How Did the Mona Lisa Become the World’s Most Famous Painting?: It’s Not What You Think

Leonar­do da Vinci’s unfin­ished, five cen­tu­ry-old por­trait of a Flo­ren­tine silk merchant’s wife, Lisa del Gio­con­do (née Gher­ar­di­ni), is, quite pos­si­bly, the most famous paint­ing in the world.

And its sub­ject pos­sess­es the world’s most cap­ti­vat­ing smile, inspir­ing rhap­sodies and par­o­dies in seem­ing equal mea­sure. (Its Ital­ian title, La Gio­con­da, is a nod to the sitter’s mar­ried name, and depend­ing on whom you ask, trans­lates as “joy­ous,” “light heart­ed,” or  “mer­ry.”)

The Lou­vre, where the paint­ing has resided since 1804 (fol­low­ing stints in Fontainebleau, the Grand Palace of Ver­sailles, and Napoleon Bona­parte’s bed­room), reserves a spe­cial mail­box for paeans from Mona Lisa fans.

Ask a ran­dom per­son on the street how this com­par­a­tive­ly dinky oil on wood came to be so uni­ver­sal­ly cel­e­brat­ed, and they’ll log­i­cal­ly con­clude it’s got some­thing to do with that smile.

Those with a back­ground in visu­al art may also cite Renais­sance inno­va­tions in paint­ing tech­nique — atmos­pher­ic per­spec­tive and sfu­ma­to, both of which Leonar­do employed to mem­o­rable effect.

Those are good guess­es, but the real rea­son for the Mona Lisa’s endur­ing glob­al renown?

The pub­lic’s love of a good crime sto­ry.

As art his­to­ri­an Noah Char­ney, author of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Steal­ing the World’s Most Famous Paint­ing, recounts in the ani­mat­ed TED-Ed les­son above, La Gio­can­da owes her block­buster rep­u­ta­tion to a sticky-fin­gered Lou­vre employ­ee named Vin­cen­zo Perug­gia.

In 1911, Perug­gia, a painter whose day job involved build­ing crates for works in the Lou­vre’s col­lec­tion, hid in a cup­board for hours after clos­ing, then escaped via a back door, the unframed can­vas tucked beneath his arm.

The police papered the streets of Paris with the Mona Lisa’s like­ness on miss­ing fly­ers, and the press fanned inter­est in both the crime and the paint­ing. Read­ers devoured updates that iden­ti­fied poet Guil­laume Apol­li­naire and painter Pablo Picas­so as sus­pects, and steamy the­o­ries regard­ing the nature of the rela­tion­ship between Leonar­do and the lady in the por­trait.

As art crit­ic Lau­ra Cum­ming writes in The Guardian, “Mil­lions of peo­ple who might not have seen it, might nev­er even have heard of it, soon became experts on Leonar­do’s stolen paint­ing.”

For two years, its where­abouts remained unknown:

(Perug­gia) kept her in a cup­board, then under a stove in the kitchen, and final­ly in (a) false-bot­tomed trunk. For a while, he rather cock­i­ly propped her post­card on the man­tel­piece… But fair­ly soon he seems to have found her hard to look at, impos­si­ble to live with; there is evi­dence of repeat­ed attempts to sell her.

The thief even­tu­al­ly arranged to repa­tri­ate the pur­loined paint­ing to Italy, strik­ing a deal with Flo­ren­tine art deal­er Alfred Geri, who sum­moned the police as soon as he ver­i­fied the work’s authen­tic­i­ty.

The Mona Lisa was restored to the Lou­vre, where eager crowds clam­ored for a look at a new­ly mint­ed house­hold name they could all rec­og­nize by sight, as “news­pa­pers took the sto­ry for a vic­to­ry lap.”

Find a quiz and cus­tomiz­able les­son plan on the rea­sons behind the Mona Lisa’s fame here.

Hats off to ani­ma­tor Avi Ofer for his puck­ish sug­ges­tion that Leonar­do might have tak­en some flat­ter­ing lib­er­ties with Lisa del Gio­con­do’s appear­ance.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

When Pablo Picas­so and Guil­laume Apol­li­naire Were Accused of Steal­ing the Mona Lisa (1911)

Leonar­do da Vinci’s Note­books Get Dig­i­tized: Where to Read the Renais­sance Man’s Man­u­scripts Online

How Leonar­do da Vin­ci Made His Mag­nif­i­cent Draw­ings Using Only a Met­al Sty­lus, Pen & Ink, and Chalk

Leonar­do Da Vinci’s To-Do List from 1490: The Plan of a Renais­sance Man

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is the Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine and author, most recent­ly, of Cre­ative, Not Famous: The Small Pota­to Man­i­festo.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.