The first painting that comes to mind when we think of great masterpieces is indubitably the Mona Lisa. This famous painting of the Italian Renaissance period has been the most recognizable artwork around the world for time immemorial. Many have tried to uncover the innumerable mysteries around the painting. However, there are only a few hard facts that confirm the theories of Mona Lisa’s enigma. We’ve compiled a list of facts about the Mona Lisa that will paint your mind with surprise.
Today, centuries after Leonardo Da Vinci’s creation of the Mona Lisa in 1503, she still attracts thousands of spectators daily. The painting enjoys tight security behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre Museum in France.
Millions of eyes are set upon this seemingly ordinary painting but only a handful can appreciate it in the way it deserves. What stuns us is the baffling simplicity of the woman and the landscape behind her. Dressed in black, translucent robes she sits in front of us with an unreadable expression. Many believe that Mona Lisa’s popularity stems from her incomprehensible smile and gaze. However, this is not the only reason behind her fame.
Here’s an exhaustive list of Interesting Facts about the Mona Lisa that made it world-renowned:
Mona Lisa’s Identity
The Mona Lisa is believed to be commissioned by a nobleman Francesco del Giocondo belonging to a rich Italian family. The del Giocondo’s were cloth and silk merchants. Francesco ordered this painting for his wife Lisa del Giocondo.
The couple led a luxurious life in Florence, together with their five children between the 15th and 16th centuries.
Not much is known about Lisa or her family. The absence of information about her family kept historians in the dark about her identity for many years. In May of 2005, a note was discovered at the Heidelberg University in Germany. This note was written by Da Vinci’s contemporary Agostino Vespucci. The note dates back to 1503, the same year the Mona Lisa was started and it mentions clearly that Leonardo had been working on the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo at the time. Therefore, the identity of the mystery woman is now clear.
Picasso – An Alleged Thief
In the summer of 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen and it immediately grabbed the general public’s attention for the first time. The news of the Mona Lisa’s disappearance under mysterious circumstances made the painting a media sensation overnight. The extensive media coverage on an international scale made the painting famous all around the world.
The French painter Louis Beroud was the first to notice that the painting was not in its place. However, he thought that the painting is probably getting photographed outside. He asked the guards to return the Mona Lisa before the Museum was to be opened to the public that day. However, to his utter shock, he was notified that the painting is missing.
People from various countries came to visit the Louvre museum to see the empty space where the painting was hung. Soon after the theft the famous artist Pablo Picasso and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire became suspects. Picasso was indicated in this theft since he had purchased two stolen sculptures in the past. Hence, it was believed that he probably illegally deals with invaluable artwork. However, he was never conclusively found guilty, and all charges were dropped.
In 1913, a local art dealer in Florence informed the police that someone tried to sell him the original Mona Lisa. The police found the painting hidden in the false bottom of a trunk. This trunk belonged to Vincenzo Peruggia, who once worked at the Louvre museum. He confessed that he stole the painting off the wall without suspicion on the morning of 21st August 1911.
The painting finally returned to France after two years in 1913, once again attracting lots of media attention.
Attacks on Mona Lisa
The Mona Lisa attracted several vandals after she was stolen in 1911. In the year 1956, a man named Ugo Ungaza Villegas from Bolivia threw a rock at the painting. At the time the painting was not protected by glass. This attack resulted in the loss of a spot of color near the figure’s left elbow. Later the spot was carefully restored and painted over.
The painting suffered another attack in the same year while it was on display at a museum in Montauban, France. The vandal threw some acid on the lower end of the painting.
The painting was later protected by a bulletproof casing. In the year 1974, a woman was upset with the Tokyo National Museums’ ableist rules. Overcome with rage she sprayed red paint on the Mona Lisa. However, the glass protected it from harm.
Most recently in the year 2009, a Russian woman threw a terracotta cup at a painting in the Louvre museum. She was upset over being denied French citizenship. Fortunately, the painting did not incur any damage.
The Painting may be Incomplete
Even though most people don’t notice it, the Mona Lisa is allegedly incomplete.
Doctors reconstructed ancient references and found that Leonard Da Vinci might have suffered a stroke in the year 1517. This stroke partially paralyzed him. His paralysis hindered the compilation of the Mona Lisa or at least its complete refinement. He soon died of ill health in 1519.
Da Vinci worked on the painting from the year 1503 and continued to perfect it for the next fourteen years. However, his untimely death in 1519 stopped him from delivering his work.
The speculation that the painting is incomplete is further strengthened by the fact that Da Vinci was never paid for the painting by the client.
Lisa Lived with Napoleon Bonaparte
Napoleon was impressed by the beauty of Mona Lisa the moment he laid eyes on her. He had the painting hung in his bedroom so that he could admit it whenever he wanted to. The painting was kept in his room in the Tuileries Palace for approximately four years.
He was so mesmerized by Lisa’s beauty that he later fell in love with a woman with a striking resemblance to her. The woman was named Teresa Guadagni who turned out to be a descendant of Lisa Gherardini, the woman in the painting. It is still unknown if Napolean pursued Teresa because of her relationship with Lisa or if it was pure coincidence.
In 1804 Napoleon agreed for it to be placed at the Louvre Museum. Since then the painting has found its permanent home at the Louvre.
Bonaparte was not the only one to be completely hypnotized by Lisa’s beauty. Artist Luc Maspero threw himself from the fourth floor of a Paris hotel in 1852, revealing his immense love for The Mona Lisa and years of longing for her.
Jacqueline Kennedy brought her to the US
The public vehemently protested lending the Mona Lisa to America. However, the then French minister of cultural affairs, Andre Malraux couldn’t say no to Jacqueline Kennedy. Malraux had a pleasant relationship with the first lady whom he met during her presidential visit to Paris. The French minister was also made the guest of honor at a very lavish dinner at the White House.
Thus, the painting was moved from the Louvre Museum to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a brief while.
The Mona Lisa cannot be Bought or Sold
After reading all these praises about the painting you can ascertain that this masterpiece must cost a fortune. However, Mona Lisa is literally priceless because she can never be on the market. The French Heritage code puts forward that the painting will remain on permanent display at the Louvre Museum. It also says that the painting is the collective property of the people of France.
The Mona Lisa is World’s Most Expensive Painting
Even though the Mona Lisa is official French property that cannot be bought or sold, there is still a way to ascertain its valuation. As of today, the painting holds the Guinness World Record for having the highest insurance valuation in the world. In 1962 $100 million. This amount is now equivalent to over $850 million if inflation is taken into account. This valuation makes it the world’s most expensive art piece. It is interesting to know that the world’s second most expensive painting, the ‘Salvador Mundi’ is also a masterpiece by Leonardo Da Vinci.
It might be a self-portrait
The figure in the painting is thought to be Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a silk merchant. However, more recently there have been speculations surrounding her true identity.
In a book by Lillian Schwartz, named Leonardo’s Hidden Face, she puts forward the idea the painting might be a self-portrait. In her research, she used computer programs to find out similarities between da Vinci’s actual self-portrait and the Mona Lisa. She revealed that the two paintings can be superimposed on one another perfectly.
The co-author of the book, Renzo Manetti claims that da Vinci had philosophical reasons for painting himself in the picture. Some scholars have indicated that Leonardo’s love for riddles and his homosexuality nudged him to paint himself as a female.
She has Eyebrows
There have been many theories about Lisa’s eyebrows. Scholars believe that the eyebrows never existed because it was simply the aesthetic during that time to not have eyebrows. Some researchers also believe that the absence of eyebrows may be indicative of the fact that the painting is still incomplete.
However, the most convincing theory is that of the Parisian engineer, Pascal Cotter. Through 3000 hours of rigorous research and empirical data, he could trace how the condition of the painting has depreciated over the years. His work has revealed that there are certain brush strokes for the eyebrows but they have faded over the centuries or have become very light because of continued re-touching.
The Secret Behind Her Smile
Mona Lisa’s inexplicable smile has enchanted millions since the time it was revealed to the public eye. People have been divided on whether she is smiling at the viewers or just looking in front with a serene face.
Some people felt as if they could her smile from the side of their eyes but not when they looked directly at her. Professor Margaret Livingstone of Harvard University explained that this claim is true.
She explains there are two ways in which visual stimuli are processed in the brain: foveal and peripheral. The peripheral vision, that is the vision from the corner of our eyes picks up lower frequencies of the visual field.
Thus, it is clear that Lisa’s expressions don’t change it’s just a shift in the viewer’s perception. According to Dr. Livingstone, our perception depends on where the eyes are focused and how the brain responds to it.
The painting has also been studied through face recognition software. It revealed that she is 83% happy, 6% fearful, 9% disgusted, and 2% angry.
The Da Vinci Code
Leonardo da Vinci is a well-known genius and a polymath with immense knowledge about various subjects.
He was not just creative when it came to doing art, but was also a pioneering inventor, astronomer, and mathematician. Some of his artwork that deserves praise include The Last Supper and the ‘Salvator Mundi’ which is the only work of art being sold for nearly USD 400 million.
The Italian scientist, Silvano Vinceti found so interesting codes hidden in the Mona Lisa. After close examination of the painting, Silvano found the letters S and L, and the number 72 hidden in the painting. He claims that the letter S is hidden in Lisa’s left eye and the letter L can be seen in her right eye. Finally, the number 72 is seen under the arched bridge of the backdrop. According to Vinceti, these symbols might hint at the identity of the woman, the period when the painting was created, and also da Vinci’s interest in religion. None of these signs are visible to the naked eye. The research was based on high-quality scans by the Lumiere Technology in Paris. According to the researcher, the symbols are :
“very small, painted with a tiny brush and subjected to the wear and tear of time.”
Novels like The da Vinci Code by Dan Brown make Vinceti’s findings more believable and interesting. However, other scholars suggest that these findings are too far-fetched and “unsubstantial”.
She ISN’T one of a Kind
Several magnificent replicas of the Mona Lisa have been made, but only a few are famous. Some of these replicas are made by da Vinci’s students. One of its most famous replicas is hung in the Prado Museum of Madrid. Using infrared technology researchers found several layers of painting beneath the surface.
The changes in the layers mirrored the changes in the original painting very closely. Therefore, it was concluded that the artist probably painted their version of the Mona Lisa alongside Leonardo.
Since it could be conclusively said that this painting was done under da Vinci’s supervision, it became extremely famous.
Another famous copy of the Mona Lisa is the Isleworth Mona Lisa, which some have claimed is Leonardo’s original version of the famous portrait. However, several leading Leonardo scholars refused to accept the claim.
Where is she sitting?
Behind the Mona Lisa, the landscape is dominated by rough mountains, a wispy lake, and a curving river. A wooden bridge can be seen off Mona Lisa’s shoulder as the only man-made object in sight. The landscape looks so magical that one critic has argued that it is a product of da Vinci’s imagination.
Other scholars, however, feel that it is absurd to use a fictional backdrop for a realistic portrait of a woman. Moreover, it is known that Leonardo had a keen interest in studying nature and its minute details, and therefore he is less likely to paint something fantastical.
Throughout the years, numerous cities and regions have claimed the location as their own. Leonardo’s home province of Tuscany is represented only by a few sites, most of the claims suggest that the scenery is in the Italian Alps.
Evidence of the Location
According to the Italian newspaper “Il Messaggero,” the landscape originated in Montefeltro, a town in the Marche. Physicist Olivia Nesci and photographer Rosetta Borchia have published ‘Codice P’ or ‘Code P’, a book that presents their findings. According to the two, the landscape depicted is the mountains of Valmarecchia, north of Rome.
The researchers also said that on examining the ‘Mona Lisa’ they could identify the confluence of the two rivers in the back as that of the Senatello and Marecchia rivers in a historic region that consists of Marche, Emilia-Romagna, and Tuscany. Apparently, the bridge depicted in the painting was destroyed and the lake was filled up by landslides. According to them, the hills visible on the left side of the sitter’s shoulder are Sassi Simone and Sassi Simoncello, the mountains on the top left are the Monte Canale and Alpe Della Luna, and the mountain pictured to the right of the sitter’s head is Monte Aquilone.
According to art historian Carla Glori’s book “Enigma Leonardo” published in 2011, the three arch bridge in the painting is a reference to Bobbio, a village in Piacenza, Emilia-Romagna.
The meaning behind the veil
If you look at the Mona Lisa for a few moments soon you will notice a thin horizontal line on her forehead. On closer examination, it becomes clear that she is in fact wearing a very sheer black veil over her head. The veil goes down her hair to her shoulders and mixes with her clothes. According to researcher Michel Menu, this was a veil that Italian renaissance women wore when they were expecting.
The veil was called a Guarnello. The guarnello has also been depicted in Sandro Botticelli’s painting – “Portrait of a Lady” in which the woman is pregnant.
The veil became harder to notice as the varnish on the painting aged and got darker making the whole backdrop look greenish-black.
Scholars are of the opinion that Lisa Gherardini, on whom the painting is based was expecting at the time. Her husband Francesco del Giocondo apparently commissioned Leonardo da Vinci for this portrait as a celebration of Lisa’s pregnancy.
All these findings suggest that the subject was pregnant at the time the portrait was being painted.
The Most Important Fact of all
A painting that appears both inviting and aloof at the same time, ‘Mona Lisa’ has become the very essence of high art. Her smile and gaze have been discussed extensively, but viewers might still wonder what all the fuss is about. Aside from the mystery of the sitter’s identity and her enigmatic look, one of the other mysteries is the reason behind the work’s popularity. There have been many attempts to pinpoint one reason for its fame but the most persuasive arguments claim that there is no single explanation. It is safe to say that her fame amongst the general public stems from the innumerable interesting circumstances that heightened its artistic appeal.
The sheer mastery of the painting however cannot be downplayed. Even before the robbery and the various attacks it faced the painting was still highly revered in the art community. Some features worth noting are the novel three-quarter pose of the subject, the minute details in the background, and finally the realism of the subject. The softness of Lisa’s face can be felt just by looking at it. The use of the sfumato technique in the painting is commendable. He has used light and shadows skillfully along with his vast knowledge about human anatomy. The delicate veil with slight frills on its extremities helps the viewer to understand the fabric and its flow. Her ambiguous expression is indicative of Leonard’s understanding of human psychology which is reflected in her complex smile.
Therefore, it is impossible to point out a single reason for which ‘The Mona Lisa’ is celebrated. A big part of her fame is based on chance circumstances and the questionable theories of researchers and the public in general. These circumstances along with da Vinci’s finesse work together to make Mona Lisa the most recognizable face in the world.
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