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Mona Lisa - The Story Behind The Fame

Art Journey Stories - 27 April 2021

Millions come from afar hoping to glimpse at Mona Lisa. Yet of five Leonardo da Vinci paintings in the Louvre, only one has admirers lining up. Why?

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, the story behind the fame

Is it her smile? Why is the Mona Lisa famous? Photo © Musée du Louvre / Michel Urtado.

There are two sides to Mona Lisa's story. First, that it's the most famous artwork in the world. Second, hidden behind the fame, lays a rare masterpiece by one of history's most influential artists, Leonardo da Vinci. To understand Mona Lisa, one must first discover the accident of fate that made her a global icon. Only then can we marvel at the painting underneath.

A Thief Alone In The Louvre Museum

Theft of Mona Lisa by Vincenzo Peruggia in the Louvre museum August 1911

Reconstitution of the theft of Mona Lisa.

It was a quiet morning in August 1911. The Louvre was nearly empty, as it was the weekly closure day during the summer holidays. A man succeeded in entering the museum and navigate its corridors without being noticed. There was an embarrassment of riches to tempt him, starting with a 140-carat diamond. Or he could have taken gold objects to melt them and would have never been caught.

Yet the man walked past immense gilded frames, seeking a painting that would fit under his coat. Vincenzo Peruggia had previously worked in the Louvre, fixing glass into frames to protect pictures, how he knew his way around.

Peruggia was after an Italian masterpiece; the problem was they were way too big. Except one, Mona Lisa, the right size for his jacket. He seized it, quickly opening the frame he had helped to make. Then hid the painting under his white worker smock.

He still had to get out, and the first hurdle was a locked service door. Taking apart the doorknob was useless; he was stuck. A plumber, thinking he was an employee, kindly unlocked the door for him. The last obstacle was a heavy door leading to the street. It was open.

The following day, a painter was about to do a copy of la Joconde, as she is known in France. Where was she? Who's in charge? The director, on holiday, had boasted "steal the Mona Lisa? That would be like thinking that someone could steal the towers of Notre Dame cathedral."

And the Arts Minister was away, having ordered, "don't call me unless the Louvre burns down or the Joconde is stolen."

Mona Lisa was gone.

Keystone Cops Seek The Mona Lisa

Aftermath of theft of Mona Lisa by Vincenzo Peruggia, empty space in the Louvre, 1911

A crowd looking at the four nails that held Mona Lisa, or leaving roses. The police guarding the entrance of the Louvre.

No less than 60 policemen scoured the Louvre in search of clues. The top officer in charge sounded confident. "The theft took place on closing day, we know who came in and out, this investigation will only take two to three days."

Two Germans, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were arrested. All passengers of an ocean liner about to set sail were searched. In New York, police searched another ship for the painting.

Yet Peruggia had left a thumbprint on the glass securing the painting. His fingerprints and photo were already in police files, as he had been arrested before. The police knew he had helped make the protective glass and that he wasn't at work at the time of the robbery.

Twice, Peruggia was asked to come to the police station and never came. The police turned up at his flat and believed his explanations. A detective searched the small room, failing to see the painting. While all the museum employees had their fingerprints taken, the police didn't ask Peruggia for his. They also forgot to add his name to the list of fingerprints to check against police records.

Several Louvre curators pointed towards glaziers as prime suspects. They argued that someone involved in Mona Lisa's box frame construction would have known how to open it in minutes. A curator investigated, listing all the names involved, including Peruggia's.

The examining judge ordered the police to look into this. The police, treating curators with contempt, chose to ignore the correct lead. Mona Lisa was only two miles from the Louvre, in Peruggia's cupboard.

Competition For Mona Lisa Crackpot Theories

Press caricatures of the theft of Mona Lisa

A caricature of the public admiring the nail used to hold Mona Lisa. Actor Raimu as la Joconde, for his successful play 'she's got the smile', only one month after the theft. The American press joining in the fun.

Days after the theft, a contest for excentric stories started. A newspaper interviewed Mona Lisa; others speculated that it must be a 'crime of passion.' Or that Arsène Lupin was involved. Movies and popular songs poked fun at the whole thing.

Newspapers offered financial rewards for information. For over two years, hundreds of false leads were sent to the police and the press. Any story about the painting would help sell millions of copies.

The hunger for headlines about Mona Lisa keeps on to this day. It went as far as opening tombs, trying to find Mona Lisa's skeleton. Then hope to do a facial reconstruction and reveal if she is or not the woman painted by Leonardo.

While it might look like harmless fun, this ever-growing need for outlandish revelations directly endangers the Mona Lisa. In 1956, it started with an acid attack, then a man casting a rock at it. In 1974 it was red paint. And in 2009, a coffee cup.

Mona Lisa after being damaged in 1956

Mona Lisa after having been attacked with a rock in 1956. Glass shards did damage the painting. Photo archives de la DMF / Musée du Louvre.

Theft Made Mona Lisa Famous For Being Famous

Return of Mona Lisa in 1913 famous for being famous

As soon as Mona Lisa returned to the Louvre, a fence kept the public at bay, and a policeman kept watch. Before the theft, there was no line in front of Mona Lisa.

Being stolen turned a painting into an overnight sensation. A witness described being "in the company of numerous other curious visitors, to stare at the empty space on the wall of the Louvre where the famous lady had hung."

Had Peruggia stolen any other artwork -provided it could fit under his coat-, it would be the subject of books and movies. The same painting that no one looks at today would be mobbed. Before the theft, Mona Lisa did get attention from art lovers and artists who wanted to learn from masters. Exactly like for the Venus de Milo, they praised it as an artistic wonder.

And it's not like admiring the painting was a pleasure restricted to an elite. An 1867 guidebook explained the Mona Lisa to the non-specialist public.

"One of the Louvre's most precious jewels.

The very famous portrait of Monna Lisa, also known as la Joconde.
Few masterpieces inspire such enthusiastic admiration as this painting.
Not everyone will understand its merit at first glance,
but after a few moments of attention,
the beauty of this work will shine through."

Entry to the Louvre was free, so the only requirement to appreciate the Mona Lisa was "a few moments of attention." The robbery gave Mona Lisa two identities. The old one was a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. The new, overbearing one, the myth. Why bulletproof glass is needed to protect Mona Lisa.

Stole Mona Lisa, All He Got Was A Lousy Jail Term

Room of Vincenzo Peruggia thief Mona Lisa searched by Police

Peruggia's modest Parisian room.

After having kept Mona Lisa for two years, Peruggia saw in Italian newspaper adverts by antique dealers offering good prices. With the Mona Lisa hidden in the bottom of a trunk, he took the train to Florence.

There, the merchant he negotiated with contacted the Italian authorities. The painting was under his bed, and Peruggia was arrested. He claimed he only was trying to return it to Italy, believing Napoléon stole it.

But money was in his mind. Before the theft, his notebook contained names like Rockefeller and Carnegie, the billionaires of the time. He traveled to London to try to sell Mona Lisa. Peruggia wrote to his family that "this fortune that I've been seeking and dreaming about for a long time is about to become reality."

Peruggia's claims of patriotic duty got him a lenient sentence, seven months in prison. During the trial, the expert psychiatrist described him as simple-minded. He called himself a "poor devil." Yet a man who stole the Mona Lisa without being noticed and escaped the French police. Who crossed the Italian border without being caught.

On the other hand, what profit did he make? Peruggia couldn't even pay his hotel bill. The man who had committed the most notorious art theft in history didn't make any money from it.

While the thief earned short-lasting fame, the Mona Lisa became world-famous. Everywhere she went, Florence, Rome, and Milan, crowds gathered. A newspaper described "Florentines in riot over 'Mona Lisa'. Crowd of 30,000 sweeps police aside in mad rush to see stolen painting."

A Superstar Travels To America, Japan And Russia

Mona Lisa exhibition in Washington 1963 JFK Metropolitan Museum and Moscow 1974

Presidential welcome, Washington, 1963. In the Met, with up to 63,675 visitors per day, a few seconds per person. Mona Lisa in Moscow, 1974. - Photos R. Knudsen / JFK Presidential Library; Metropolitan; A. Konkov, V. Cheredintsev/TASS.

Two world wars forced the Louvre to send its treasures away for safety. In 1939, the number one artwork to care for was Mona Lisa. In 1944, with the Allied bombings, it was essential to prevent accidentally destroying the Louvre masterpieces hidden across the French countryside.

The message read by BBC radio confirming that the Allies had received the location of the art treasures was "la Joconde a le sourire." The Mona Lisa is smiling.

In 1963, Mona Lisa traveled to the US, greeted by President John F. Kennedy.

"This painting is the second lady that the people of France have sent to the United States,
and though she will not stay with us as long as the Statue of Liberty, our appreciation is equally great"

JFK also added that in 1913, when "Mona Lisa was carried through the streets to the Uffizi Gallery, people bared their heads as a homage to royalty." Nearly 1.6 million people queued to see her at the National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum.

Surrounded by police and security, no wonder one might think royalty has arrived. Her last travel was in 1974, to Tokyo and then Moscow. By that time, she hid behind bulletproof glass.

The most famous artwork in the world is also probably the most viewed, if only for a few seconds. That might be why, after a long wait, many viewers are sorely disappointed.

What Is So Special About The Mona Lisa?

What Is So Special About The Mona Lisa?

Mona Lisa, 1503-1518. Acquired in 1518 by King Francis I, kept in the French Royal collection, then the Louvre museum since 1797. Photo © Musée du Louvre.

Why is it so small?

It is not small, on the contrary, it is the biggest portrait that Leonardo has ever painted. Like all portraits, it is roughly lifesize.

She looks at you!

Yes, like plenty of great artworks. If a painter can turn a few drops of color into living eyes, an opening into someone's soul, then the painting is most likely a masterpiece.

Her smile is enigmatic.

More on the smile below.

We don't know who she is!

The painting has been brought to France by Leonardo da Vinci himself in 1516 and has been there ever since.

Why Is It A Masterpiece?

Why is Mona Lisa a masterpiece?

A simple answer would be that it is a Leonardo da Vinci. There are only around fifteen paintings by the Renaissance genius, and five are in the Louvre. Yet, none of his paintings are signed. Leonardo was born at a time when an artist was considered little better than a craftsman.

An artist made a living thanks to a patron, a powerful person commissioning artworks. When Leonardo searched for work, he wrote the Duke of Milan a CV-like letter. In it, he made a ten-point list of the things he could do. Nine were about war machines. The last point was that he also was an architect. And almost as an afterthought, that he could also paint anything, as well as anyone.

Today we see art as something artists make out of their own free will and science entirely separate from art. But this strange mix between engineering, anatomy, science, and art is one of the reasons why Leonardo's art is extraordinary.

With Mona Lisa, at least three aspects explain why the painting is a masterpiece.

— The eyes. Leonardo's scientific, anatomical and artistic pursuits allowed him to paint the "mental movements" of a figure.

— Leonardo's technique, the sfumato.

— That enigmatic smile.

Meaning Of A Smile, Lisa del Giocondo's Story

Meaning of Mona Lisa's smile

To understand the rarity of Lisa's smile, one must remember the Bonfire of Vanities took place only half a dozen years before Leonardo painted a smiling woman. Instruments of joy, music, poetry, playing cards, painting, and sculpture masterpieces were all thrown into the fire.

One must also realize that few people had the privilege to have their portraits done by a master. Religious figures, Dukes, and Kings needed to be seen as solemn and powerful. An artist had to do whatever the client requested. That is how masterpieces show someone charging to victory when the person depicted had never been near a battlefield.

Leonardo was pestered by a noble lady begging him to do her portrait. Instead of taking this prestigious work, he took a commission from a silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo. His bride, Lisa Gherardini, became Madonna -Madam- Lisa del Giocondo.

The Giocondo family, Francesco, Lisa and the four children just moved into a new home. The portrait was meant to hang into the Giocondo's household. It was to be proudly looked at by a husband, lovingly by the children—the first reason to have Lisa smile, an expression of family bliss.

The other is the meaning of her name, Giocondo. It comes from the Latin jocundus, agreeable, pleasant. Still used today as jocund, meaning in a happy mood, merry, cheerful. Leonardo added symbols revealing names in portraits. For Ginevra Benci, the gineper tree behind her means 'Ginevra'. For Cecilia Gallerani, the ermine was a play of words for her name and the Duke of Milan.

For Madonna Lisa del Giocondo, shortened into Monna Lisa, the smile is her name. La Gioconda, la Joconde, the happy one.

Leonardo Da Vinci, The Painter Of Smiles

Leonardo da Vinci portraits smiling

Leonardo da Vinci; John the Baptist, the Virgin of the Rocks, Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary. Photos © Musée du Louvre.

One should first walk the length of a museum or browse an art book and count how many figures smile. Then look at Leonardo's work. The Virgin Mary lovingly smiles at her son. John the Baptist grins widely. One could almost see Lisa's smile as Leonardo's signature.

Leonardo never delivered the painting to Francesco and Lisa. He kept it, free to express his ideal vision. He gave an unassuming woman the nobility of a lady of high rank, and the majesty of a Virgin Mary.

He took the painting to France, selling it to King Francis I. Then the artist Vasari wrote about Leonardo's life, with particular praise for the Mona Lisa.

"There is a smile so pleasing that it seems more divine than human,
and it was considered a wondrous thing
that it was as lively as the smile of the living original.

It can be said that portrait was painted in a way
that would cause every brave artist to tremble and fear,
whoever he might be"

Vasari noted the artist's figures' grace, tenderness, smiles, and joy resulted from "Leonardo's intellect and genius."

Speculation about Mona Lisa's identity continues. Vasari described that Leonardo did "for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Monna Lisa, his wife". That the painting was "at Fontainebleau today in the possession of King Francis." A document from 1503 specifically mentions Leonardo painting "the head of Lisa del Giocondo."

One could argue that the painting is not signed, and no inscription gives the name of the woman. This is correct, but the only reason why this is not a subject for scholars is her fame.

Mona Lisa, An Elusive Ghost

Sfumato Leonardo Mona Lisa eyes looking at us

Painted on a wood panel, it is a fragile masterpiece needing constant attention and regular study. Usually, an X-ray resembles a black and white version of the painting. Mona Lisa disappears on X-rays; something to do with the sfumato.

Renaissance painters had two ways to create the illusion of three dimensions for faces. Painting black outlines, almost like a colored sketch. Or the new technique of oil to paint transparent layers of color. A nose is either delineated with a line or built up with varying hues of skin color.

Leonardo studied clouds, muscles, waterfalls, always experimenting. He used another painting method, the sfumato. Sfumato means 'smoky', like a 'transparent smokiness.' Others employed translucent colors to paint flesh, Leonardo painted with transparent shading. He added thin layers of shade to end up with a vaporous transition between light and shadow.

He wrote that shadows build up volume and bring grace to faces. "The gracefulness of shadows, smoothly deprived of every sharp contour". All the layers of shadows put together are thinner than human hair, why Mona Lisa vanishes from X-rays.

Another way to explain its quality is to consider the situation of the Italian experts in 1913. They had to decide if the painting stolen by Peruggia was the real thing or not. A mistake meant losing their reputation and creating a diplomatic incident.

One needs all sorts of studies before giving a verdict about a painting's authenticity. For Mona Lisa, the experts looked at the sfumato, eyes, and smile. Within a few seconds, they just knew.

No wonder, Leonardo painted Mona Lisa at the height of his powers. He spent years working on it, not to please a Pope or King, but himself. Mona Lisa represents the culmination of Leonardo's genius.

To discover five Leonardo da Vinci paintings in person, please inquire about a private tour of the Louvre.

How To Enjoy The Mona Lisa

How can one appreciate Mona Lisa? Forget the myth, the crackpot theories, the fame. Lower expectations, this is not an immense painting, it only is the lifesize portrait of a lady. Start with a fresh eye. Follow the old guidebook recommendation, "after a few moments of attention, the beauty of this work will shine through."

Look at it for what it is, the portrait of a woman, no more, no less. There is no hidden meaning, no mystery. Looking calmly and intently is all that's needed. Wander between the detailed face and atmospheric background. Then concentrate on the eyes, nose, and mouth. It should be when one realizes what Leonardo could do with barely visible layers of shade.

Between the crowds, the distance from the bulletproof glass encasing the painting, it's not feasible anymore, but there is a solution. View a high-definition photograph and look up close, for as long as you wish, the Mona Lisa. A photo will never replace the real thing, but this is the most relaxing way to get up close.

And with the dedicated Louvre webpage, view in detail Mona Lisa under normal light, infrared light, radiography, and more.


— The Louvre curators who informed the police that the glaziers were prime suspects of the theft of the Mona Lisa were Paul Leprieur, Jean Guiffrey, Pierre Marcel, and Louis Pujalet.
— The Italian experts in Florence were Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi, and Corrado Ricci, director of the Fine Arts for the Italian ministry, as well as Luigi Cavenaghi, who restored Leonardo's Last Supper.
— The visitor of the Louvre in 1911 wondering at the empty space was Franz Kafka. And to get an idea of how the Mona Lisa might look like without its varnish, one can look at the "Prado Mona Lisa" workshop copy.

Jérôme Coignard. Une femme disparaît – Le vol de La Joconde au Louvre en 1911.
Noah Charney. The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World's Most Famous Painting.
Cécile Scailliérez. Léonard de Vinci, La Joconde.
La piste du miroitier avait été signalée au juge instructeur mais la sureté ne daigna pas se déranger.
M. Leprieur et M. Jean Guiffrey, qui dès le premier jour ont indiqué la bonne piste en signalant à la justice les ouvriers employés à la mise sous verre des tableaux et en fournissant une liste sur laquelle se trouvait le nom de Peruggia.
— Giorgio Vasari. Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects. Vasari had never seen the Mona Lisa, but was compiling, thirty years after Leonardo's death, information from people who worked for him and knew him. The fact a man who never saw the Mona Lisa could write in such detail about its quality shows how much impact it must have had on others.
Carlo Pedretti. Leonardo da Vinci, or, The glory of painting.
Dr. Laurence de Viguerie; Dr. Philippe Walter; Eric Laval; Bruno Mottin; Dr. V. Armando Solé. Revealing the sfumato Technique of Leonardo da Vinci by X‐Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy.
Arnaud Bizot. La Joconde kidnappée. Le vol qui déchaina les passions.
Bertrand Jestaz. François Ier, SalaÌ et les tableaux de Léonard. Revue de l'Art Année 1999.

Photos: Musée du Louvre, C2RMF, Gallica. Text is © Art Journey Paris.

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