One of the most remarkable things to come to light in recent years was that there were two Mona Lisas, not one, and both were painted in Leonardo’s studio. The one we know best, in the Louvre, was of course by Leonardo; and the other, in the Prado Museum in Spain, according to the name written all over it, was painted by his apprentice Salai. But far more remarkable than this is what lies behind her smile.
It is often said that the lady depicted was the wife of a merchant. A bit of a disappointment, really. As it happens, though, it would be hard to imagine anything further from the truth. But that is by the by: her identity is not of interest to us right now. This story is not about the lady herself: it is about part of the picture that although of vastly greater importance than her, is the part that almost everyone ignores. It is about the landscape behind her.
The towering, craggy cliffs are typical of Leonardo’s work. Many have suspected that they were inspired by the Italian Dolomites, and this is correct. Leonardo had an important but little known side… he owned ancestral sawmills there. Indeed the Marmarole group of peaks in the Dolmites formed the backdrop to the family home in Cadore, where he, using the alias ‘Count Vecellio’, and his son and grandson spent more than a few years.
But these soaring summits in the backdrops of the two Mona Lisas are not simple copies of reality. The peaks are bent and twisted, broken and joined in a very special way: they were designed, meticulously, to resemble letters of the alphabet. And this is where the story begins.
In Leonardo’s version, the cliffs to the left spell out a name, and it is not ‘Marmarole’, or ‘Cadore’, or even ‘Italia’. They spell ‘Portogallo’ – Italian for ‘Portugal’. And those on the right are equally infused with the name ‘Espagna’ – ‘Spain’.
To understand why, we need to briefly step back sixty years. A catastrophe had befallen Leonardo’s family back in 1453. Their main trade route to the East, through which they imported spices, silks and slaves into Europe, was closed by the fall of Constantinople. The Ottoman Turks seized the entrance to the Black Sea and the Silk Road to China and the Indies was severed.
The family was desperate. They had to find another route to their suppliers and customers in the East. Many left their Genoese colonies on the Black Sea, and moved to Portugal from where the most adventurous struggled down the coast of Africa, hoping to make it around the Cape of Good Hope, and then across the Indian Ocean.
The Portuguese King liked this idea, funded it, and the African coast was soon being exploited for slavery, gold and spices. And each year the explorers headed further south, until in 1488, one ‘Bartolomeo Dias’ became the first European to round the Cape. The difficult part was done.
Columbus, though, wanted to try what he thought would be a shorter route: by heading West, rather than East, and off he went to the King of Portugal for support. Encouraged by the rounding of the Cape, though, his royal highness turned it down, and irritated, Columbus took the plan to the Spanish instead. But they prevaricated for many years, until 1492, when the last of the Moors were driven from Spain, and only then, afraid he would take the plan to the French, did they approve his Westerly adventure.
The route West, though, hit a snag: the Americas were in the way, and on this new continent there was no silk, and there were no spices. But there was gold, and there was rich soil waiting to be planted. And so, by enslaving the local American Indians, the Spanish, under the leadership of Cristoforo and Bartolomeo Colombo, exploited both.
In the meantime the Portuguese had not been idle. Leonardo’s second son, Edoardo, who we know better as Vasco da Gama, set out for the East, and in 1498 became the first European not only to round the Cape, butat last to reach India and the Spice Islands. Profits from the Eastern route began pouring in to Portugal, and riches from the Western route began flooding into Spain.
And this is why, if we look a little lower in the backdrop to Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, we see in the dry and arid expanse beneath ‘Portogallo’ the name of the part of the world Portugal was most interested in… ‘Africa’. And why below ‘Espagna’ we find the name of the island in the Caribbean from which Spain ruled the Americas: ‘Hispaniola’.
By 1512, though, a huge problem had arisen. The Spanish had killed almost all the Indians. The 500,000 they found on arrival had been reduced by some of the most monstrous brutality in history to a bare 30,000. And so it was that the two genocidal rivals, Portugal and Spain, came to need each other. To maintain the plantations and mines in the Caribbean, the Spanish needed the Portuguese to bring slaves from Africa.
And this is why, if we cut the Mona Lisa down the middle, and join the far left edge where we find Portugal and Africa, to the far right edge, where we find Spain and Hispaniola, we find that the landscapes flow effortlessly into one another, and the two small dark semicircles either side of the picture with previously no imaginable reason for being, now join to make one ellipse… Amazingly, the picture was first painted as if it had been originally so bizarrely joined. It wasn’t of course, since it was painted on a wooden panel, but the stencil used was originally one, its left half used for the far right of the painting, and the right half for the far left.
But why? Well, the dark ellipse is labelled both ‘schiavi’ (Italian for ‘slaves’), and ‘Colombo’, the family that ensured they were to be sent from Africa to America. There was Arturo Colombo, who changed his name to Cristoforo, and who stole the Americas from its native people. Then there was his brother Bartolomeo, who under the name of ‘Luca’ worked with Leonardo’s brother-in-law, the slave trader Marchionni, organising workshops where African slaves carved African ivory for European aristocrats. We know him also as the ‘Portuguese’ Bartolomeo Dias, the first to round the Cape, and who in 1500 pretended to die in a storm but who actually stole the ship and sailed it to Hispaniola, where he was by now the Governor.
So it was that the two far edges were painted as one, joining the slaves of Africa with the Colombos of the Caribbean… and then one of the walnut panels backing the work was removed, and Africa was moved to the far left. Plastering over the join, the Lady Lisa could only then be captured in all her mysterious amusement.
Salai’s version on the other hand, is more preoccupied with the abuse he was suffering at the hands of Luca… and with the abuse slaves were suffering, too. He draws a Wheel of Fortune, with his big brother’s name at the centre, and those his family had enslaved rising again to freedom and dignity.
Either way, the landscapes behind these most famous of smiles were not just of pleasant memories from Leonardo’s youth. They refer to the birth of the greatest crime in the history of mankind: the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
But there was a third Colombo brother we should not forget: Giacomo Colombo, who went on Columbus’ second voyage, returned again to the Caribbean several years later, and acted as Governor in the absence of his brothers. In 1509, he settled in Hispaniola, and stayed for four years. Do we know who he really was? We do indeed. Leonardo tells us in a caricature of his family. He reveals not only who Arturo and Bartolomeo were, he tells us also the true identity of Giacomo. Giacomo was Leonardo himself. It was the alias he used in the Caribbean.
So not surprisingly, da Vinci vanishes from the history books between 1509 and 1513. No one knew where he was. There were lots of guesses, but not one shred of evidence. Most thought he was in Milan, some said in Padua, but they were all wrong. Faintly but surely, he himself tells us exactly where he was, on every drawing and painting he did during that period. He was in Nueva Isabella, Hispaniola, known to us now as Santo Domingo.
And that means, since the Mona Lisa was painted in 1512… and although it was by a European, and although it depicted the most horrific of European lusts, it was not a European painting. It was painted in the Caribbean. The Mona Lisa, and its rival in the Prado, are both, remarkably, American.