Written By Darshan M (Grade 10)
The theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre Museum in 1911 marked a significant turning point in the history of art, elevating this iconic painting to the pinnacle of fame and curiosity. The story of this masterpiece, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, is rich in history and mystery.
The Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, is considered one of the most famous paintings in the world today. It was created by the Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci in 1503. Da Vinci was not just a painter; he was also an engineer, scientist, sculptor, architect, and theorist, with knowledge spanning various subjects, including cartography, astronomy, anatomy, botany, hydrology, geology, optics, and paleontology.
The identity of the woman in the painting has been a source of curiosity and speculation for centuries. According to Giorgio Vasari, an Italian artist who wrote Leonardo da Vinci’s biography in 1550, the woman in the painting is Lisa Gherardini, who was married to a silk trader named Francesco Giocondo. This is why the painting is commonly known as the Mona Lisa, derived from “Madonna Lisa.” In Italian, “Madonna” means “Madam,” and it was later shortened to “Monna,” which then became “Mona.” “Mona Lisa” essentially means “Madam Lisa” or “Lady Lisa.” Additionally, Lisa Gherardini became Lisa Giocondo after her marriage, and “Giocondo” means “light-hearted” or “cheerful” in Italian, which is fitting for the painting’s famous smile.
Despite Vasari’s account, many theories and speculations emerged about the identity of the woman in the painting. Some suggested she might be Leonardo da Vinci’s mother or a queen from the Italian aristocracy. The most intriguing theory proposed that the painting is a self-portrait of Da Vinci, imagining himself as a woman. However, in 2004, a professor from Florence conducted extensive research and found clear evidence to confirm that the woman in the painting was indeed Lisa Giocondo. He also uncovered the close relationship between the da Vinci and Giocondo families, suggesting that the painting might have been commissioned by Leonardo’s father.
Theories regarding the timing of the painting’s creation suggest it might have been completed in 1503 when Francesco and Lisa Giocondo purchased their home or in December 1502 when their second son was born. The latter is more likely, as three years earlier, in 1499, Lisa had lost her daughter. The presence of a mourning veil in the painting further supports this theory.
The journey of the Mona Lisa from Italy to France adds another layer of historical significance. In 1516, King Francis I of France invited Leonardo da Vinci to live in France, and Da Vinci relocated from Italy to France, bringing the Mona Lisa with him. Historical records are not entirely clear, but it is believed that Da Vinci had not completed the painting when he moved to France. He continued working on the artwork for 15 years, continually refining and modifying it. Unfortunately, in 1519, Leonardo da Vinci passed away during his stay in the French palace. King Francis I retained the painting as part of his Royal Collection. During the French Revolution in 1797, the painting was moved from the palace and placed in the Louvre Museum.
The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911 was a sensational event that captured the world’s attention. The mastermind behind the theft, Vincenzo Peruggia, was an Italian nationalist who believed that the painting should be in Italy, not in France. He and two accomplices stole the painting from the Louvre and took it to Italy. Given the enormous value of the artwork, this was a highly risky endeavor. Peruggia did not feel secure after the theft, and eventually, his impatience led him to attempt to sell the painting to an art dealer in Florence, who became suspicious and reported the stolen artwork. Peruggia was arrested and sentenced to six months in prison, while the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre Museum.
Remarkably, the theft of the Mona Lisa played a pivotal role in elevating the painting’s popularity. Before the theft, it was not as well-known among the general public. Art enthusiasts were familiar with it, but it had not reached the level of global fame it enjoys today. The theft and subsequent recovery of the painting catapulted it into the limelight and solidified its status as the world’s most famous painting.
The Mona Lisa’s unique artistic qualities also contribute to its fame. The painting is distinctive for its use of the Sfumato technique, a method of blending colors and blurring outlines, which creates an almost seamless transition between the subject and the background. This technique is responsible for the Mona Lisa’s famous enigmatic smile. The smile appears to change depending on where you focus your gaze. When you observe the smile itself, it appears flat and almost non-existent. However, when you look at other elements of the painting and observe it peripherally, the smile seems to become more pronounced. This optical illusion is a result of Da Vinci’s meticulous study of facial muscles and the way they work together to create expressions.
Da Vinci’s fascination with the Mona Lisa’s smile led him to conduct extensive research on human facial muscles and nerves. He even dissected the faces of both humans and horses, comparing their expressions. His studies on the human eye and vision, particularly the concept that light rays do not converge into a single point but spread across the entire retina, allowed him to create a painting that appears to change in expression as the viewer’s focus shifts.
The Mona Lisa’s appearance has evolved over time due to a layer of varnish applied to protect it from moisture and bleaching. Originally, the painting was more vibrant and colorful. Some experts have attempted to recreate its original look to understand how it might have appeared in Da Vinci’s time.
The mystery deepens when considering the existence of a second Mona Lisa painting known as the “Isleworth Mona Lisa.” This second version of the painting was discovered in 1914 and is larger than the one in the Louvre. Comparing the two, the Isleworth Mona Lisa features a younger-looking woman with a different head tilt and a straightforward, less mysterious smile. Some experts speculate that Leonardo da Vinci was working on two versions of the Mona Lisa simultaneously, with the Isleworth Mona Lisa representing an earlier version. Others propose that a different artist, possibly from Da Vinci’s workshop, completed the background of the Isleworth Mona Lisa.
In 2010, the Mona Lisa Foundation investigated the Isleworth Mona Lisa and suggested that Leonardo da Vinci painted the face and hands while an inferior artist worked on the background. These theories remain subjects of debate and speculation, with no definitive evidence to support either side.
Today, the Mona Lisa resides in the Louvre Museum, displayed behind bulletproof glass and in strict climate-controlled conditions to preserve its integrity. The painting’s popularity has continued to grow, and it remains a symbol of artistic genius and intrigue. The theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, orchestrated by Vincenzo Peruggia, inadvertently contributed to its worldwide fame, solidifying its status as an iconic masterpiece in the annals of art history.
Featured Image Courtesy – Britannica