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The Mona Lisa: history and mystery

The Mona Lisa Painting

The Mona Lisa is one of the most emblematic portraits in the history of painting. Painted by Leonardo da Vinci in the 16th century, it joined the collections of the court of France before being added to the works on display at the Louvre Museum.

A painting in the bags of Leonardo da Vinci

It is often said that the Mona Lisa was a work that Leonardo da Vinci, by invitation from King François I, brought with him to France. The history books mention a female portrait that was with the Italian artist and scientist when he stayed at Clos Lucé castle (also known as the Manoir du Cloux) near to the Loire Château of Amboise.

The Mona Lisa then belonged to the royal collections and was exhibited at the Palace of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. It only came to the Louvre in 1797.

An enduring appeal

The composition technique of the Mona Lisa makes it one of the most studied works in the history of art and by apprentice artists. It is highly regarded for its modern framing as a portrait that could be painted now. More subtly, optical effects are created by the positioning of the young woman’s eyes and her enigmatic smile. Some people say they feel watched by the Mona Lisa, no matter where they are standing. This anecdote demonstrates Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific and anatomical knowledge. As for the Mona Lisa’s famous smile, witness accounts say that a group of musicians played while the painter worked to keep this joyful attitude.

The background is also a textbook case. The sfumato technique is used to create perspective that merges gently.

Constructing the legend of the Mona Lisa

It is undoubtedly the mystery of the Mona Lisa that has made it so famous. But is it actually Lisa who is depicted? It is reported that the person who commissioned the painting from Leonardo da Vinci was a nobleman living in Florence. Twice widowed, Francesco del Giocondo married a young woman named Lisa in 1495. It is this story that gave the little painting, measuring 30 inches x 21 inches, its name. Another theory is that the young woman in the picture is no other than a mistress of Giuliano de' Medici, ruler of the Republic of Florence. The mystery has never been solved.

The Mona Lisa became popular with the general public when it was famously stolen in 1911. The press jumped on the event: people wanted to know who could have stolen the Mona Lisa, why, and above all how. The painting was found, and the guilty party was an overly nationalistic Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia, who had intended to return the work to his home country.

The Mona Lisa in popular culture

In 1919, Marcel Duchamp used the portrait of Mona Lisa as the basis for his own version. He wrote the letters “LHOOQ” along the bottom, like “look” in English, but when each letter is read out loud in French, it makes a bawdy joke. In 2003, Dan Brown’s novel sold more than 80 million copies and gave a new dimension to the Mona Lisa. She is the focus of one of the mysteries in the Da Vinci Code, the international crime bestseller.

The Mona Lisa continues to surprise us. Her mystery attracts the crowds to the point of almost being an icon of the Louvre Museum. To see her, head to the Paintings Department, Denon wing, room 6.

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