In her 500 years of existence, Mona Lisa has been around, and she has taken some knocks. Since 1516 when she traversed the Alps in a mule caravan with her creator as he travelled to France, she has been twice stolen and twice vandalized, and her enigmatic face has been endlessly exploited for comic, commercial or craven purposes.
Her latest move came on July 16 when the Louvre moved her out of the States Room in the Denon wing–which she has shared for decades with other masterpieces including “Marriage at Cana” by Paolo Veronese–to her own spot in the Medicis Gallery, only to be at the center of a new storm of controversy. Now visitors hellbent on seeing arguably the world’s most famous painting–as fully 80 percent of visitors to the Louvre are — must reach her through a special entrance and go up three flights of escalators. Once in her hallowed presence, they are moved along relentlessly, with barely enough time to stop for a selfie.
She has been moved to sit out the museum’s rolling renovation, the first since the early 2000s. The fragile masterpiece, which has been housed at the Louvre since 1804 will be returned to the States Room shortly before the Louvre stages a major exhibition of Leonardos in October.
Paradoxically, the Mona Lisa will not be part of the show opening October 24. The museum’s director, Jean-Luc Martinez, said that hanging it with the master painter’s other works would cause far too much crowding.
“We could not deprive 15,000 people a day from seeing the Mona Lisa,” Martinez told the French news agency AFP.
Possibly the most exciting thing that happened to the Mona Lisa–and a watershed for her fame–was being stolen from the Louvre in 1911. Her disappearance became a cause célèbre, with the writer Guillaume Apollinaire coming under suspicion. He in turn accused his supposed friend Pablo Picasso, who was hauled in for questioning. Finally the real thief was discovered: a carpenter who had helped to build the painting’s glass case, Vincenzo Peruggia. His plan was simple: enter during opening hours, hide in a broom closet, steal the work after hours, then walk out with it hidden under his coat. Remember, the painting is only 30 by 21 inches.
Peruggia was convinced that Napoleon had stolen the painting during one of his Italian campaigns and wanted to return it to its rightful home. (As we know, Leonardo himself brought the Mona Lisa to France.) But another apparent motivation was monetary. He thought he would wait through the scandal, which would certainly boost the value of the work, and then try to sell it. He waited two years, then was caught offering it to the Uffizi gallery in Florence. He paid for the crime by serving six months in prison, while in Italy he was lauded for his patriotism. So the spat that broke out earlier this year between France and Italy over claims to Leonardo’s works goes way back.
Good career move?
Meanwhile the scandal catapulted the Mona Lisa to celebrity, seeing her replace La Belle Ferronière in the Leonardo hit parade. Since becoming the world’s most famous face, Lisa has taken some hard knocks. In the 1950s, a man who claimed to be in love with it tried to steal it by cutting it out of its frame with a razor blade. This led the museum to add protective glass–which was shattered a few years later by a young Bolivian named Ugo Ungaza Villegas who threw a rock at the painting, chipping a speck of pigment by the left elbow which was later restored.
She would come under attack some 20 years later on a trip to Tokyo (as well as Moscow) when a woman sprayed red paint on the masterpiece–now protected by bulletproof glass–in anger over the museum’s failure to make it accessible to the disabled. Then in 2009 a Russian woman angry over being denied French citizenship hurled a ceramic mug at the work, which shattered without causing any damage to the target.
The Mona Lisa also traveled to the United States in 1963-64, with stops at the National Gallery in Washington and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ahead of this year’s quincentenary of his death, France’s culture minister made a push for her to go on a three-month road trip around France, but the Louvre nixed the idea. In addition to concerns about the 500-year-old painting’s fragility, the museum estimated that the trip would cost some 30 million euros, according to the Paris daily Le Parisien. The calculation took into account insurance for a work worth an estimated $830 million, packing and shipping costs in the millions, and a significant loss of revenue for the museum without its star attraction.
Oh, that smile!
One of the many artistic conventions that Leonardo upended was the portrayal of people smiling, with no smile more famous than the Mona Lisa’s.
Facial expressions were a source of deep fascination for Leonardo, who conducted meticulous anatomical studies to determine the nerves that trigger them.
Biographer Walter Isaacson writes that while by day Leonardo was painting Mona Lisa, by night he “was in the depths of the morgue… peeling the flesh off cadavers and exposing the muscles and nerves underneath.”
And how did he get the young wife of a Florentine silk merchant to smile through hour upon hour of sittings?
Contemporary biographer Giorgio Vasari wrote in the 1550 work “Lives of the Artists” that Leonardo saw the need to keep the lady entertained, and hired musicians and jesters for the purpose. An 1863 painting by Cesare Maccari shows such a studio scene, with Leonardo’s subject flanked by musicians. The work is housed at the Museo Cassioli Pittura in Siena, Italy.