Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has inspired a wave of popular culture references and art historical speculation, but who was the true inspiration behind that smile, and could da Vinci’s famous painting be the trans icon we never knew we needed?
Mona Lisa probably has the most famous smile in the world. It’s elusive, that smile, maybe even hypnotic. It draws record-breaking numbers of museum visitors, and has even been given its own room in the Louvre, temple of western art. The Mona Lisa is the icon of the Paris artworld. It’s her face you’ll find on calendars, t-shirts; her face that’s imprinted like Marilyn Monroe’s on Andy Warhol’s silk screens. Even today she is saturated, everywhere. Beyoncé and Jay Z stand hand-in-hand before the painting in the music video for Apeshit. Lady Gaga talks of a ‘pretty 16th-century smile’ in Babylon. She is the subject of will.i.am’s Mona Lisa Smile, in which animated portraits lean forward to ‘tell you about my girlfriend – my girlfriend Mona Lisa’. She is, he explains, a ‘fashionista’.
Mona Lisa has been subject to intense speculation since the nineteenth century. Around the middle of the century, writers started to see something sinister and unsettling in the gaze of the portrait. Whilst Leonardo da Vinci, the artist behind the work, had previously been celebrated for his scientific accomplishment and technical achievements, he suddenly came under suspicion for being a chimerical queer kid. Walter Pater, a gay aesthete based in Oxford, described the Mona Lisa’s ‘unfathomable smile, always with a touch of something sinister in it’. Soon, this sinister charm was all anyone could see in the artist’s work.
Even more, Pater suggested that there was a deliberate gender ambiguity in Leonardo’s work. He pointed to the ‘delicate brown flesh and woman’s hair’ of his Saint John the Baptist (c.1513-16). Others also picked up on this. Alphonse de Calonne, writing in 1895, said that the figure is ‘[n]either male [n]or female’. These writers saw something feminine in the depiction of the youthful saint, that questioned virtues of masculinity and seemed to celebrate an androgyne ideal. By the time that Freud psychoanalysed Leonardo’s paintings in 1910, supposedly proving the painter’s homosexuality, it was well established that there was something distinctly queer about the artist’s work.
In 1928, the art critic and journalist C. J. Bulliett published Venus Castina: Famous Female Impersonators: Celestial and Human, dedicated to anyone who had ever laughed at or scorned ‘female impersonators’. The book drew its name from Venus Castina, a variant of the goddess Venus, associated, Bulliett claims, with ‘the yearnings of feminine souls locked up in male bodies’. The idea of the soul of one gender being trapped in another sex’s body had long been used to argue the case for homosexuality. With no ready language to describe homosexuality in the nineteenth century, the activist and gay right’s campaigner Karl Heinrich Ulrichs coined the term ‘Urning’ to describe gay men, who Ulrichs saw as being internally feminine. Ulrichs campaigned for the legal rights of queer men and women, and his writing and work remains incredibly important for queer history in the west, even if today we might dispute his evaluation of the constitution of an ‘Urning’.
Bulliett, however, used the example of Venus Castina to write a twisting tale of androgyny, effeminacy and hermaphroditism. A chapter entitled ‘the boy with the mona lisa smile’ charts the uncanny persistence of this smile across a number of other contemporary works of art depicting male figures, like Verrocchio’s David (c.1473-5), or Leonardo’s own John the Baptist and Bacchus (c.1510-15). Bulliett wonders whether ‘it is no woman’s smile at all, but a boy’s’.
The details are a little askew. Bulliett proposes a Narcissian thesis: that Leonardo was so attracted to this third wife of a patron because she ‘resembled him – because she possessed the smile that had fascinated him when Verrocchio spread it about the lips of David – not impossible, nor improbable in view of the self-worship these men verging on the feminine exhibit’. The femmephobia is unabashed, a glimpse into the forms of transmisogyny that the century would go on to nurture.
But reading against the grain a little, Bulliett has drawn out the heart of the western canon and transed it with impeccable ease. Just maybe, the Mona Lisa is the trans icon we never knew we needed.
About Frankie Dytor
Frankie is a writer and researcher based at the University of Cambridge, where they are completing a PhD on renaissance afterlives in criticism, fiction and performance, c. 1855-1914. They have been a reviewer for Lucy Writers for several years and are currently involved in a number of projects that aim to queer the archive, such as ‘Queering the Museum’ for the Royal Albert Memorial Collections. Click on the links to follow Frankie on Twitter and Instagram.
This piece was commissioned for our latest guest editorial, BAROQUE
The ‘baroque’ is an intemperate aesthetic. Once a period term to describe the visual arts produced in the seventeenth century, its use and significance has exploded over the last fifty years. No longer restricted to the fine arts, the baroque has fallen into pop culture and become an icon.
Inspired by the work of Shola von Reinhold, this series takes ephemera and excess as its starting point for a new exploration of the b a r o q u e. It wants to look back at the past and queerly experiment with it, to rip it up and reclaim a new space for the future – or, in von Reinhold’s words, ‘to crave a paradise knit out of visions of the past’. The b a r o q u e is present in moments of sheer maximalism, in ornament, frill and artifice. It celebrates the seemingly bizarre and the unintelligible, the redundant and fantastical. Disorienting and overwhelming, it offers a decadent way of experiencing present and past worlds.
Click here to see the full Call Out and submit to b a r o q u e, Guest Edited by Frankie Dytor.