Tuesday 03 September 2013 - by Kyl Chhatwal
At some point between the years 1503 and 1506 a Florentine noblewoman named Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, sat as a model for the painter Leonardo Da Vinci. The product of this sitting—now the world’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa in English, or La Gioconda in Italian—turned 500 not so many years ago, an anniversary difficult to fix because Da Vinci worked on the painting at least until 1517, perpetually retouching the Mona Lisa’s famous smile, and never completing it to his satisfaction.
That Lisa Gherardini, or Lisa del Giocondo, is in fact the model for the painting has not been conclusively proven, but remains the consensus of most art scholars today. Da Vinci’s first biographer, the Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari, wrote in his 1550 biography that “Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocando, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife”—“Mona” being an abbreviated version of “ma donna,” or “my lady.”
In the five centuries since Mona Lisa del Giocondo was immortalized in oil, her unobtrusive, quietly powerful likeness has lived through and witnessed a great deal of history indeed. Following Da Vinci’s death it was purchased by the King of France. Eventually it adorned the halls of Louis XIV’s—the Sun King’s—Versailles.
After the French Revolution, in 1797, Mona became the property of the Louvre, although for a brief period she also spent time hanging on Napoleon’s bedroom wall.
She has lived through her share of indignities too: during WWII she was trucked all over France to escape the prying hands of the Nazi’s; and in 1956 she had acid splashed on her bottom half. From stones to teacups, all sorts of things have been hurled at poor Mona, usually by people with some arcane political motive.
Most famously, in 1911, she was stolen from the Louvre and locked in a small wooden chest in a Paris apartment for two years. (Already 400 years old, Mona was hardly accustomed to such cramped quarters.)
Her 1911 theft is the best-known episode of her colourful history, and is partly responsible for her enormous popularity today. The man responsible for the theft was Vincent Peruggia, an employee at the Louvre, who hid in a broom closet until after hours before unceremoniously plucking the great painting off the wall. (Not exactly a Thomas Crown affair!)
Peruggia wanted to return Mona to her country of birth; in particular, to the city of Florence. It was while he was trying to sell her to the Uffizi Gallery, in fact, that he was apprehended by police. Given only a six month sentence, he was later proclaimed a hero and patriot by many of his fellow Italians.
Peruggia repatriated Mona in 1913. Following his arrest, she toured Italy before being sent back to France, drawing huge crowds wherever she went.
This was 100 years ago. And poor, exiled Mona has not been home since.
To mark the centenary of Mona’s last Italian sojourn, 150,000 Italians recently signed a petition requesting that the Louvre allow their most famous prodigal daughter to be returned to them—if not indefinitely, then at least for a visit.
This is not the first time such a request has been made. As for the Louvre, chances are they’ll never give up their great Italian star for good. After all, for at least a century, she’s been, indisputably, the most famous piece of art in the world.
Anyone who has visited the Louvre knows that, along with the Venus de Milo, Mona is the museum’s biggest draw; and according to Louvre statistics, six million visitors ponder her beauty each year.
The average amount of time each visitor spends in Mona’s presence? About 15 seconds. The most commonly-noted impression of her? Her size. Painted on a poplar board only 30 inches by 21 inches, Mona is in fact quite small. And like all celebrities, she sometimes leaves those she meets with the startled understanding that—famous or not—she too was conceived on a human scale.