Meeting the Mona Lisa -The Latest in the Descendants Series

This is a story that starts some 5 years ago. While I was teaching at the excellent Maine Media Workshops. I gave a lecture at the wonderful Union Hall which was open to the public, as part of my lecture I showed my 'Descendants' project, where I recreate portraits of famous or notable historic figures with their direct Descendants.

I was enjoying a drink with some of the crew in Gilbert's bar in Portland.

A man walked up to me and said that they had recently discovered the identity and direct descendants of the Mona Lisa, and he knew them.

Perhaps it was the Makers Mark on the rocks or perhaps it just sounded a little too unlikely, but I rather unwisely forgot all about it.

Until some 5 months later, when I was staying with my good friend Jonathan Laurence.

I walked into the same bar and there was a small hint of a glimmer of a recollection that someone had told me the unlikely tale of the the descendants of the Mona Lisa.

Five months on and this nugget of a rumour now intrigued me.

A few clicks on google and I found it was all true.

The descendants of the Mona Lisa, the 15 times great granddaughters of the Mona Lisa to be precise, were in fact two Italian princesses, living in Tuscany.

Lisa and Irina Strozzi who run the world renowned Strozzi winery

Irina and Natalia Strozzi

The Strozzi winery

My Favourite Strozzi Wine the Vernaccia 1933 Cussona

I called them, visited them on a couple of occasions and they agreed in principle to take part.

All of this coincided with my move into video and I was convinced it would make a great documentary.

I touted this project around to just about anyone who would listen, but I had no takers.

I looked into the cost of doing it and I decided to leave it.

Then my sister died.

The influence on me was really quite profound, though we were not close, it made me realise that time is truly short and we have very limited time to create and live our dreams.

Inspired by this thought I self funded the project, something that for a long time looked like complete madness, and now perhaps just seems a little crazy.

I put together a team to make the project happen, Lucinda Marland, Lan and Vu Bui, Katherine Holley, Mark Moreve, Jarek 'Aurumlight', Dario Milano, Marie Absolom, Caroline Martini, Nicky Albrectsen and bafta award winning director Norman Stone and Fred Combaneyre great team of people, who would be involved in shooting and producing a documentary in countries all over Europe.

I will say right here right now that I had no idea what I was letting myself in for and the truth is the cost spiralled out of control.

More of that later.

First to create the look of 'that' painting it is a matter of building it piece by piece a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, the lighting was going to be key and who else to call on but my good friend David Hobby, David very kindly flew over to the UK and features in a segment of the documentary.

Working together with him and Jarek we unlocked some of the secrets of Leonardo.... well not exactly but we came up with a look that gets us close to the Mona Lisa Renaissance look.

David , Jarek having a lighting moment

As ever when playing with light it does not work out the way you think it is going to, I reckoned a large Elinchrom Octa bank was going to be the tool for the job but it was not the case at all.

Shooting an Elinchrom head in a small Chimera Softbox shooting through large California Sunbounce scrim gave the look which was closest, with a silky smooth fall off from a single light source that wraps round, similar to a renaissance painting.

The clothes, I worked with historical costumier Pauline Loven who created the costume from scratch, I reckon a few things came to light during this process that was not previously known about the Mona Lisa too.

When people look at the Mona Lisa few consider the chair and yet in terms of the photograph it is very important indeed, if you want to recreate the slightly unusual angle the Mona Lisa is seated you need recreate the chair as loosely as humanely possible.

We turned to craftsman Timothy Aze a craftsman from High Wycombe to recreate the Pozetto chair  (Pozetto means little well) using traditional methods, all from drawings by the remarkable Jarek 'Aurumlight'

Jarek's very fine drawings

Timothy Aze and I work out just how close we can get to the original

Then there is the matter of the painting itself, the colours of the painting are bound to have changed over the centuries of its chequered existence.

We turned to art expert Pascal Cotte of Lumiere technologies in Paris who scanned the painting in the louvre and digitally calculated the true colours that Leonardo used.

Pascal has just written an excellent book about another famous Leonardo painting 'The Lady with Ermine' If you are only halfway interested in art do check it out, it gives an unrivalled insight into the painting and shows that even Leonardo Da Vinci had to tolerate client interference with his work....

With these key elements in place we worked the shoot out.

This involved a road trip across Europe in two cars to shoot the different sequences of the documentary in the UK, France, Germany, and of course Italy.

The rest of the crew and artist Caroline DePeyrecave who would paint the backdrop to my recreation of the Mona Lisa flew out.

Caroline DePeyrecave

It was as you can imagine a great deal of fun.

The shoot day was probably more pressure than I have ever previously been under in my life, I had one day and one chance to get it right.

The added complication being that we had to chose a location in the princess's home that would look good in the documentary and work as a photographic location.

In the end we used one of the ancient cellars in the house, easy to control the light and so very atmospheric.

All that wine....and we turn it into a studio

What a place for a shoot

I shot the project on my Phase One DF with a P65+ digital back, shooting tethered to an iMac running Capture One, so I could judge every detail precisely.

Here is a BTS trailer showing a little of what on behind the scenes during the project.

Drew with the Phase one DF

The arrangement with the princesses was that both would take part in the project which made it challenging but did give me two bites at the shot.

Was I pleased with the result? Yes, but you can always do more, right?

I feel we got as close as we humanely could with different people some 15 generations and 500 years later, and that we were copying the most famous painting in the world.

What I found while shooting the descendants series is that one thing recreating a photograph but quite another recreating a painting.

Caroline makes up Irina

Irina Walks to the shoot

With a painting the artist can do whatever he or she likes to get the image they want, to chase this vision of the mind and soul can be extremely challenging to say the very least.

Irina Strozzi


Natalia Stozzi

When the shoot was over we drove to Paris taking the final result onto the streets to gauge people response which I am pleased was generally pretty favourable.

As we left the director Norman Stone said something along the lines of 'shooting it is the easy part'

Katherine Holley spent many a day coming up with a teaser/trailer which was compelling.

Music, is more important than you think.

As director David Lynch said 'Sound is fifty percent of a film, at least. In some scenes it’s almost a hundred percent'

I have seen many a project ruined by inappropriate or plain bad music.

So I turned to my long time collaborator Douglas Black-Heaton a quite brilliant composer who's music can be heard on many high profile TV programmes.

The long job of taking the rough cut round to TV companies began.

My friends, this is truly the hard part.

No matter how good something is, if it does not quite fit the criteria they are looking for at that time you will have a real struggle on your hands, which is precisely what I had.

I will be devoting an entire post to this minefield as I have learned quite a bit about this, the hard way, and I think others may find the information useful before embarking on making a self funded, self commissioned documentary.

It has all come good in the end though.

The documentary will screen on Sky Arte Italia this Autumn (I will let you know when I have a firm transmission date).

The Descendants were also on show as part of the Oxford Festival Photography which ran from 15th September to 5th October.

A multi page article ran in the Saturday Times magazine on the 20th September.

Sat Times Mag 1 times screenshots2

As the second century Roman playwright Terrence said 'Fortune favours the brave'

It feels like it took several centuries for the project to make it, but we got there in the end.