The Mindful Mona Lisa: a Bridge-Garment-Experience Hypothesis

By Max Herman


IN the summer of 2019 I made up my mind to understand the Mona Lisa.  I had visited Florence for the first time that year, and felt a debt of gratitude to the great artist-scientist. 

Eventually my thinking arrived at the "bridge-garment-experience hypothesis” (BGE), which states that the bridge by the sitter's left shoulder represents the historical progress, since primordial time to the present day, of human art, science, and engineering.  This bridge “flows” into the vortex-shape of the sitter’s shawl, “weaving” a garment of the accrued works and technologies of the present time (ours or Leonardo’s).  

But this garment, these robes so to speak, are the servants of the sitter, who embodies human experience.  She is the discoverer and creator, not vice versa; the garment is appreciated for its usefulness but not valued above the person within.  And by sharing powerful eye contact, with intersubjective mindfulness and proprioception aided by mirror neurons, viewers experience that we too each have this ability ourselves.

To substantiate this theory in a series of blogs, I will rely mainly on the painting itself, Leonardo's notebooks, and some basic facts from Leonardo’s biography.

Leonardo produced numerous designs for bridges, including one for the largest bridge in the world.  Mainstream scholarship of the Codex Leicester acknowledges that the vortex is one of the most important water-forms of all to Leonardo, eroding riverbanks like the Arno's, and the curling form of the sitter’s hair is often viewed as suggesting a vortex.  Leonardo designed clothing for the Medicis, and invented a machine for producing yarn around the time he painted the Mona Lisa.

Yet most convincingly, Leonardo himself wrote in his notebooks:  "I am fully aware that the fact of my not being a lettered man may cause certain arrogant persons to think that they may with reason censure me, alleging that I am a man without letters.  Foolish folk!  Do they not know that I may retort by saying, as did Marius to the Roman patricians: 'They who themselves go adorned in the labour of others will not permit me my own?' They will say that, because of my lack of book learning, I cannot properly express what I desire to expound upon. Do they know that my subjects are based on experience rather than the words of others? And experience has been the mistress of those who wrote well. And so, as mistress, I will acknowledge her and, in every case, I will give her as evidence." 

The Mona Lisa is this witness, in all cases and for all time.

I have spoken with many Leonardo experts who have confirmed that this is an original interpretation.  (The only comparable suggestion I have found is from Robert Zwijnenberg, who suggested in 2012 that the bridge is a “carbuncle on the painting” which connects the background to the sitter.)  If true, it could be relevant for many challenges facing the world today.

I dedicate this hypothesis to Leonardo, Firenze itself, my wife Emily, my parents and siblings, Hippocrates, Minneapolis, and Italo Calvino’s Six Memos for the Next Millennium.  Discuss!  😊