Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Medical Malady or Mannerist Methodology?

You do have to wonder whether the Italian government puts them up to it, just to, you know, remind the world that Leonardo DaVinci's subject in Mona Lisa was Italian and not Parisian. Nearly every year it seems we see some new "finding" about the lady with the enigmatic smile. From the suggestion that she was smiling because she was pregnant to my personal favorite, the notion that her smile disappears if you look at it directly (kind of the opposite of how the eyes in a portrait seem to follow you around a room, I guess), there is no shortage of speculation on the "mysteries" of Mona Lisa.

And so it continues into the new decade it seems. Out of Rome comes a new "finding" that suggests the one with the smile that launched a thousand theories reveals signs of ill health:

The Mona Lisa may have an enigmatic smile. But she – or rather Leonardo's model – also had worryingly high levels of cholesterol. As for her triglycerides, well, they were simply off the dial.

The conclusions are those of an Italian academic who has been pioneering learning at the hitherto unsuspected point at which art history overlaps anatomical pathology. Studying Da Vinci's masterpiece with the eye of a medical scientist, Vito Franco of the University of Palermo noted a so-called xanthelasma – a subcutaneous accumulation of cholesterol – in the hollow of the Mona Lisa's left eye, and a tell-tale lipoma, a fatty tissue tumour, on one hand.

"The people depicted [in art] tell us about their vulnerable humanity, independently of the awareness of the artist", Franco told the Italian daily La Stampa.
Well...they might if painters were the visual equivalent of a stenographer and not, as we well know, working through a mind-numbing number of editing choices while putting paint on canvas. What if the "tell-tale lipoma" revealed nothing so much as a slip of the brush that Leonardo decided worked for him and left in? (click on the image at the top right and see if you can find what he's talking about. I couldn't see it.)

But Vito didn't stop there. He went on diagnosing what it was that ailed the characters who populate museum walls and managed to tie that into to the always-attention-grabbing "war on terror", no less:
Among his other findings are that two of the most iconic figures in Renaissance art had a rare condition that may also afflict Osama Bin Laden. One is the young man with a red cap and distinctly sardonic expression who is the subject of Botticelli's Portrait of a Youth, which hangs in the National Gallery of Art in Washington.

The other is the sinuous and sinewy lady who modelled for Parmigianino in the 1530s when he painted his Madonna with Long Neck. The unfinished work, on which Parmigianino laboured for six years, is now in the Uffizi in Florence.

The subjects of both paintings have unnaturally long fingers and slender hands. Franco believes they had a genetic disorder known as Marfan syndrome, named after the French paediatrician who first identified it in the 19th century. Al-Qaida's tall and bony founder is also suspected to suffer from Marfan syndrome, which affects the connective tissues.
OK, so here we are:

Sandro Botticelli
Portrait of a Youth, c. 1482/1485
Andrew W. Mellon Collection
National Gallery, Washington DC


Madonna and Child with Angels, known as the "Madonna with the Long Neck"
c. 1534/40
Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

To my eye the Botticelli is far too stylized to say for sure that he didn't exaggerate the features that Franco insists reveal Marfan syndrome. But as for the Parmigianino, if Marfan syndrome explains the the long neck of the Madonna, what explains the absolutely freakish height of the naked infant? Judging from this angle and the size of what we assume were not angel dwarfs, that child would have to be at least 5 or 6 years old and if so, well, then, we have much bigger concerns about this woman than what health ailments she might share with a 21st Century terrorist.

All of which suggests to me that Franco got it backwards: the people depicted [in art] tell us about the awareness and odd choices of the artist more so than anything particularly important about their "vulnerable humanity." That, however, isn't headline worthy, so...

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

This reminds me of the story about the Pollock painting which was supposed to have included his name painted into the drip configuration. I don't know what burden of proof these far flung theorists aspire to, but I'm glad that they aren't lawyers. It's as if they base all of their research on some absurd detail which they have some knowledge of at the exclusion of all other historical facts (not to mention all of the unknown factors).

If the glove doesn't fit you must acquit.

1/06/2010 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

You have hit upon a pet peeve of mine. Some of my best friends are art historians ;) , and it is, of course, exceedingly helpful to have someone do research to contextualize works of art that were done so long ago. What few art historians take into account is that artists (particularly those of times past) make so many decisions based on visual/formal qualities.

When Degas painted a nude in a bathtub, it is far more likely that he wanted to capture the light and/or color of the tub reflected on the model's skin than to signal to viewers that the woman was a prostitute (because only prostitutes bathed at that time).

I also wonder if some of these aberrations were simply a result of oversights by artists who were working to finish a commission on time (like trying to finish a piece for the art fair).

As you note, reality is sometimes far less noteworthy (or romantic).

1/06/2010 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

In the '90s a friend of mine died from mitral valve prolapse-related heart failure brought on by Marfan Syndrome. The disorder includes many symptoms besides unusual height and subsequent elongation of limbs - joint inflammation, scoliosis, eczema, astigmatism, and a couple dozen more afflictions that wouldn't look good in a painting, in addition to the one that killed my friend. As tall as she was (6'3"), she was not eleven heads high like the Parmigianino.

There is a tendency among people with no taste to try to "understand" art on explainable terms. This is also a disease, and Vito Franco has a lethal case of it.

1/06/2010 09:40:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

My God! What were Les Demoiselles d'Avignon suffering from?

1/06/2010 10:13:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


Any number of STDs would be my guess, but...

1/06/2010 10:19:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Plus birth defects, leprosy, fourth degree burns, elephantiasis ...

1/06/2010 10:27:00 AM  
Blogger Guy Denning said...

Someone should tell these experts that the more you explain magic the less magical it becomes. Bloody scientists!

1/06/2010 02:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm with you, Franklin. I had a neighbor who died of Marfan a few years ago. She was exceedingly tall, hunched over, and had an unusually square forehead-not exactly aesthetically pleasing.

1/06/2010 06:19:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't you think this guy is someone who just wanted some attention? Proclaiming various maladies in portraits is far better than starting wars.

I'll never forget a lecture where te prof went on and on about how revolutionary the Impressionists were because they gravitated to such bright colors. Coal tar paints were new at the time and he couldn't wrap his head around the fact that artists love to play with new things.

1/07/2010 05:59:00 PM  
Blogger viridiflavus said...

I am a 6 11 marfan patient myself and I can recognize the hands of the boy definitely and also the face, although less clear. The enormous baby might have been afflicted also, I think I was a head larger than the other children at kindergarten already. Also Marfan has a high incidence and patients must have attracted the artists because of their particular features, so it will be obvious some marfan afflicted people have inspired and influenced artists and maybe were the inspiration for mannerism also.

2/13/2011 04:27:00 PM  

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