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Why is the Mona Lisa so Famous?

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February 20, 2017

After staying in Paris for more than two years, I finally managed to visit the Louvre recently. During this visit, I was surprised to find out that most of the visitors at the museum were there just to see the Mona Lisa. From the moment you enter the museum, you can see almost everyone moving towards Salle des États, the hall where the masterpiece is displayed. Yet according to this article (Read: How Long Does it Take To Look at a Painting?), the average time people spend looking at the Mona Lisa is a mere 15 seconds.

The famous Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass displayed at the Louvre (Image Courtesy: ourescapades.com/)

The Mona Lisa (a.k.a. La Gioconda, which means The Laughing One in Italian) is undisputedly the most famous painting in the world. It is seen by approximately six million people every year. But why is it so famous? To find out, I did my own research about the painting and found out some interesting facts. 

Creator: Leonardo Da Vinci

One of the first reasons why the Mona Lisa was considered a masterpiece initially was because of its creator, Leonardo Da Vinci. Da Vinci was an Italian Renaissance polymath with a huge following. With his interests spanning a multitude of areas such as invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography he literally epitomizes the word genius. Leonardo was so famous during his lifetime that the King of France carried him away like a trophy, and is said to have supported him in his old age and held him in his arms as he died.
Apart from the various pieces of art that he produced, he is also credited with the invention of the parachute, helicopter, tank, scuba gear, and self-driven carts (Visit: The Inventions of Leonardo Da Vinci). Da Vinci's top 7 inventions are illustrated in the short video below.


Apart from Da Vinci's prodigious patronage, connoisseurs of art also find the Mona Lisa particularly fascinating because of the techniques used by the artist in the painting.

  • Sfumato: Derived from the Italian word "fumo", meaning "smoke", the technique allows tones and colors to blend gradually into one another, producing softened outlines or hazy forms. Da Vinci was the most illustrious practitioner of this technique, which was later on used by other famous artists and Da Vinci's followers.
  • Silberblick: This German technique, which literally means "silver look" in German, creates an illusion that the subject's eyes are always gazing at the person viewing the painting. In this technique, instead of painting symmetrically, the irises of both the eyes are shifted slightly towards the center. This is the reason why the Mona Lisa always appears to be looking at you.

The theft of Mona Lisa

The most recent event that increased the Mona Lisa's popularity exponentially occurred in the twentieth century. On 21 August 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. When one visualizes the Mona Lisa being stolen, the first picture that comes to mind is that of a super smooth museum heist carried out by slick thieves having state of the art tools. However, surprising as it may sound, the Mona Lisa thief (an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia) just hid inside the museum overnight knowing that it was going to be closed the next day. In the morning, he removed the painting, hid it under his smock and exited through one of the staff entrances of the museum. The short video below illustrates just how simple it was. 

For the next 26 hours, people didn't even notice that the painting was missing. Later on, when the authorities realized that the Mona Lisa had been stolen, the painting was all over the news. In the next few days, thanks to immense media coverage the Mona Lisa was transformed from just another artwork to the symbolic celebrity painting that we know of today. People thronged the Louvre just to see the empty space with four iron pegs on the wall where the Mona Lisa used to be displayed. 

Visitors look at the empty space where the Mona Lisa used to be before being stolen (Image Source: pagebenkowski.files)

By stealing the Mona Lisa, Vincenzo Peruggia wanted to prove his patriotism for his country and "return one of the most celebrated Italian artworks back to its homeland". However, the news about the theft spread so fast that Peruggia had to shelve his plans and keep the Mona Lisa hidden in a trunk in his apartment for the next two years. Afterward, Peruggia returned to Italy with the painting. He was finally caught when he tried to contact Alfredo Geri, the owner of an art gallery in Florence. Geri took the painting from Peruggia, verified the authenticity, and then informed the police, who arrested Peruggia at the hotel where he was staying. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre on 4 January 1914. Its popularity has been snowballing ever since.


Apart from these facts, there are numerous controversies surrounding the Mona Lisa that make it a hot topic for discussion. Out of these, the three main controversies are the ones mentioned below:

Who was Mona Lisa?

The history of the Mona Lisa hides behind a veil of mystery. There are several aspects of the painting which still remain unclear. However, it is widely believed that the lady in the painting was Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo. Although most of the evidence about Mona Lisa's identity so far has been inconclusive, in 2015 a team of Italian researchers claimed to have found the remains of Lisa Gherardini after years examining the remains of bodies buried below the Sant'Orsola convent in Florence (Read: Who was Mona Lisa?). 

There is a second Mona Lisa painted by Da Vinci

The Isleworth Mona Lisa, which is a slightly wider version of the Mona Lisa, is also speculated to be a work of Leonardo Da Vinci. The painting was discovered shortly after World War I by an English art collector, Hugh Blaker, in the home of a Somerset nobleman where the painting had been resting for the past 100 years. Later on, Blaker moved the painting to his art studio in Isleworth, London. As the figure in the Isleworth Mona Lisa looks a bit younger, many people surmise that it was painted by Da Vinci before the Louvre Mona Lisa so that he could practice his strokes before creating the final masterpiece.

Left, the Louvre Mona Lisa and, right, the Isleworth Mona Lisa. (Image Source: ft.com)

There is a third Mona Lisa painted by Da Vinci's pupil

Another copy of the Mona Lisa is said to be displayed in the Museo del Prado in Madrid, Spain. As the details of the painting very closely resemble the Louvre Mona Lisa, it is believed that it could be the work of one of Da Vinci's pupils.

Left, the Louvre Mona Lisa and, right, Prado's Mona Lisa. (Image Source: wikimedia.org)

Is it worth all the hype?

Although I am not the best person to give a verdict on whether the Mona Lisa is worth all the hype, I believe that it is one the very first instances in history of something going 'viral'. Even if I believe that the Mona Lisa is overhyped, I am still writing an article about it. That's the beauty of something going viral! Once people start talking about your work, it keeps on spreading like fire, no matter how good or bad it is. 
However, looking back at all the findings, we can definitely infer that the Mona Lisa has had quite an eventful history so far. It is this history, which makes it stand apart from the rest of the paintings in the world.