A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

March 13, 2000

Dear Straight Dope:

I was recently in Paris and had a chance to peruse the permanent collection of the Musee de Louvre, which includes, of course, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. As I gazed at the rather modest creation behind all that bulletproof glass, a thought occurred to me: big schmeil. Sure it's a decent painting, but I've seen better, arguably even by Leo himself. My question is who, when and why, decided that this was to be the most renowned work of art in the Western world?

The story is told of two women from the countryside, standing in front of the Mona Lisa, and saying to each other, "I don't like it." "What's all the fuss about?"

The guard says, "Ma'am, the Mona Lisa has stood the test of time. When you stand before her, it is you, not she, who is being judged."

Still, you've got a point.  Like so many things nowadays, the Mona Lisa is famous mainly for being famous. Daniel Boorstin, in The Image, comments that "it has become easy for the great, the famous, and the cliche to become synonymous." And that's pretty much it, in a nutshell: the Mona Lisa is great, famous, and a cliche.

Joseph A. Harriss, writing in Smithsonian in May, 1999, says "Most of the museum's first-time visitors come mainly to stare at this cross between a cultural archetype and an icon of kitsch . . . looking for the picture that has provoked--and been the object of--more crazy reactions, addled adulation, arcane analysis, gross imitations, scandalous takeoffs and crass commercialization than any other work of art in history."

And Roy McMullen's wonderful book, Mona Lisa: The Picture and the Myth, begins: "The Mona Lisa is without a doubt the most famous work in the entire forty-thousand-year history of the visual arts. It provokes instant shocks of recognition on every continent  . . . , reduces the Venus de Milo and the Sistine Chapel to the level of merely local marvels, sells as many postcards as a tropical resort, and stimulates as many amateur detectives as an unresolved international murder mystery. Moreover, it has been famous a remarkably long,almost uninterrupted period. When it was still in Leonardo's studio in Florence, and very probably not yet finished, it was already inspiring imitations. By the middle of the the sixteenth century it was being pronounced divine rather than human in its perfection; by the middle of the nineteenth it was a goal for pilgrimages and the object of a cult that mixed romantic religiosity with eroticism and rhetoric. It is decidedly not a painting like other paintings; it might be better described, on the basis of the record, as a cross between a universal fetish and a Hollywood-era film star."

OK, so how did it come to be so?

First, of course, behind the mystique of the Mona Lisa is the mystique of Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. Leonardo, more than any other, has come to symbolize the Renaissance--the seer, the seeker of knowledge in many fields, the heroic old wise man.

There is some doubt about the actual date of the painting, with some authorities holding out for 1504, some for 1513-16, and some for a long gestation that may have included sketches before 1504 and completion around 1515. Much information comes from Giorgio Vasari's short biography of Leonardo da Vinci, written around 1550, unfortunately rife with errors.

There is some doubt about the identity of the woman in the painting, too. The earliest answer, from 1517, is that she was merely a "certain Florentine lady," but Vasari specifically identifies her as Mona Lisa, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo (Mona is from madonna meaning Mrs.). Regardless of the true identity of the sitter, Mrs. Giocondo's name is commonly associated with the painting, referred to in English-speaking countries as the Mona Lisa, in Italy as La Gioconda, and in France as La Joconde.

However, Leonardo did not mention Mrs. Giocondo, but referred to Giuliano de' Medici. Sixteenth century inventories at Fontainebleau listed the work as a picture of "a courtesan in a gauze veil." So, we add an element of mystery to the Leonardo mystique.

Over the centuries, a number of other women have been put forth as the model, including a suggestion that Leonardo used himself, looking in a mirror (so right/left reversed), as well as the notion that she was painted from Leonardo's imagination, with no particular model in mind. Larry Feinberg, Ryan curator in European paintings at Chicago's Art Institute, says that consensus today is pretty much in favor of Mrs. Giocondo. She would have been in her late 20s or early 30s at the time.

Leonardo did not give the painting to the Giocondo family, but kept it himself, and took it with him to Milan, Rome, and France, and used it as a "calling card," says Feinberg--sort of an advertisement: "Hey, look what I painted! I can paint for you, too!" So in addition to being a mystery, the painting was also something of a publicity gimmick, from its earliest days.

The Mona Lisa revolutionized painting. The pose itself broke tradition--previously, portraits were invariably full length. Leonardo introduced the waist-up, hands-folded-on-lap approach, which allowed for a much more intimate treatment.  The pose was imitated immediately and became fashionable for portraiture by such painters are Raphael. The background is painted in a gradation of lights and colors, losing details in the distance, instead of the traditional approach in which foreground and background are equally distinct. Mona herself is rendered with extraordinary vividness--one has a sense of viewing the living woman. (The effortless realism of photography has perhaps diminished our capacity to appreciate this.) Leonardo displayed in this work a mastery of technique that was unknown at the time, profoundly impressed his contemporaries, and has seldom been equalled since.

OK, so we have the mystique of Leonardo, the early mystery and publicity, and to that we add an artistic revolution--all qualities that contributed to the Mona Lisa's growing fame.

In the 1530s, the painting was acquired by Francis I, King of France, and kept at Fontainebleau, where it was seen by dignitaries and upper levels of society. Early viewers were startled and dazzled at the illusion, commenting on how alive she looked. An account from 1550 mentions "a smile so pleasing that it seems divine rather than human."

In 1625, the Duke of Buckingham tried to acquire the painting for England, but several people appealed to the French king that he would be losing "his most beautiful painting out of the kingdom." By that time, it had long been famous.

In the time of Louis XIV (late 1600s), there were copies, some good enough to have at one time been attributed to Leonardo himself--including versions of a nude Gioconda (there were rumours that Leonardo had himself painted a nude version).

In the 1650s, the Mona Lisa was moved to the Louvre, then a royal residence. During the 1700s the work was kept in the king's private collection away from public view, a state of affairs that a 1747 pamphlet deplored. When the Louvre became a museum in the late 1700s, the Mona Lisa remained hidden in "badly lit little room." By 1800, it was hanging in Bonaparte's bedroom in the Tuileries (he called it "Madame Lisa") where it stayed until 1804 when it was moved to the Grande Galerie of the Louvre.

"During the nineteenth century the Gioconda myth ripened into an outre lushness, like a giant orchid in damp moonlight," McMullen writes. You gotta love a book with images like that.

Accessible to the public once again, the painting became a popular hit. This was the great Romantic era, and Leonardo was again a hero. McMullen quips that "Leonardolatry encouraged Giocondolatry." The number of painted copies and engraved reproductions multiplied. Writers and poets from the Marquis de Sade to Jules Michelet referred to her; for example, George Sand described a character as having "a certain smile, mysterious like that of Mona Lisa, which she had on her lips and in the corner of an eye." She was called a femme fatale, adding intrigue and passion to an already heady mix. By the mid-1800s she was an icon, the most celebrated painting in the world, famous for being famous.

Her fame became transcendent in 1911, when the painting was stolen from the Louvre. There was a public outcry, focused on how poorly such treasures were guarded. Rewards were offered, amidst banner headlines of shock and mourning, in the worldwide press. Newspaper accounts of the theft gave her enormous familiarity at all levels of society. If you knew only one painting, that painting was the Mona Lisa.

When the police got nowhere in their investigations, the public attitude gave way to mockery: cartoons showing her eloping with Leonardo, or thumbing her nose at France. There were Gioconda radiator caps for motorists, a Gioconda waltz, films--McMullen cites a German farce in which bumpkins mistake a vacationing woman for the missing celebrity and forcibly ship her to the museum. The Paris mid-Lent parade had a float of Mona Lisa taking off in an airplane. Music hall and theatrical stars were photographed in the Mona Lisa pose.

Just about the time the furor died down, the painting was found in Italy and returned to France in the autumn of 1913. The return was a royal progress, with stops along the way for exhibitions. Mona was a sensation once again. Songs were written about her. New years's greeting cards displayed her. There was a postcard labelled "Her Return" showing the thief and the Mona Lisa, holding a baby.

This mockery was not entirely new; there had been elements of it in the late 1800s. But following World War I, both the painting and the mystique became fair game and were widely exploited. The Dadaists viewed her as a cultural fetish of the bourgeoisie. Marcel Duchamp painted a mustache and a beard on a reproduction, and called it "L.H.O.O.Q." (a pun on elle a chaud au cul, she has a hot ass.) Aldous Huxley wrote a short story, "The Gioconda Smile," deflating the heroine of Romantic fiction. There was a German opera about Lisa as the femme fatale with several lovers, who eventually murders her jealous husband Francesco del Giocondo. Nat King Cole sang about her in 1950. She appeared as a photograph negative, with a Salvador Dali moustache, wearing an owl mask, as a vampire, with Stalin's face. She had become a familiar theme, and artists of all sorts tried their hands at re-forming her or commenting on her.

That commercial exploitation continues. The big sales campaign started in 1911, at the time of the theft, and has expanded steadily. By the 1970s, there were Mona Lisa nylon underwear, Mona Lisa T-shirts, sweaters, scarfs, compacts, hairpins, jigsaw puzzles, plates, dishtowels, wastebaskets, depilatories.  In Paris, you could eat at the Mona Lisa restaurant or the Cafe de la Jocondo. She advertised cigarettes, cheese, and Joconde oranges imported from Spain.

In 1963, she spent seven weeks in the U.S., seen by over a million and a half viewers.   In 1974, over two million people saw her on a tour in Tokyo and Moscow. Tokyo bars and shops changed their names to Mona Lisa, a nightclub staged the world's first Mona Lisa Nude Revue, and her face (with smile turned to a frown) was used as a poster in a political campaign against government policy. In Moscow, viewers left poems and flowers in front of the panel, as if she were a sacred image.

Harriss says that the Mona Lisa today "is in the paradoxical situation of being both the symbol of Art and the inspiration for kitsch."

So that's the nutshell history of the mystique, and some of the elements that contributed to it.  But now we're back where we started: how do we explain this incredible fame?

Hard to say, in the end. Inertia is part of it. Once the popularity ball starts rolling, it keeps rolling. McMullen says, "The effect of momentum should also be remembered: as in all sorts of stardom and best selling, the success of the Mona Lisa reached at a certain indeterminable point--somewhere in the middle of the nineteenth century--what can be called a cultural orbiting speed, and after that it had little need for fresh impetus."  He comments at length on the exhibition facilities, dominant artistic criteria, shared cultural attitudes, and fashions in sensibility over the centuries.

Let's not overlook the painting itself--the technique, the tone values. McMullen says Leonardo was a wizard, who "combined optics with legerdemain, actuality with artifice, matter with spirit, and the natural with the supernatural."

There are other theories and explanations, each more esoteric and scholarly and unfathomable than the other, such as Andre Malraux who thinks the Mona Lisa combines Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian ideals into "the Eternal Feminine." Uh-huh.

Interesting as the explanations are, they ultimately fail to answer the question you've posed--why this particular painting?  There were other masterpieces that might have had such a career; why has this one alone held the spotlight for nearly 500 years?

Larry Feinberg from Chicago's Art Institute attributes it to the idealization, the mystery, the ephemeral, other-worldly quality of the painting. McMullen adds the interesting twist that the Mona Lisa was more open to interpretation than any competitors. "The work stimulates analogy through its intense ambiguity, its sense of mystery. . . . It was, and still is, one of the supreme examples in Western art of sheer availability for meaning, [inviting] the viewer-reader to discover for himself, perhaps invent, what is signified."

If it helps, Harriss quotes Jean Magrat, president of the Friends of Mona Lisa, a club of serious collectors of Gioconiana, as saying, "Frankly, I don't much like that painting. To me it's not expressive and it doesn't look like a real person. But I guess it's timeless, hélas."

I wonder if she's smiling because she knows?

Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?
Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?
Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep;
They just lie there and they die there;
Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?
Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?
-- Jay Livingston and Ray Evans

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