The mysterious Mona Lisa has been sitting on a secret (with a smile like hers it was obvious, wasn’t it?). But now, with the help of multispectral infrared reflectographic camera technology (whatever that means) researchers can see under her, and what they’ve discovered is that the famous lady actually began as a sketch—and here’s the thing—the original sketch was made somewhere else, because the lines were transferred to Lisa’s now priceless poplar panel by means of a technique known as spolvero.
It’s not surprising that Da Vinci would begin his masterpiece with a sketch. He is, after all, the most famous sketch artist of all time. But knowing this, and knowing that the sketch lines were transferred, does tell us something about his methods and his thinking—the master artist did not just paint his masterpiece freehand on the first go. He developed it over time, possibly using older sketches as a base for his work, or intending to keep the sketch ready for the development of future works. His great achievement was carefully planned and methodically executed, a reflection of the kind of man he must have been. The newly discovered details about the creation of the Mona Lisa may not tell us everything about Da Vinci’s workflow and thought processes, but they do give us an interesting glimpse into one of the greatest artistic minds the world has ever known.
There’s something about beautiful art that makes us want those glimpses. When we see a masterpiece, something in us wants to peer in behind the paint and understand it. Not just what it looks like; we want more than that. We want to feel the power of the personality and passion that inspired it. This is why the names of the artistic masters are known so widely—it’s not just their work we admire, it’s them. Their work points us to their genius, and more than that, to the meaning they communicated through their creations, because art is never just a medium, it’s a message.
And if this is true (which it is), then what about the art on the wings of a butterfly? Isn’t it beautiful? Can we really be satisfied with explanations about pigments and cell structure and such? That would be like looking at the Mona Lisa and being content to speak only about the kinds of paints that were used, never considering the artist who used them. Surely we must go further. I want to go further. I want to know more. I want to know the personality and passion that inspired those butterfly wings and thought of filling them with those colours. I want to know the same about the stripes on a zebra, or a rainbow, or a blue-tailed wrasse. I want to know the mind behind the billion works of art—large and small and detailed beyond belief—that surround me whenever I walk to the shop. I want to see more than just the things themselves; I want to see and know the genius behind them. The good news for me is that the genius behind them wants to be seen and known.