For Valentine’s Day (tomorrow), here is a heart-breaking story of unrequited love that also breaks the real Da Vinci Code.
Let’s begin this way: A new digital art show opening at The Louvre in Paris this spring is set to bring the “Mona Lisa” alive in an immersive exhibition — that trendy new hi-tech art form erupting in museums everywhere that reanimates the subjects of famous old paintings and their creators into interactive experiences between them and museum-goers.
The world’s most famous painting, by Leonardo da Vinci, has for centuries beguiled those who gaze upon it, upon Mona, her mischievous smile — and whose true identity has never been known.
And now “La Joconde,” as this iconic portrait is known in France, will be the star of its own extravaganza.
But before we get carried away with what this spring has in store, let us reverse into the past.
We’re going back to five centuries ago and Niccolo Machiavelli, famously renowned as the father of political science.
When he was 25 in 1494, two years after Christopher Columbus arrived in America, Machiavelli — or “Machia,” as he was known to his friends — entered government service as a clerk in Florence, which was then a well fortified and bustling city-state whose autocratic Medici rulers had just been overthrown and expelled, allowing Florence to transform into a republic.
This suited Machia just fine since, at heart, he was a republican — and a non-religious humanist in conscience. But Niccolo came to believe, as he grew into his work, that only an autocratic royal ruler — a prince — could defend a city-state from hostile foreign powers, and, as we know, he later wrote about it in his classic work.
One such hostile foreign power was the Pope and his papal army, along with neighboring city-states, such as Pisa.
But Machia kept his republican thoughts to himself as he rose to the position of second chancellor, undertaking diplomatic missions to other city-states. In addition, for three years he took charge of the Florentine militia, whose job it was to defend the city from its enemies.
But it all turned sour for Machia in August 1512 when the republic was scrapped and a new Pope helped the autocratic Medici family — specifically, Cardinal Giovanni Medici — restore their rule.
The Medicis returned with a vengeance — and with vengeance in mind.
On Nov. 7 of that year, Machia was fired from his job. And a couple months after that, he was arrested and accused of conspiring to overthrow the new Medici regime.
Machiavelli was thrown into the clink, where his interrogators tortured him with the strappado.
What, you may ask, is a strappado?
This is when a prisoner under interrogation is hoisted by his hands (tied behind his back) to the ceiling — then dropped, stopping just short of hitting the floor.
They did this to Machia. Six times. (He admitted nothing, denied everything, maybe grew an inch or two …)
The Medici crowd eventually released him, but booted his butt back to the Machiavelli family estate in San Casciano, about 25 miles from Florence (now known for its chianti grape) and told him to never, ever return under any circumstances.
Politics was all that Machia truly cared about. Thus, he tried to talk his way back into Florence, pledging support for the Medici rule, anything that would keep him engaged in the game of statecraft he so loved.
To no avail.
For a political junkie like Machia, exile was almost as bad as the strappado.
To take his mind off the political intrigue he was missing in Florence, Machia toiled by day in the fields of his family estate, supervising the cutting of trees to be sold as firewood. Back then, firewood was everyone’s prime energy source. Kind of like oil is today.
After work, Machia played backgammon in the local tavern.
But evenings he reserved for solitude.
For this is what Machia wrote to his friend Francesco Vettori on Dec, 10, 1513:
“When evening comes, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I strip naked, taking off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on the regal robes of court and palace; and re-clothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which is only mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them and I pass indeed into their world.”
That’s right, Machiavelli believed he was interacting directly with Dante, the 13th-century Roman poet. And also with ancient Greek philosophers Plutarch and Plato.
This was Machia’s art, upon which he became totally focused and provided him therapeutic escape from his fears and depression and led, ultimately, to Machia penning “The Prince” –-a work produced by what today’s New Agers would call trance-channel, since he believed it was told to him by Dante, Plutarch and Plato.
The Medici family and their interrogators had driven poor Machia to depression and madness, first with the strappado, then by depriving him of statecraft.
Machia’s dialog with the great thinkers, which morphed into “The Prince,” was published posthumously 30 years after he wrote it.
No doubt Machia suffered depression from his banishment. But did torture push him over the edge of sanity, into the realm of hallucination?
Talking to the dead qualifies as an idea of reference.
Hallucination is a criterion for schizophrenic disorder.
Machia’s words also imply fears of poverty and death-delusions, which are symptoms of psychosis.
Machia tried to use his unpublished manuscript, “The Prince,” to tease the Medici family into bringing him back to Florence, where he would help them govern their city-state. His manuscript was hand-delivered to Giovanni de Medici. But the cardinal did not even bother to read it.
Truth was, the Medici family had Machiavelli pegged: He was a mediocre statesman who took no risks for fear of compromising himself.
Machia was good at two things: One, playing all sides. Two, writing treatises, for which his name endures.
When the Medicis crashed and burned in 1527, giving way to a new republican government, Machia rushed to Florence to lobby for a high position. But he got sick along the way. Not unlike Vincent van Gogh, three centuries later, Machia died believing himself a failure.
A few centuries later, Merriam-Webster would define “Machiavellian” as “cunning” or “devious.”
This would have surprised Machia. It would also have surprised him that his well-known smirk would captivate the world’s attention for centuries to come.
This is where we circle back to Leonardo and crack the real Da Vinci code.
Forget Dan Brown and his novel of that name. The real story is that Machia and Leonardo da Vinci knew one another in Florence during the first decade of the 1500s.
Machia and Leonardo even worked together, from 1503 until 1506, on a bold and very secret engineering project to re-route the River Arno away from the city-state of Pisa.
Why did those charged with the defense of Florence want to re-route the River Arno away from Pisa?
Because Florence and Pisa were constantly at war — and Florence desired, as a military tactic, to deprive the Pisans of a fresh water supply.
This bold engineering project failed.
In those days, if a project failed, those who committed the failure were usually rounded up and executed. Thus, fearing that arrest and execution might be imminent, Leonardo fled Florence and exiled himself to Milan.
Leonardo pulled an exit-stage-right not just because he feared reprisal, but also because of a broken heart.
Why did Leonardo have a broken heart?
Not from a failed engineering project, but from unrequited love.
Leonardo was gay. And Leonardo was in love with Machiavelli, who was not.
So Leonardo demonstrated his love by painting Machia as a woman.
The “Mona Lisa.”
HERE ARE THE FACTS
— The “Mona Lisa” was painted between 1503 and 1506, the same years Machia and Leonardo worked together on their bold engineering project.
— Mona’s “mysterious smile” is Machia’s enigmatic smirk. (Machia’s biographer described Machia’s enigmatic smirk as “neither a grin nor a sneer; a shield to protect against prying eyes.”)
— Mona’s lash-less, almond-shaped eyes and manly hands also match Machia’s almond-shaped eyes and manly hands.
But there is more.
The valley behind Mona Lisa is where the Arno River diversion was projected to take place.
Leonardo first sketched this valley as part of his engineering project with Machia — and he used those sketches as the background when he painted the “Mona Lisa.”
Leonardo refused to sell the “Mona Lisa.”
Instead, he always kept “Mona” near him as a remembrance of Machia, the man who broke his heart.
But don’t take our word for it. Compare the “Mona Lisa” with a portrait of Machiavelli, both of which accompany this column — and decide for yourself.
And if we’re wrong?
Well, at least you learned a little history.
Robert Eringer is a longtime Montecito author with vast experience in investigative journalism. He welcomes questions or comments at email@example.com.