I recently re-watched the 1984-85 TV adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, starring Jeremy Brett as Holmes and David Burke as Watson. Perhaps the most faithful of all TV adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes stories, the series is notable for, among other things, its historical authenticity and accuracy: the Victorian era is brought to life through scrupulous attention to detail. The climax to the first series is ‘The Final Problem’ (which you can watch here), a superb adaptation of the classic story in which Holmes confronts his greatest nemesis, Professor James Moriarty (memorably portrayed by Eric Porter). The TV episode ends, as in the story, with what Watson imagines is Holmes and Moriarty plunging into the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. The TV screenplay by John Hawkesworth, though otherwise masterful, contains a sub-plot at the beginning of the episode which should perturb anyone informed about the canonisation of early modern artworks in the later modern era. Let us do some detective work in order to solve the problem with ‘The Final Problem’.
In the TV series, the viewer learns in the final episodes that Holmes has been meticulously unravelling the criminal web throughout Europe woven by Professor Moriarty, a mathematics professor who has become ‘the Napoleon of Crime’. At the beginning of the episode ‘The Final Problem’, Hawkesworth inserts a sub-plot not found in Conan Doyle’s original story, written in the 1890s: Moriarty’s gang has stolen Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris, and is now selling forgeries to the highest bidders (including a gullible American millionaire tellingly named ‘Mr. Morgan’). Naturally, the greatest criminal in Europe would be profiting off the most prized and most lauded painting in European art history. So why would this detail be likely to make art historians groan and Mona?
Students who’ve taken the EMSP course Leonardo da Vinci: Between Art and Science, taught by the wonderful and redoubtable Dr. Jannette Vusich, will know that the Mona Lisa was not always the icon of Renaissance culture it is today. Leonardo started painting this portrait of Lisa del Giocondo in 1503 and continued work on it until 1517. The painting has been lauded for the rendering of the subject’s enigmatic smile, her lively eyes, the imaginary landscape behind Mona Lisa, and the skillful use of sfumato: the technique of blurring tones and colours to produce a softer image. Nevertheless, it was not considered during Leonardo’s lifetime, nor long after, to be a central masterpiece in his oeuvre, much less of Renaissance art. Rather than being a main dish in the banquet of early modern art, it was more of an hors d’oeuvres.
What changed? The Mona Lisa was sold to the King of France in 1518 and moved to the Louvre after the French Revolution. Placed closely in-between two other paintings throughout the nineteenth century, it was hardly considered a central piece in the Louvre, apart from the admiration of some French critics starting in the 1860s. In 1911, however, it was stolen–and this theft would lead to its canonisation as a masterpiece of western painting. Three Italian handymen hiding overnight in a closet containing art supplies removed the canvas on the morning of Aug. 21, and whisked it off in a blanket onto a train leaving Paris. The perpetrators were patriots who believed that the painting should return to Italy, albeit lodged in an apartment. 28 hours later, an artist attempting to depict the Louvre’s interior noticed its absence. The museum announced its theft, which circulated in newspapers around the globe: suddenly the Mona Lisa was world-famous. The main thief tried to sell the painting to an art-dealer in Florence a year later, which attracted suspicion and led eventually to its return to the Louvre. It was only due to the theft that the painting suddenly attracted attention as a ‘masterpiece’. Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, so the painting acquired worldwide admiration when Mona Lisa was torn from her Louvre.
Thus, there would have been little reason for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to identify the Mona Lisa as the object of Professor Moriarty’s criminal avarice. The conceit of Moriarty’s stealing one of Europe’s ‘greatest paintings’ was devised by screenwriter John Hawkesworth, projecting the canonical (but not Conanical) status of the Mona Lisa in the 20th century into a story written in the 19th century. In addition, nearly all of the characters in the TV episode, including the curator of the Louvre, incorrectly call the artist ‘Da Vinci’. Only the evil professor rightly refers to him as ‘Leonardo’. Holmes’s archenemy at least has the virtue of being Mori-arty.
Till next time,
Director, Early Modern Reichen-Bacchic Studies Program