Written by Erika Miller.
She is not extravagantly adorned with lavish jewelry or lush colors, her hair is not stylistically coifed, and there is nothing in her dress to suggest great wealth or importance. Even so, at least 30,000 people from all over the globe visit her daily at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. She is known to the world as Mona Lisa and she represents the two-dimensional likeness of a woman from a bygone era. Despite her lack of sentience, for five-hundred years the Mona Lisa has enthralled the likes of kings and scholars. She has been studied, copied, and parodied for decades, but despite her renown, only few can say they know the woman behind the smile.
Leonardo da Vinci “Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo” oil on wood panel, c. 1503-1519 ©RMN – Grand Palais (Musée du Louvre)/Michel Urtado
The Woman and the Artist
So, who was it that inspired the great Italian master himself, Leonardo da Vinci, to create such a cultural impact in one painting? Her name was Lisa Giocondo, the wife of a silk merchant who commissioned the painting in 1503, for their newly purchased home. Although Lisa had become an aristocrat, her life was not one that would cause obvious sparks of inspiration for Leonardo’s artistic abilities to flourish. In reality, the portrait of Lisa Giocondo was a way for Leonardo to create a technical feat undiscovered by the art community of the Italian Renaissance. Like Italy, other countries in Europe were exploring new modes of art. Countries like Germany and the Netherlands for instance, were forging their own renaissance. The influx of trade between northern and southern regions of Europe meant that artists were exposed to new and varying art techniques.
The Mona Lisa was Leonardo’s opportunity to experiment with a different kind of portraiture, like that seen in the works of Dutch artist, Hans Memling.
The Mona Lisa exhibited the first time in Italian art where the subject was depicted in an almost full-scale, life-like representation, as well as her eye level gaze allowing her to make contact with the viewer. The use of oil paint in the portrait, a popular medium with artists in northern Europe, aided Leonardo to perfect a painting technique called sfumato, a kind of shading that creates a blurring effect, and is what enhances the believability of the Mona Lisa’s realistic features. Additionally, Leonardo implemented the use of a natural landscape behind Lisa with a hint of architecture surrounding her, giving the impression that she is on her balcony in her new home.
Naturally, it would be easy to assume that the Mona Lisa’s popularity grew because of the technical accomplishment achieved by Leonardo. But what captivated her viewers was not the artistic genius of Leonardo but the essence he gave to his portrait. Giorgio Vasari, famed writer and historian during the 16th century, complimented on the liveliness of the painting soon after its completion. Vasari was not the only one to be lured by the content gaze and knowing smile of Leonardo’s Lisa; France’s King François I kept the painting in his apartments at Fontainebleau and later King Louis XIV kept her in his court of Versailles. She even captured the heart of famed looter and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, staying with him until his defeat at Waterloo in 1815 when she was then established at the Louvre Museum. Despite enchanting past rulers in their homes and inspiring the educated elite in the museum, the Mona Lisa did not become beloved by the general public until one fateful August day in 1911.
The Louvre at this time was not only the largest museum in the world, but also one of the least secure ones. In years prior, it had seen the theft and vandalism of various pieces of art. The vandalism, in particular, was a great concern to the museum, so measures were taken to ensure the safety of numerous paintings by installing a glass fixture to keep them from harm. The Mona Lisa was one of these paintings. And yet, on Tuesday, August 22, 1911, the Mona Lisa was discovered missing by museum officials but by then she had unknowingly been gone for almost twenty-four hours.
By the end of the week, her disappearance was in every newspaper around the world and a detailed investigation to the likes of Sherlock Holmes had begun.
In hopes of finding the painting in a hidden cranny of the sprawling museum, the Louvre closed its doors to the public but unfortunately, was left with nothing but the shadow of a two and a half feet tall frame and the certainty of theft. What the museum did find when it reopened a week later, were throngs of people wanting to validate the claims of the newspapers by viewing the now empty wall.
These were not just the educated or the elite who had sought out the Mona Lisa in the past, it was also anyone who read the news. This meant that for the first time, people who had never before seen Lisa’s intense gaze or wondered at her smirk, were now contemplating her theft and mourning the artistic loss.
While the police investigated all of Paris, they also started creating a list of suspects including the employees of the museum and local artists wanting a piece of inspiration from one of the great masters; even Pablo Picasso and his vagabond group of creative friends were serious suspects. At a time when copying and collecting art had become fashionable among old and new elite, it was impossible to know if the painting was still with the thief or sold to the highest bidder.
Credit: Mary Evans Picture Library no. 10031014
After a year of searching, questioning, and theorizing, the investigation was closed due to a lack of reliable leads, sources, and willpower to continue. At the same time, the public interest in the case had waned with the growing uneasiness between world powers and the distress over the sinking of the Titanic. Two years after that momentous August day, when the public had almost forgotten about the unrecovered painting and the newspapers seemed to be finding a new Mona Lisa every week, Leonardo’s true masterpiece was discovered in Florence, Italy during a failed attempt to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery on December, 12, 1913. The culprit was an Italian man by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia, a worker at the Louvre who had helped install the glass barrier around the Mona Lisa thus giving him the ability to easily retrieve the painting and bypass the museum guards. And despite being questioned by the police during the investigation he had caused no further suspicion. Peruggia viewed himself as a patriot of Italy and believing in his own erroneous ideas that Napoleon Bonaparte had looted the art piece from Italy, he took her on behalf of his slighted nation.
The Way Back
After she was authenticated by Louvre officials, and had her own celebratory tour of Italy, she returned to fill that vacant spot in the Louvre in January of 1914. She was once again the object of everyone’s fascination. She was no longer just a photograph in a newspaper but something tangible that evoked a new sense of pride for all who viewed her.
Though the Mona Lisa was swiftly secured in her home, the trial for Peruggia was not so prompt. It was six months before the trial commenced and by then, those involved with the investigation and the general public’s enthusiasm over the case had been drained. Peruggia was sentenced to a little over a year in prison which was ultimately shortened and the case was quickly closed because by then, Europe was at the brink of a world war.
For the theft and attempted sale of a then, four-hundred year old work of art, Peruggia served less than a year in prison.
It was a theft that thrusted a seemingly simple portrait of an unknown woman into the eyes of the world.
Yet the event that made her the pop icon she is today was lost in the history pages of a world war. And Lisa Giocondo would not be known as a muse for the great Leonardo da Vinci but the object many books, studies, bucket-lists, and selfies. Her charm will endure but the woman behind the paint and infuriatingly curious smile, never did get to see her painted likeness that created an artistic phenomenon.
Chapman, Jean. “Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.” Lecture. UNC Charlotte, April 26, 2016.
Isbouts, Jean-Pierre. “The ‘Earlier Version’ of the Mona Lisa as the Portrait of Lisa Del Giocondo Described by Vasari.” The Mona Lisa Foundation, July 28, 2016. http:// monalisa.org/2013/10/26/the-earlier-version-of-the-mona-lisa-as-the-portrait-of-lisa-delgiocondo-described-by-vasari/.
Nayeri, Farah. “Want to See the Mona Lisa? Get in Line.” The New York Times. The New York Times, August 12, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/12/arts/design/mona-lisalouvre.html.
Scailliérez, Cécile. “Mona Lisa – Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco Del Giocondo.” Louvre Museum, July 16, 2019. https://www.louvre.fr/en/oeuvre-notices/mona-lisaportrait-lisa-gherardini-wife-francesco-del-giocondo.
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Staff, NPR. “The Theft That Made The 'Mona Lisa' A Masterpiece.” NPR. NPR, July 30, 2011. https://www.npr.org/2011/07/30/138800110/the-theft-that-made-the-mona-lisa-amasterpiece.
Zug, James. “Stolen: How the Mona Lisa Became the World's Most Famous Painting.” Smithsonian Magazine . Smithsonian Institution, June 15, 2011. https: www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/stolen-how-the-mona-lisa-became-the-worldsmost-famous-painting-16406234/.
Written by Erika Miller
Erika has her BA in Art History from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. She currently lives in North Carolina with her family. She has a passion for travel and loves to read
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the InFocus History website or its editors