By Carly Yoshida-Butryn
All Vincenzo Perugia had to do to pull off the first and only successful heist of the Mona Lisa was wait for the guard to take a cigarette break. During that morning in 1911, Perugia, a disgruntled Louvre employee, removed the painting from the wall and cut it from its frame in a nearby stairwell. The thief, dressed in a workman’s tunic, slipped into the streets of Paris with it tucked under his clothes. Two years later, the painting was recovered after Perugia unsuccessfully tried to sell it to an Italian art dealer. He spent only a few months in jail and the art thief became a hero in Italy for bringing the icon back to what he believed was its rightful home.
Since she was immortalized as an oil painting on poplar wood sometime between 1503 and 1506, the Mona Lisa became one of the most recognizable figures in the world. Dadaist Marcel Duchamp gave her a goatee and moustache in 1919, Andy Warhol gave her a colourful silkscreen transformation in the 1960s, and author Dan Brown made her into a 21st century phenomenon. With millions flocking to the Louvre every year, the Mona Lisa continues to be a piece of artwork on everyone’s must-see list, though most don’t realize that behind the hype is a revolutionary painting.
In the early 16th century, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by Florentine cloth merchant Francesco del Giocondo to paint a portrait of his wife, Lisa Gherardini — which is where the painting got its alternate name, La Gioconda. In 2007, historian Giuseppe Pallanti claimed to have found Gherardini’s grave 900 feet away from da Vinci’s father’s house. He also suggests that Gherardini and da Vinci’s father were neighbours, living only 10 feet apart. However, others theorize that the painting is a self-portrait of the artist, Leonardo da Vinci.
The painting changed hands over the centuries, once belonging to King Francois I in the 16th century, and hanging in Napoleon’s bedroom in 1800. Four years later, the Mona Lisa ended up in the Louvre where its seen by six million people every year.
Murray Pomerance, a Ryerson sociology professor who specializes in popular culture, says the Mona Lisa represents a high standard of society. “The Mona Lisa, for many people, stands for high art in the way that the first four notes of Beethoven’s fifth symphony stand for classical music,” he says. People know the Mona Lisa is famous because it’s famous. “Most people who talk about the Mona Lisa don’t know about the canvas or its history. They don’t know much about Leonardo. They don’t know much about the painting.”
Despite comparing the Mona Lisa to another Parisian landmark like the Eiffel Tower, Louvre cultural guide Alexis Shomar-Strelitz admits the Mona Lisa is not that different from the other paintings in the gallery and “it’s much more like saying to the neighbours, ‘I’ve seen the Mona Lisa.'”
David Campbell, assistant professor of oil painting at OCAD, says the Mona Lisa’s fame might have more to do with da Vinci’s reputation.
“If someone else had painted the work, it wouldn’t be as highly regarded,” he says. “There’s the chance that they might make more of it than there actually is.”
Regardless, her enigmatic smile has caused century-old debates. Freud believes it was an expression of da Vinci’s erotic attraction to his mother. Scientists at a San Francisco research institute believe the power of her smile comes from how the eye processes light, while others believe she is smiling because she is pregnant. “Each one of the people there think that they’re going to decode the meaning of her smile,” says Pomerance of the six million people who line up to see the Mona Lisa every year at the Louvre. “But no one ever does.”
Some simply want to bask in its presence. Shomar-Strelitz likens seeing the Mona Lisa to a religious experience. “It’s almost like a pilgrimage,” he says. “She’s like the Virgin Mary. She’s got this kind of aura.”
da Vinci used a unique painting method to create the glow around the Mona Lisa. The technique, called “sfumato,” softens contrasts and lines by blending light and shade. The only real demarcated borders in the painting are the outline of her head, the edge of the veil on her forehead and the folds on her sleeve. The rest of the painting melts together without visible boundaries, abandoning what some call the “coloured-in” look done by other painters at the time. His brushworks are so small that they are undetectable by X-rays or microscopes.
The painting is also considered to be a turning point in the history of portraiture. Her realistic and natural look contrasted the other works of the period, which were more two-dimensional and lacked facial details. Mona Lisa’s dress is simple: a black frock, a scarf on her left shoulder, a veil on her head and no jewelry. Giorgio Vasari, painter and author of The Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects, said the Mona Lisa is so lifelike because of her red lips and the subtleties of her nostrils, lashes and mouth. He also believed a beating pulse could be seen by staring at her throat. Toronto-based artist Amin Rehman, who studied art history for the past 30 years, says “Before, the work you’d see was mythological. This gives a more realistic portrait of a lady. In the last 500 years after the Mona Lisa, so many portraits have been done. They don’t come up to that standard. Her smile brings a uniqueness to the piece. The artist has created that feeling that one can relate to.”
The detail in the background of the painting is also admired for the subtle transitions between the different hues. From the blue sky to her yellow sleeves to the shades of grey, brown and red in the background, the painting flows together to create the illusion of depth. It’s also one of the first paintings to have an imaginary background: the landscape on either side of her head does not match up.
The pyramid design of the painting also draws the eye to her welllit face and smile, framed by her dark hair and veil. And while her pose may seem unremarkable today, her three-quarter position was revolutionary for the time and was imitated by other artists. “Rightly, it is a masterpiece,” Rehman says. “The triangle composition with her hands and the light on her face makes it unique.”
Nowadays, admirers can’t get too close to the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. The small 77 cm by 53 cm painting, which already has a large crack in the back, is protected behind bulletproof glass (the painting has been attacked by a rock and acid in the past) and surrounded by security guards. Shomar-Strelitz says that even if she were to be stolen, an even bigger problem would be figuring out what the thief would do with it.
“It would be a big loss for the Louvre,” Shomar-Strelitz says. “It would be treated like a national disaster. [But] even Italy couldn’t accept the gift. It’s impossible to sell.”
To date, the world’s most expensive painting is No. 5, 1948 by Jackson Pollack which sold for U.S. $140 million two years ago. Some estimate that if the Mona Lisa were to come up for sale, it would be worth seven times as much. But for many, whether they are artists, curators or simply one of her many admirers, the Mona Lisa — La Gioconda — with her enigmatic smile and curious gaze, is quite simply, priceless.