Mona Lisa was a Man [essay] by Monica Hileman

A rousing declaration of love was playing on WMBR’s vintage R&B program, a song called “Grits Ain’t Groceries.” No moon and June in these lyrics soulfully sung by Little Milton. He might have said: If you don’t believe I love you, then grass isn’t green or the sky isn’t blue, but instead he boldly called into question the gender of that woman whose face we all know. Mona Lisa a man? Of course not!

Da Vinci’s “La Gioconda” is an icon of femininity. For centuries people have speculated about her identity and what lay behind that intriguing smile. Widely believed to be the wife of a wealthy Florentine silk merchant; a dozen others say she is not. Once owned by Napoleon, taken into hiding during the wars, stolen off the wall of the Louvre by a museum employee (the 1911 crime that caught the world’s attention), only Che has a face as famous. Art historians have studied her hairstyle (denoting single or married?), her clothing (was she pregnant or had she just given birth?), her eyebrows (did she shave them or did they fade over time?). The human eye’s changing interpretation of what it sees, depending on the angle, might explain the enigma of her smile. Or there may be another reason for its mystery.

Other than a note mentioning da Vinci’s work on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (found scrawled in the margin of a book and dated to 1503) there is no definitive proof that she is who we think she is. From what we can tell, da Vinci worked on other paintings during the year or two before he got around to finishing the portrait. If it was commissioned by Mr. Giocondo, wouldn’t it have been finished in a more timely manner and delivered to him? For some reason, it never was and at the time of the painter’s death, “The Mona Lisa” was in the possession of Leonardo’s male assistant and purported lover, Salai.

Silvano Vinceti, chairman of the privately funded Comitato nazionale per la valorizzazione dei beni storici, culturali e ambientali (National Committee for the Promotion of Historic and Cultural Heritage), caused quite a stir in 2011 when he claimed that the person in the portrait is Salai. Salai is known to be the model for da Vinci’s John the Baptist. Have a look at the face in that painting and you might wonder if Vinceti isn’t on to something. The likeness between the two is striking.

Surrealists didn’t have to put a pipe in her mouth or add a moustache—the painting is messing with us from the start. Last I heard, Silvano Vincenti commissioned the exhumation of the grave believed to be that of La Gioconda hoping to prove one way or another that she is (or is not) the famous lady. But, as he says, speculation may continue. “The ‘Mona Lisa’ must be read at various levels, not just as a portrait.”

Getting back to that R&B classic, the songwriter Titus Turner is no longer with us, but if he were, he might want to change that line to something like “The Pope ain’t Catholic.” Or “The Queen of England ain’t British.” Something that we know for sure can’t be true.


Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This essay refers to Mark Elber’s poem “The Blue-Haired Boy Meets the Mona Lisa.”]

Image by Ryan Vaarsi

Monica Hileman grew up in the Midwest, lived in the Pacific Northwest and settled in New England. Two years in Greensboro, North Carolina, yielded an MFA from UNC-G. Her stories have appeared in journals such as Georgetown Review, The Baffler, and the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal. Two others are available online on The Austin Review Spotlight and Flyway: Journal of Writing & Environment (nominated by the editors for The Best of the Net).