian | The Evening Standard (London, England), April 25, 2003 | Go to article overview

The Truth about My Lady of the Fat Fingers; Alan Ventob's Trumpeted BBC Series on Leonardo Is a Mishmash of False Claims, Flawed Research and Missed Opportunity


Sewell, Brian, The Evening Standard (London, England)


Byline: BRIAN SEWELL

THIS year may mark the 500th anniversary of a painting that has a not unreasonable claim to have become the most famous in the world: the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci.

We are, however, by no means certain of the date of what we see - the first thoughts about the portrait may have been initiated in 1502, but the final surface, the finish by which we judge it, could well be a decade later, later still, according to come experts. For five centuries or so, men have been bewitched, bothered and bewildered by this woman's enigmatic smile and, until the ingenious Lewis Carroll invented the grin of the disappearing Cheshire Cat, it had no beguiling rival.

"What does it mean?" has been the anguished cry of poets and peasants, philosophers and novelists, "was she another Lucrezia Borgia, or is the smile benign?"

Men ask themselves her age but cannot tell whether she is young and ever virginal, or as old as the hills behind her and a woman of experience; in desperation they draw moustaches on her upper lip and, at their wits' end, throw themselves from windows. Now, at last, we know the answer - she is pregnant.

This is the assertion of Sherwin Nuland, professor of clinical anatomy at Yale University, and it has been enthusiastically adopted by Alan Yentob, High Panjandrum of Drama, Entertainment and Children's Television at the BBC, in his current celebration of the life and works of Leonardo. It is perhaps unkind to recall a remark made by Kenneth Clark, the Great Lord of Civilisation, who really knew a thing or two about Leonardo, that "the identity of the Mona Lisa ... will continue pleasantly to occupy the minds of those who have a taste for puzzles and acrostics."

Her pregnancy proves, Yentob believes, that she is Lisa del Giocondo, and her pregnancy is proved, Nuland believes, by fingers so swollen that she can no longer wear her rings and by the position of her hands, folded and resting on her upper abdomen, "the particular attitude of women far advanced in pregnancy."

I wonder if Nuland knows that his theory was first advanced by an EngIish professor, Kenneth Keale, in 1959, in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, Vol XIV No 2? I suppose, 44 years on, it is permissible for a scientist to claim discovery again? I wonder, too, if Nuland has ever seen the Mona Lisa, or whether his thesis is based on particularly sfumato reproductions printed a century ago?

In the flesh, so to speak, the left forearm rests along the arm of a chair and between the right forearm and the belly there is a deeply shadowed space suggesting a straight back and a flat belly. As for the fat fingers, on both hands these appear, even to the naked eye, to have been fudged by later repainting, having a pattern of cracking in the paint (craquelure) that is so different from that in the face that we must consider the possibility that their painter used a different medium.

There is thus the chance that they were painted later, even much later, than the face - and here we run into the problem of whether or not Leonardo completed the painting; if he did not, then it is possible that the hands as we see them are a later intervention, not by him, but by an assistant or imitator completing the picture - perhaps after Leonardo's death in 1519, to make it saleable to Francois I, King of France.

The fat fingers are not proof of pregnancy. Nuland's further argument, that any rich Florentine lady would have had hands laden with rings unless her fingers were swollen, is defeated by two points: they would have been the last details to be added to finished realisation of the hands, and in the only other portrait of a woman by Leonardo in which a hand appears, the Lady with an Ermine, rings are conspicuously absent from the fingers of one of the most beautiful hands in the history of western art.

If Nuland knew anything about Italian Renaissance portraiture he would not have made the assertion, for rings are absent as often as present, even from the hands of the most splendidly accoutred women. …

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