She was standing in the National Gallery, obviously perturbed. She didn't even bother to take off her raincoat.
"These are just doodles," she said.
Evidently she had expected the horse drawings by Leonardo da Vinci to be "finished art," like "The Last Supper." Evidently she was not one of those who think that art is more than a product, that it is a kind of journey -- not just Mona's smile, but getting Mona to smile.
"These are just doodles," she sniffed again.
But a young man in a crew-neck sweater would not accept her dismissal. He pointed out rather loudly that she was looking at the drawings for the Sforza Monument, and Leonardo had never been able to finish it.
"What he tried to do was a real feat," he said, "like building a battleship today."
She did not seem impressed. But he kept chatting her up about the drawings anyway. Soon an impromptu seminar developed around him. It was so much easier for us to listen to him than to read the little plaques on the wall, and besides, he made it seem so topical -- all this business about national security, or was it national priorities? And didn't he say something about Leonardo's work-study grant?
Well, maybe he stretched things a little. But it was entertaining.
What happened is that Leonardo, thirtying and without much of a rep yet, wrote to the duke of Milan, asking for a job. The duke was head of the Sforza family -- real estate, banking -- and he was in the market for an equestrian statue to honor his late father. Knowing this, Leonardo sweetened his offer. He suggested that, along with his work as an architect and engineer, he would create a bronze horse "which shall endue with immortal glory to eternal honors the auspicious memory of the Prince your father and of the illustrious house of Sforza."
Talk about grantsmanship. Of course, it worked. Leonardo spent the next 10 years working on (among other things) the drawings for the statue: drawings of horses' hooves and horses' nostrils and horses' behinds. He even invented a method for measuring horses.
"He had trouble with the tensile strength of the bronze," the young man in the gallery recounted. "He really didn't have the technology." The original plan was to have the prince astride a horse that was rearing on its hind legs. The figure was to be colossal: 24 feet high. But because of that tensile-strength problem, Leonardo had to settle for something less dramatic.
Still, those who saw the clay model were all abuzz. The court poets -- the Sforzas were real big in the humanities -- were even calling it a masterpiece. Leonardo went about the finishing touches, collecting the bronze, setting a date for casting.
Enter here those "national priorities." Not far away sat the Duke of Ferrara, who had through the good offices of his daughter arranged an alliance with Sforza. The father-in-law sent word that he was under attack and needed help. Specifically, he needed cannon. And cannon are made of . . . bronze. You can guess which bronze he got.
"It figures," said a woman in a beige dress.
Leonardo is known to have survived this setback, continuing to pursue the project for several more years.
"But then the French invaded Milan," said the young man in the crew-neck sweater. "The soldiers used the model for target practice."
The woman turned the color of her dress. Shoot at a Leonardo? The horror of that rippled through the group.
Someone tried to defend the French soldiers, saying they had no way of knowing it was a "Leonardo," that to them it was just a big clay horse.
But someone else wondered how much art had gotten lost this way -- not by nature or time, but never finished at all because the priorities were all wrong or the politics skewed.
Which led to some speculation about the Leonardos of today. Would we know them? Surely, it was said, the market would bring genius to light. But someone else wondered who would nurture that genius. Could we just wait until we found it at Sotheby's?
The young man in the crew-neck sweater, winding down, pointed out that the Sforzas of our times are not the Mellons and the Gettys, as many would expect, but the feds. He wondered rather slyly if the federal government would be willing to subsidize 10 years of "doodling."
But by then the woman in the raincoat was long gone.