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When you think of an art museum, how does it look in your mind? Does it look like a beautiful temple, standing serene amidst a bustling city? Does it look like a dusty old palace of mysteries and strange pictures? Does it, perhaps, look like the most boring place you could ever possibly visit? Whether you visit museums all the time or would never be caught dead in one, this podcast is for you.
My name is Allyson Healey, and I’m part of the first group—I’m that weirdo who could sit in front of a painting for an hour, just looking. If I had the money, I’d buy every big coffee table book in every museum gift shop and every luxury accessory with a print of a famous painting on it. I’m an art nerd. I’ve spent my whole life entranced by the creative things human beings can produce. I even got a Master’s degree in it, I love it so much. But art doesn’t speak to everyone in the same way it speaks to me. To a lot of people, art can seem obscure and impenetrable, luxurious and excessive, even totally unnecessary, and in some ways, they’re right (even though as an art nerd I hate to admit it). For so many people, art never even enters into their consciousness, or when it does, it does so in very limited, snobby, and boring ways. This podcast is about broadening the audience for art, and making the conversation around that art more relevant to more people. It’s not so much about asking what a given artwork signifies or “means” in and of itself, but rather about asking what it means in the context of society over time. What aspects of art do we consider important or valuable, whether culturally or monetarily? Why do some artworks and artists become famous, and others remain relatively unknown? To put it another way: what’s the big deal about all this stuff?
For this first episode, I wanted to start from the most familiar place I could. Pretty much everybody knows Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, even if they haven’t seen it in real life. The thing is everywhere—t-shirts, tote bags, desk toys, music, TV…if there’s a surface, someone has probably tried to stick a picture of the Mona Lisa on it. But how much do people know about the painting itself? How did it come to be so adored worldwide? What relevance does it have to us, now, in the twenty-first century?
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A Description of the Mona Lisa:
A woman is depicted facing forward, with her body turned slightly to her right. She sits in front of a hazy landscape made up of mountains, winding roads and rivers, and a lake or sea. She wears a transparent veil over her hair, which is parted in the middle and hangs down on either side of her face in rippling brunette curls. Her dress is dark and fairly simple, with minimal embellishment, though her sleeves have a gold tone. Her dark eyes look directly at the viewer from under a smooth, pale, eyebrow-free forehead, and her nose is straight and slightly pointed at the end. Her mouth curves gently in a slight smile. Her arms are folded and her hands rest on the arm of the low-backed chair in which she sits. The entire painting as it currently appears is largely composed of earthy tones, with blues for the sea and atmospheric effects on the more faraway mountains, and reddish tones suffusing the soil alongside the winding roads in the background.
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Leonardo da Vinci began painting the portrait that would be known as Mona Lisa or La Gioconda in the early 1500s, upon his return to Florence from Milan. Florence was where he had grown up and where his family had connections—he came from a long line of legal professionals, and it’s likely that he was commissioned to paint the Mona Lisa as a result of his family’s connections with silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo and his wife, Lisa Gherardini. Francesco had married Lisa, his second wife, in 1495, when she was 15 and he was about 30. At the time that Francesco commissioned Lisa’s portrait from Leonardo, he was doing quite well financially, but Leonardo scholars Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti state that despite Francesco’s wealth and increasing social prominence, Lisa’s portrait wasn’t at the top of Leonardo’s list of priorities. Portraits were popular commissions, but they weren’t necessarily the most lucrative or intellectually challenging projects, especially if you were Leonardo and people were regularly asking you to do things like redirect rivers and build armored war vehicles. Thus, despite working on it for about four years, Leonardo never actually delivered the finished painting to Francesco and Lisa. Instead, he took it with him when King Francis I of France—perhaps the least inventively named French king—recruited him in the 1510s to design a palace for him and be a general asset to his court. Francis I greatly admired the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, and that admiration spread even amongst those who had likely never seen it, such as early art historian Giorgio Vasari.
Vasari is a huge figure in the history of art, but is less than reliable when it comes to actual historical facts. His most important work, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, does a lot of mythologizing when it comes to the lives it describes. Some of the artists and works that Vasari covers are ones he did know or would have heard of, but there’s also a lot of hearsay sprinkled throughout, and more than a little fiction. “But Allyson, why are you even talking about this dude if he’s so unreliable?” I hear you cry. Well, dear listener, Vasari is valuable because for hundreds of years people DID think he was reliable, and DID use him as their primary source of knowledge about Renaissance figures and works. He fundamentally shaped historical thought for centuries. So despite that dubious accuracy, the stories that Vasari told people are pretty crucial to understanding how people looked at Renaissance art after the Renaissance ended.
Vasari spends a good chunk of his biography of Leonardo discussing the Mona Lisa commission. Here’s an excerpt from the Oxford University Press translation of Vasari’s text:
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“For Francesco del Giocondo, Leonardo undertook the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife, and after working on it for four years, he left the work unfinished, and it may be found at Fontainebleau today in the possession of King Francis. Anyone wishing to see the degree to which art can imitate Nature can easily understand this from the head, for here Leonardo reproduced all the details that can be painted with subtlety. The eyes have the lustre and moisture always seen in living people, while around them are the lashes and all the reddish tones which cannot be produced without the greatest care.” Vasari continues later, “…to tell the truth, it can be said that portrait was painted in a way that would cause every brave artist to tremble and fear, whoever he might be. Since Mona Lisa was very beautiful, Leonardo employed this technique: while he was painting her portrait, he had musicians who played or sang and clowns who would always make her merry in order to drive away her melancholy, which painting often brings to portraits. And in this portrait by Leonardo, there is a smile so pleasing that it seems more divine than human, and it was considered a wondrous thing that it was as lively as the smile of the living original.”**
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It wasn’t long after Leonardo’s death, then, that people began to wax rhapsodic about the Mona Lisa, bringing in ideas of both otherworldliness and intense realism, and latching on to Lisa’s smile as the most remarkable thing about the painting. Whether Leonardo actually did hire entertainers to help generate Lisa’s smile is unclear, but Vasari’s inclusion of this detail frames the image not as a bog-standard Italian Renaissance portrait but as a different kind of artistic endeavor altogether, something for which the creation of natural expression was apparently paramount. The nature of that expression is what confuses most people—if Leonardo did indeed hire entertainers, then judging by Lisa’s smile they must not have been very good, because considered in that context her smile looks sort of tepid and polite. It’s just the kind of smile one would have if the guy they hired to just paint them like all their friends had been painted suddenly decided to get all conceptual on them and hired the local circus to try and force a smile. Kemp & Pallanti note that the smile could also just be read as a pun on Lisa’s married name—Giocondo, in the feminine form, becomes Gioconda, or the “jocund lady.” The relationship between the smile and the subject’s name has become muddled over the many hundreds of years through the work’s title in multiple languages: when the Italians refer to La Gioconda or the French refer to La Joconde, it’s clear that they are specifically referring to this one image of this one woman, not just any woman of the del Giocondo family.
After Leonardo’s death some gaps in the painting’s history, or provenance, began to appear, which Kemp and Pallanti are quick to note “have been seized on as spaces for unsubstantiated speculation,” and effectively put that sort of foolishness to bed by matter-of-factly setting out the timeline of the painting: the Mona Lisa remained with Leonardo until his 1519 death, at which point his pupil Salaì inherited it, and then after Salaì’s death in 1524 Francis I acquired it and it remained in France thereafter.
The French royal art collections were redistributed between various residences over the years, eventually ending up at Versailles, and were then transferred from there to the Louvre after the French Revolution in 1797, creating the foundation for the first modern art museum. Soon after that move, when Napoleon assumed power, the Mona Lisa was one of the works he chose to adorn his own residence, specifically his bedroom, at the Tuileries Palace. He returned it to the Louvre when he became Emperor in 1804, and it’s still there today, albeit not in precisely the same imperial circumstances.
For a brief period of time, however, the Mona Lisa was conspicuously absent from the Louvre altogether—in August 1911, it was stolen right off the gallery wall and was not returned until 1913. Oddly enough, nobody really noticed the theft for nearly two whole days—according to a chapter from Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler’s 2009 book The Crimes of Paris, republished in Vanity Fair, the Louvre’s photographers often moved objects from the galleries to their studio to photograph them without notifying curators or maintenance staff. This was assumed to be the case with the Mona Lisa, which is kind of mind-blowing to anyone who’s been to a museum lately, given that they have guards absolutely EVERYWHERE and they’re pretty quick to jump on you if you so much as breathe too close to something. The day after the theft, when the galleries reopened and an insistent art student demanded to know where the work he planned to copy had gone, everyone suddenly realized what had actually happened, and the media had a field day. Countless people were suspected, including Pablo Picasso, who had been in a bit of trouble a few years earlier for buying some Iberian sculptures that had been stolen from the Louvre by the secretary of a prominent art critic. Some conspiracy theorists of the period even suspected banker and professional rich person J.P. Morgan for the theft, due to his particularly greedy and predatory style of art collecting.
The Louvre left the space where the Mona Lisa had hung empty for about a year after the theft, and it garnered as much, if not more, attention than the actual artwork. It became a memorial site of sorts, and people even left flowers under the blank space—the absence of the picture was just as powerful as its presence. Eventually the space was filled by a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, and in December 1912 the reproduction was replaced by Raphael’s portrait of Italian courtier Baldassare Castiglione. An entirely different artist, an entirely different subject, erasing even the memory of the Mona Lisa having hung in its place.
It was almost a year after the replacement of Mona Lisa with Baldassare, in November 1913, that the thief began to emerge from hiding. An Italian art and antiquities dealer named Alfredo Geri received an anonymous letter from a person who claimed to have the Mona Lisa. Mistakenly believing that the painting had been looted by Napoleon, the thief claimed that he stole the painting in order to restore an Italian national treasure, and said he “would not refuse compensation” if a reward were possible. After a number of cancelled meetings, Geri, along with Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, met the thief in Florence in December 1913. He escorted them to his room in the Hotel Tripoli-Italia, where he removed the false bottom from a trunk full of junk and pulled out the Mona Lisa. Poggi quickly determined it to be the real thing, even down to the Louvre catalogue number on the back of the wood panels. After persuading the thief to let them take it back to the Uffizi for further tests, and then persuading him to let them keep it there until they could get further instructions from the government, as well as the large reward promised, Geri and Poggi finally had the painting secured. Almost as soon as the thief returned to his hotel after the final meeting with Geri and Poggi, police knocked on his room’s door to arrest him for the theft.
The thief’s name turned out to be Vincenzo Perruggia, and he had actually briefly worked at the Louvre, even building the case that housed the Mona Lisa while it was there. And how had he masterminded this incredible crime? He put on a smock, walked into the Louvre, took it off the wall, then walked into a side stairwell, took the painting out of its frame and case, then hid it under his smock and left.
Well, he also had to remove a door handle so he could actually get OUT of the stairwell, but other than that, the whole enterprise was surprisingly simple for the theft of such a major artwork from a major museum. Perruggia was sentenced to one year and 15 days in prison for the theft, which was later reduced to seven months after a successful appeal. This turned out to have been just about the amount of time he’d been held since his arrest, so he was released. Ah, the justice system!
Over time, inconsistencies in Perruggia’s story and questions about whether he acted alone have been contemplated repeatedly. But I think the way the theft was carried out is far less important to us now than the fact that the painting was stolen at all. Given the centuries-long fascination with the Mona Lisa as some kind of mystical, romantic object, it’s almost surprising that nobody seems to have tried to steal it before 1911. Kemp and Pallanti’s account of the theft suggests that Perruggia had an “emotional involvement” with the painting—not so hard to believe, given the way art critics and historians have written about it throughout history. Perruggia’s theft didn’t necessarily make the painting into a “legend” or a “masterpiece,” as we’ve seen that it was fairly legendary even before then. But it catapulted the work beyond the art historical sphere and into the popular consciousness.
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A 2006 BBC article claims that six million people view the Mona Lisa per year. That’s nearly twice the population of Los Angeles. Six million people per year shuffle into a gallery and slowly push themselves forward until they are stopped by a rope barrier, which sits about three feet in front of a wooden barrier, which in turn is set a short distance away from the bulletproof glass that contains the carefully climate-controlled painting. The painting itself is only 30 inches by 21 inches, not very big at all. Between the sheer distance from the painting, the glare on the bulletproof glass, and the small size of the painting itself, not to mention the hundreds of other tourists with their smartphone cameras and DSLRs aimed directly at it, the Mona Lisa is perhaps shrouded in mystery now mainly because it’s so difficult to properly see it. It’s also positively dwarfed by the painting that hangs opposite it, Paolo Veronese’s The Wedding Feast at Cana, which measures a little over 22 by 32 feet. The setting in which the Mona Lisa hangs is not, in and of itself, something that really shows the painting off to its best advantage. Part of all this is, of course, practical—the Louvre, like many European museums, was not purpose-built to be a museum space, so there’s not exactly a ton of room available to give the Mona Lisa its own dedicated, hallowed chamber. The Mona Lisa has also been vandalized multiple times, from someone throwing acid on it in 1956, to someone throwing a rock at it the very same year, to a disablity rights activist spraying it with paint in 1974, to a woman throwing a mug at the bulletproof glass in 2009. That, combined with the fact that Perruggia essentially just walked off with it in 1911, is more than enough justification for keeping the painting as far away from potential harm as possible. But it does make the viewing of the painting intensely frustrating for many visitors, making the pilgrimage to see the most famous image in the world less of a pleasure and more of a chore.
Despite this, or perhaps because of it, the image of the Mona Lisa is reproduced on all kinds of objects and is mythologized in all kinds of media. One of the most notable manipulations is a 1919 work by the artist Marcel Duchamp, a member of an anarchic movement called Dada that confronted the chaotic post-WWI world with equally chaotic images, poetry, and performances. Duchamp took a print of the Mona Lisa, drew a small mustache and goatee on Lisa’s face, and wrote underneath the image the letters L.H.O.O.Q. In English, these letters mean nothing. But when said in French, Duchamp’s native language, the letters sound very similar to the phrase “Elle a chaud au cul,” meaning “she’s got a hot ass.” Once you realize the pun, the image takes on a kind of graffiti-like quality—it’s blasphemous, it’s insulting, it’s even a bit destructive in a way. It plays into the disrespectful, nonsensical spirit of what Duchamp and his fellow Dadaists were trying to do, but it also reinforces the Mona Lisa’s legendary status. By judging the Mona Lisa to be worthy of vandalism, L.H.O.O.Q. acknowledges the sacred status of the original painting. It acknowledges the numerous personifications of the painting by making a vulgar pun that refers to a “she”—by the logic of most language, the only “she” that it could refer to is Mona Lisa herself. The insult is general in that it’s not explicitly directed at any real individual, but it’s also specific and personal in that it’s placed in relation to the image of a single person. And not just any person, but a person whose image has been essentially revered for hundreds of years.
But where Duchamp’s image is more of an artistic statement, reproductions of and references to the Mona Lisa are perhaps best known in their more commercial forms. Nat King Cole’s namesake love song, for example, is a midcentury pop classic that trains its focus on the portrait’s mysterious smile and blurs the line between the woman being sung to and the painting being referenced. The conflation of woman and image, and the perception of Mona Lisa’s smile as seductive, is a recurring theme in a lot of commentaries on the painting, like this one by art critic Théophile Gautier from 1857:
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“…the expression, wise, deep, velvety, full of promise, attracts you irresistibly and intoxicates you, while the sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners, under violet-tinged shadows, mocks you with such sweetness and grace and superiority, that you feel wholly timid like a schoolboy before a duchess…repressed desires, despairing hopes well up painfully in the shadow shot with sunbeams, and you discover that your melancholy arises from the fact that la Jocconde, three hundred years ago, greeted your avowal of love with the same mocking smile which she retains even today on her lips.”**
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Gautier is definitely on the more intense end of the Mona Lisa admiration spectrum, but he’s a good example of how many people tend to talk about the Mona Lisa not as a work of art, but as a living woman, more often than not a living woman who is trying to seduce the viewer. In the popular imagination, the only thing better than a mystery is a sexy mystery, and it’s passages like this one that further amplify the unanswered questions surrounding the painting by applying a sensual interpretation to the work’s central mystery—Mona Lisa’s smile.
The mysteries of the Mona Lisa, whether genuine or applied to the painting by overactive imaginations, took on a more conspiratorial bent with the publication of Dan Brown’s novel The Da Vinci Code in 2003. The original cover prominently featured the Mona Lisa’s eyes, despite the fact that the Mona Lisa itself is not the most important work in the story. But the Mona Lisa is already associated with mysteries and unanswered questions, so what better Leonardo work to use to exemplify that mysteriousness? Between the mythologizing about Mona Lisa’s smile and the tin-hatting about Leonardo’s connections to the Knights Templar, it seems pop culture, and culture more generally, has taken every possible opportunity to not only investigate real questions surrounding the Mona Lisa, but also to entirely manufacture new mysteries, as if the existing ones aren’t juicy enough. And for a non-art historian, let’s be honest, they probably aren’t juicy enough. It’s hard to find the glamour in digging around dusty old Tuscan archives looking for five-hundred-year-old receipts.
So what’s the value, then, of creating all this mystery and hype? It certainly increases the monetary value of the original work of art—the Mona Lisa was valued for insurance purposes at $100 million in 1962, which works out to about $800 million today. It also makes the Louvre a more desirable place to visit, and in turn, makes Mona Lisa souvenirs at the Louvre gift shop more desirable to buy. It also makes any other object associated with the Mona Lisa more desirable—take for instance Louis Vuitton’s recent collaboration with contemporary artist Jeff Koons, a collection of handbags and tech cases featuring reproductions of famous paintings emblazoned with the names of their respective artists. Judging by this collection, it would seem that the Mona Lisa is legendary enough to justify pricing a wallet at 1770 American dollars, to say nothing of the $4000 duffel bag.
So the Mona Lisa is a huge cash cow for its home institution and for companies looking to capitalize on its cachet. But what about for us, for ordinary human beings who aren’t looking to make a buck or write a song or craft a web of conspiracy theories around it? What value does this Most Famous Image have for people in general? Well, as has been proven time and time again, and continues to be proven through the popularity of the genre, people love a mystery. They love being given a problem to solve or an answer to seek out, even if the answer has already been found or the problem is one that never really existed in the first place. And despite there now being a decent amount of documentation to answer some of the older questions surrounding the Mona Lisa, there are some things that we will probably never get an answer to, short of learning Italian and hopping in a time machine to go and ask Leonardo and Lisa what the hell the smile was all about. The immediate mysteries of the painting are further compounded by the legend of its creator’s quirky genius—his mirrored writing, his prophetic invention of flying machines and tanks, his breaking of taboos against human dissection in order to study anatomy. All of this is further jumbled up by the spread of urban legends, misinformation, and conspiracy theories, and what the general public ends up seeing is more often than not a mysterious grab bag of myths, facts, fables, and queries. As frustrating as it can sometimes be to see misinformation spread, especially about significant aspects of human history and achievement, in this case I think we can look at the mysteries and myths surrounding the Mona Lisa as valuable in and of themselves. They’re a testament of sorts to our ability to take a small wood panel painting and build it up into a pillar of Western culture, to craft a legend out of basically anything. The Mona Lisa as an object matters not just because it’s a beautiful portrait by a masterful artist, but also because it has stimulated so many imaginations to question its origins, to invent stories about its history, to make it emblematic of Paris, or Florence, or of the concept of femininity; or, indeed, to transform it into a signifier for art in general. Ask anyone to name three famous paintings and it’s very likely that the Mona Lisa will be one of them, if not the very first on the list. For so many people, it’s the quintessential Great Painting—but whether it is the Greatest is still up for debate. And honestly, that’s as it should be. The Mona Lisa has held the top spot among paintings in the popular imagination for a very long time, but with hundreds upon thousands of artistic productions having been and still being produced right now all across the planet, can we really truly say it’s retained that distinction? It’s a question to keep in mind as we continue to explore art in this podcast—how it’s viewed, how it in turn reflects back on those viewing it, and how it fits into the incredibly diverse world in which we live.
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Thanks so much for listening to Art History for All. You can find a transcript of this podcast, with links to images and complete citations and sourcing, at arthistoryforall.com. You can also check us out on Twitter at @arthistory4all, or tag us with #AH4A (that’s A, H, number 4, A). This podcast was produced, narrated, and edited by me, Allyson Healey. The theme was composed by Bruce Healey. Snacks and other life-giving sustenance necessary for the production of this podcast were provided by Patricia Healey. Credits for other background and interstitial music can be found in the podcast description. Make sure to subscribe to the podcast feed so you won’t miss future episodes, and remember to look closely: you never know what you might see.
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 Martin Kemp and Giuseppe Pallanti, Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 27.
 Kemp & Pallanti, 43.
 Kemp & Pallanti, 105.
 Giorgio Vasari, The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), page 294.
 Kemp & Pallanti, 167.
 Kemp & Pallanti, 103.
 Kemp & Pallanti, 123.
 Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler, “Stealing Mona Lisa,” Vanity Fair, May 2009, https://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2009/05/mona-lisa-excerpt200905.
 Hoobler & Hoobler.
 Hoobler & Hoobler.
 Hoobler & Hoobler.
 Hoobler & Hoobler.
 Hoobler & Hoobler.
 Kemp & Pallanti, 132.
 “Faces of the Week,” BBC News, September 29, 2006, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/magazine/5392000.stm.
 Quoted in Kemp & Pallanti, 128.
 “Highest insurance valuation for a painting,” Guinness World Records, http://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/highest-insurance-valuation-for-a-painting
 “Da Vinci in Masters LV x Koons,” Louis Vuitton, http://us.louisvuitton.com/eng-us/women/masters-lv-x-koons/da-vinci/_/N-1hklpukZ1328xji
“Lasting Hope”, “Suonatore di Liuto”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0
Art History for All © 2018 Allyson Healey
Theme music © 2018 Bruce Healey