“The most famous painting in the world” - The Mona Lisa. La Joconde. La Gioconda. Leonardo’s masterpiece. The portait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is instantly recognizable to virtually everyone in the Western world.
The Mona Lisa practically has a cult following – but why? People crowd around the small portrait at the Musée du Louvre in Paris every day just to get a glimpse of the world’s most famous smile, even from a distance.
When I was living in Paris, I was taking an art history course that had me walking through the miles upon miles of galleries of the Louvre at least once a week. I spent hours taking it in and soaking up as much as I possibly could. Sometimes, I would go early on a Tuesday morning, and I would feel like the only person around – until I got to the Salle des États where The Mona Lisa is housed. No matter the time of day or week, there was always an admiring crowd surrounding the approximately 21 x 30 in. painting.
Clearly there’s something special about this painting. It is easily the most parodied work – from famed Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. to one of Gallery Direct’s own artists, Randy Slack.
The painting, created by Leonardo da Vinci between 1503 and 1519, has been the subject of much speculation and mystery for hundreds of years. Theories about its creation abound, and studies are still being done today as to the origins and formal qualities of the painting. In fact, artdaily.org reported this week that Alfonso Rubino has performed a geometrical analysis on La Joconde, revealing that Leonardo “worked the geometry found in his design of the Vitruvian Man into his paintings.” According to Dr. Markus Frey of the Mona Lisa Foundation, not only is this a groundbreaking find, but is also confirms that a painting that was thought to be an earlier version of The Mona Lisa is in fact genuine.
The “Earlier Version,” according to recent carbon dating, was created sometime between 1410 and 1450. There are so many theories as to the creation of the painting that an earlier version is sure to prove to be fuel for the proverbial fire. Theories about The Mona Lisa range from topics such as pregnancy, Bell’s Palsy, high cholesterol, secret societies, biblical references, and many more.
The Mona Lisa has inspired people for centuries, but not always in a good way. In 1911, a worker at the Louvre, Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian patriot, stole the small poplar panel right from the wall of the Louvre, believing that despite the fact that the painting was completed in France and legally sold to the French king after da Vinci’s death, the painting belonged to the artist’s home country of Italy.
After biding his time for two years, however, Peruggia attempted to sell The Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Officials at the Uffizi immediately notified the Louvre, at which point it was returned to Paris after an extended tour throughout Italy.
The painting has also been the target of many iconoclastic attempts. It was attacked twice in 1956, first by acid and then by a thrown rock, at which point it was decided that it could no longer be displayed without the protection of a bulletproof-glass case. Even after the case was added, however, it was the subject of vandalism in 1974 and more recently in 2009.
So why does this painting inspire people so much – whether it be to artistic creation, endless research, conspiracy theories, criminal activity, or violence? The enigmatic smile, the beautiful and slightly surreal landscape in the background, the facial geometry, the bodily arrangement of the portrait, the identity of the sitter, and numerous other inquiries have captured the world’s attention.
Personally, as a student of art history (who admittedly does not focus on the Renaissance, and is by no means a da Vinci scholar), the formal execution of the painting is at the heart of the matter. Putting aside all of the theories and mysteries surrounding it, The Mona Lisa is, above all, an exemplar of Renaissance fastidiousness and ingenuity. The amount of detail and precision that was exercised by da Vinci is the most captivating element of the painting. The bizarre landscape, the ethereal veil that floats above her delicate curls, every fold on her dress, the considered use of sfumato – all suggest to me that the painting was created by an exceedingly patient, practiced, and loving hand. When I look at La Joconde, I envision the artist, meticulously tending to each line, each shadow on the relatively small panel. I see a life dedicated to artistry and aesthetic integrity.
So what do you think? Does The Mona Lisa inspire you? What do you think she’s smiling at?