Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

Mona Lisa Leonardo Da Vinci
Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-6, oil on wood. Currently residing at The Louvre in Paris, France.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519): Renaissance master painter, sculptor, humanist, scientist, inventor, genius. A greatly admired figure in his own time and the proceeding 500 years, he is known for striving for perfection yet always falling short of his own high standards, leaving behind hundreds of unfinished paintings.

In 1503 he was commissioned by Francesco del Giocondo to paint a portrait of his wife, Lisa di Gherardini. He toiled at this painting of Madam Lisa for over three years, but remained unsatisfied; as a mere human he could not create perfection. Here began of what would later be known as the most famous painting in the world: the Mona Lisa.

But how did it get to that stage? Though unfinished, the work was immediately heralded as a masterpiece by Leonardo’s contemporaries. This was not strange in itself, as most of his works were called masterpieces -he was a talented guy! The painting was not given to its commissioner but taken to France with Da Vinci to King Francois I’s court, where it remained after his death. It was moved to the Louvre following the French Revolution of 1789, and developed a fan base of unrequited love, but even then was not overly famous. However, it wasn’t long before someone evolved from stalker to kidnapper, moving this painting from D-list to straight A-list superstar.

The Theft
In 1911 Mona Lisa was stolen. On a bleary Monday in August of that year, guards noticed that the painting was missing from its allocated space. They assumed it had been taken for cleaning. Hours later, it was finally realised that the painting had been taken, and the Louvre was shut down for 9 days. The police investigated the scene, and the French border was sealed.

The media was in a flurry. Tips poured in and theories circulated, from the painting having been stolen on order so a dealer could make millions selling copies as the real thing, to being in a private gallery in Switzerland, and even that up-and-comer Modernist artist Pablo Picasso had it. He was accused of stealing the painting after evidence surfaced regarding a previous theft of carved Iberian heads in 1907. While the charges against him regarding the carvings were actually true, he had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa’s theft, and maintained his innocence (both genuine and artificial), and the case was eventually dropped.

Finally, after two years of speculation and search, an arrest was made. The culprit was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman living in France. He had been hired by the Louvre to help construct glass cases to protect many famous works – including Mona Lisa. His heist was unbelievably simple: he hid in a closet overnight, took down the painting, concealed it under his shirt, and walked out. Peruggia claims he did it for national pride and glory: the return of Madam Lisa to her native Italy. After keeping the painting in his closet for two years, he tried to sell it to Italian dealer, certain that they would be honoured to claim it – but he was mistaken. The police were notified, and Peruggia was arrested and sentenced to seven months in prison.

Vincent Peruggia (1881-1925)
Vincent Peruggia (1881-1925)

The Mona Lisa did a reunion tour of Italy before being returned to the Louvre.

The Legacy
The theft thrust the Mona Lisa into the spotlight. Prior to this, it was just another Leonardo – a great painting for sure, but no better or worse than any others. In a classic case of ‘you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone’, the theft incensed the French public and was seen as an assault on their national identity. People flocked to the Louvre to see the empty case, and did not stop even once the painting was returned in 1913. Madam Lisa was now a celebrity, not due to Leornardo’s immense talent, but because a young Italian wanted to take her home. Art historian Noah Charney suggests that if Peruggio had picked another painting to steal, that one would be the most famous in the world. Marcel Duchamp would have painted a moustache on another portrait, and Andy Warhol would have appropriated a different masterpiece for his pop art. Instead, there are books devoted to her enigmatic smile, her lack of eyebrows, and her real life persona. Mona Lisa is the most recognisable painting in existence, and will probably remain so for a long time.

Mona Lisa, The Louvre
Mona Lisa contemporary display at the Louvre

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *