The Mona Lisa, Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, has long inspired fascination across the globe. Her subtle smile and complex backdrop have had generations pondering the meaning of this artwork. The legendary status of the artist only adds to the mystery of this seemingly simple artwork.
Thankfully, we now know quite a lot about this painting. So here are 19 of the most interesting facts about the Mona Lisa, a painting that has puzzled many for over 500 years.
The Mona Lisa has been described as “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world“. That is quite the legacy for one small painting.
In 1962, the painting was evaluated at US$100 million, which is equivalent to $870 million in 2021. It is, therefore, one of the most valuable paintings in the world. This insurance company is probably holding all their thumbs that it is never stolen!
The painting was apparently commissioned by a wealthy silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. The painting was of his wife, Lisa del Giocondo, also known as Lisa Gherardini – her family name.
The painting is presumed to have been commissioned as a celebration of the birth of the small family’s second son, Andrea. Whatever the purpose of the painting, we know that it has certainly been meaningful throughout its long life.
Mona Lisa is known for her mysterious, subtle smile. So it is fitting that La Gioconda, her Italian name, means ‘jocund’ (‘happy’ or ‘jovial’). This is a play on words with the feminine form of the subject’s surname ‘Giocondo’. The French title, La Joconde, means the same thing.
While the painting was long considered a masterpiece in the art world, it wasn’t until it was stolen that the rest of the world learned her name. It was stolen in 1911, and the fact was reported in newspapers across the world.
A number of important figures in the art world were under suspicion for the theft. Even Pablo Picasso was questioned.
Finally, a Florence art dealer reported to the authorities that a man had tried to sell him the painting. The man, Vincenzo Peruggia, had worked briefly at the Louvre, and he and two others had hidden in closets overnight and stole the painting away without suspicion.
Peruggia, an Italian immigrant, was a patriot who believed that the painting should be returned to Italy. After serving only six months in jail for his crime, he was hailed as a hero in Italy.
When the painting was returned to the Louvre two years after its disappearance, the whole world cheered. From then on, the Mona Lisa has been a household name.
Because of French Heritage laws, the painting is a part of the Louvre and cannot be bought or sold. Historically, it was part of the royal collection and adorned the walls of French palaces.
However, during the French Revolution in 1787-1799, insurgents claimed the royal collection as the property of the people. It, therefore, belongs to the public and will never again be a part of a private collection.
In 1963, the Mona Lisa traveled the United States, drawing huge crowds to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Apparently, crowds of 40,000 people came to get a look at Mona Lisa every day.
The painting has also traveled to Japan, as well as Russia. Perhaps more of the world will see her one day.
This iconic piece is so famous that people will actually travel large distances to visit the painting. Never mind Paris, the Eiffel Tower, or French food, people come here from all over the world just to see the Mona Lisa. Now that’s commitment.
Who would want to attack a painting, you ask? Quite a number of people, it would seem. The painting has suffered many assaults.
In 1956, a rock was thrown at the Mona Lisa with such force that it shattered the glass casing that surrounded the painting. The stone actually displaced a bit of pigment near her left elbow. In the same year, someone threw acid at the painting.
After these attacks, bullet-proof glass replaced the clearly insufficient casing. It was attacked again with spray paint in one instance and a teacup in another. However, no further damage was inflicted on the artwork, as the bullet-proof glass does its job well.
Interestingly, the people who attacked the painting did it in order to make a statement against their perceived mistreatment. The attack with spray paint occurred while the painting was in Tokyo, and a woman sprayed it with red paint in protest against the lack of disabled access at the Tokyo National Museum.
The teacup incident was committed by a Russian woman who was devastated that she had been denied French citizenship. So the Mona Lisa can be considered a symbol of France (much like the Eiffel Tower), with individuals taking out their frustrations against the country on the painting itself.
Since so many people come to see this work of art, there is a group queuing system in place to view the painting. Each group has only 30 seconds to view the painting before they move on. This helps the Louvre to avoid huge crowd build-up.
In addition to this, visitors don’t have to queue for hours on end in order to see the painting. So while it might be a little disappointing to have such a short chance to see her ‘in-the-flesh’, the short time slots help everything run smoothly.
Leonardo Da Vinci was what was called a ‘master painter’ in his time. This meant that he had students and assistants who would emulate his style and help with his larger pieces.
There are at least a dozen copies of the Mona Lisa, mostly painted by these students. There is one such painting in the Prado Museum. Scholars believe was painted alongside Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, over the many years it took him to complete it.
And then, of course, there are the more modern reproductions, of which there have been many. One of the most notable was the replication made by the irreverent Dadaist artist – Marcel Duchamp – in his 1919 work, named L.H.O.O.Q. He simply smacked a mustache and a goatee on her and called it a day.
After the French Revolution, when the painting was claimed as the people’s, it had a short stint in the bedroom of Napoleon Bonaparte during 1821. However, the Tuileries Palace was probably not what the people had in mind when they rescued her from the palaces of royalty.
Mona Lisa’s illustrious history of location also includes the palace of King Francois I, Fontainebleau, where it remained for over 100 years. It was then moved to the Grand Palace of Versailles, where Louis XIV held the painting.
Since the Mona Lisa was painted over 500 years ago, it is difficult to construct a complete picture of its creation. Scholars and art historians have been debating and researching its history for many years, and there is still no agreed-upon timeline.
The Louvre states that it was undoubtedly painted between 1503 and 1506. Other historians are convinced that the painting is reflective of his post-1513 style and that it must have been started after that date. Others believe that there are actually two paintings, one begun in 1503 and the other in 1513, with the latter being what we see today at the Louvre.
There is, therefore, plenty of controversy on when the Mona Lisa was painted. But most believe that the work was started in 1503, taken with Leonardo to France in 1516, and slowly added to over the 16 years before 1519.
For those who are perhaps not so familiar with art and the art world, the Mona Lisa can confound – why is it so famous and fascinating? The face is simple, and her expression is extremely subtle.
What makes it so special is the culmination of a number of particular attributes. The view in which the subject is turned mostly to the viewer broke away from the traditional profile pose that was popular in Italian art at the time. This change was taken up by the art world and became the convention. So this painting was a game-changer for portraits.
In addition to this, Leonardo was a master of sfumato, a style of fine shading that gives across the effect of softly blurred outlines and features. This piece also shows the artist’s understanding of facial musculature and the skull.
The curves of the subject’s hair and clothing are replicated in the shapes of the rivers and valleys beyond her. This all gives the painting a feeling of harmony and balance.
Leonardo Da Vinci was known as one of the masters of the Italian Renaissance period. It comes as no surprise then that one of his greatest pieces is considered representative of this period.
The Mona Lisa is painted on a poplar panel, not a canvas. Since the poplar panel is wood, it expands and contracts with the humidity and temperature in its surroundings. This has caused some warping in the picture, and a crack formed near the top of the frame, extending down to the figure’s hairline.
These days, the painting is kept in a strict temperature-controlled environment behind its bulletproof case. The humidity is kept between 50% ±10%, and the temperature is always between 64 and 70°F (18 – 21 °C).
Just in case this is not sufficient, the case has a bed of silica gel below the painting, which has been treated to provide 55% relative humidity. So there should be no further damage through the elements.
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Since this is a mid-sized painting, it might seem odd that she has a whole room of her own. However, the huge crowds that come to see her aren’t prepared to worry about looking at other paintings when they have their 30 seconds with her. So the room that houses the painting has no other artwork adorning the walls.
As we’ve seen, there are plenty of theories about this painting. One of the most interesting and most popular is that the painting is actually a feminine representation of Leonardo Da Vinci himself.
Some historians are taking the theory so far as to test it. The Italian National Committee for Cultural Heritage intends to launch an investigation, exhume his body, and reconstruct his face from his skull. While this might be taking it a bit far, it would allow historians to discover if Leonardo really did resemble his masterpiece.
While the painting is owned by France, hangs in Paris, and is a symbol of French pride, both the artist and the subject were Italian. The only reason that France was fortunate enough to become the custodians of this masterpiece is that the French King invited Leonardo Da Vinci to live and work in France.
Leonardo Da Vinci brought the painting along with him in order to finish it, as even after many years, it was still incomplete. King Francis I then acquired the painting after the artist’s death in 1519. It has been the property of French royalty and then France.