The Mona Lisa is the most famous woman in the world — she just happens to be a painting. In a regular year, more than six million people visit her homeplace at the Louvre, just to see her. Only, they don’t really look at her. Most stand in front of her with their backs turned, phones held up for a selfie while they pose as close as they can get, kept at arm’s length by the three-inch-thick bulletproof glass. No other painting has bodyguards and permanent crowd control barriers. The Mona Lisa might be an old lady of over five hundred years, but she’s still the pinnacle of all celeb sightings.
Over the centuries she’s been adored by emperors, kings and thieves. Napoleon loved her. Marie Antoinette didn’t — “too small, too dark” — and had her retired to a poky back office at Versailles where she wouldn’t trouble the royal eyes. In the 20th century, both Jaqueline Kennedy and Queen Elizabeth came to pay court.
But Mona Lisa has become too famous, too iconic. She’s hardly even a painting anymore. She’s a meme: plastered on tea-towels, mouse mats, socks and shot glasses. Most of her visitors have long since ceased to see her, whether their backs are turned to her or not.
Yet, those who do manage to look at her observe an uncanny lifelike quality to the painting, an almost lived presence. Since the Renaissance, admirers of the Mona Lisa have remarked, “she lacks nothing but speech” (to Cassiono dal Pozzo, who visited Mona Lisa at the royal chateau in Fontainebleau in 1625). In my novel I, Mona Lisa, I took this a little further. What if she is speaking? What if she’s been trying to tell us her adventures for five hundred years and we’ve just not been listening?
After a snatched trip to Paris shortly before the first lockdown to see her in person, I spent much of the subsequent months at home staring at reproductions of her. I thought about her obsessively and tried to imagine what she would say if she could speak. Which of her adventures might she recount? Her trip across the alps on the back of a mule with da Vinci? Or the seventy years spent in the King of France’s salon du bain at Fontainebleau being gawped at by naked courtiers?
The more I read about her and the more I looked at her, the easier it was to both see and hear her. One of the unexpected delights in writing the novel was that I not only found her voice, but discovered that I could see the absolute marvel of Mona Lisa again.
But what is it that makes this painting so miraculous? There is little mystery to her identity. The model has been firmly established by scholars as Madonna Lisa del Giocondo, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a well-to-do Florentine silk merchant. Da Vinci was a neighbour of the wealthy Giocondos, and Francesco’s beautiful wife Lisa was a tempting commission for him in 1503. According to Giorgio Vasari, Lisa was painted in a courtyard filled with sweetly scented lemon trees while musicians played to make her smile — poetic, yet in all likelihood apocryphal. (Vasari was writing fifty years after Da Vinci’s death; while he spoke to people who knew the Giocondos, he probably never saw the painting, and he was famous for adding descriptive flourishes).
That sphinx-like Mona Lisa smile is the smile of a rebel
That Mona Lisa smile we consider mysterious and sphinx-like is the smile of a rebel. During the Renaissance, women were painted glancing down demurely — if the painter chose to portray them smiling at all — and if the female subject looked at the viewer (which was very rare) then they certainly did not smile. With the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci does something entirely new, he creates a woman who gazes directly at us, meets our eye and dares to smile. This is no enigmatic smile. The Mona Lisa is a Renaissance rebel.
Something happened during the process of this painting which is both surprising and exciting. It took Da Vinci sixteen years to work on and, in fact, the portrait is not finished. It was certainly never delivered to Francesco. Da Vinci became obsessed with perfecting it. At some point the woman in the portrait stopped being Lisa del Giocondo and instead became the expression of all his ideas and philosophies — a visual representation of the universal woman. Mona Lisa is Da Vinci’s understanding of what it is to be human. She encapsulates his philosophical vision, and this is part of what lends the painting its sense of enigma. He deliberately withholds something from the viewer, asking us to bring a piece of ourselves to the painting when we look at her. The painting is Lisa and Da Vinci, but she is also us. That’s what gives her such presence and life.
Da Vinci’s genius wasn’t always recognised during his lifetime. His rivals Raphael and Michelangelo were preferred and given every plum commission in Rome by the Medici Pope. In frustration, Da Vinci left Italy to accept the patronage of the young French king, Francis I — travelling across the alps with Mona Lisa strapped to the back of a mule. In France at Amboise, both Mona Lisa and Da Vinci became a tourist attraction. Yet, even after his death in 1519, his fame wasn’t yet legendary and the Mona Lisa — although a painting of renown — didn’t become an icon until some centuries later. What it took was her theft from the Louvre in the summer of 1911.
Citizens queued for hours to gaze at the empty space where Mona had once hung
Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian nationalist. He later claimed he stole the Mona Lisa in order to restore her to her Italian homeland. On that August day, he’d been working in the gallery, and simply hid until it closed. He then snuck out, unhooked the painting and walked out with her hidden under his decorator’s smock, unchallenged. Paris woke up to what it had lost: citizens queued for hours to gaze at the empty space where Mona had once hung, there were Mona Lisa cocktails and cabarets, and she was on the front page of every newspaper and spotted in Berlin, London and New York. Picasso was arrested for her theft. Whilst he was not the culprit, there was some cause for his being a suspect: hidden in his sock drawer were a pair of ancient Iberian heads stolen from the gallery some months earlier. Picasso and his friend Apollinaire, intended to dump the stolen sculptures in the Seine, but couldn’t bring themselves to do it. Apollinaire handed them into the offices of the Paris Journal, which led to the arrest of both men.
Picasso was cleared of all suspicion two years later when Peruggia was arrested in Florence, trying to sell Mona Lisa to the director of the Uffizi. With much fanfare, Mona Lisa was rehung in the Louvre. Only in a sense she never returned. A painting was stolen, but an icon came back. Those who flocked to pay court to her were no longer standing in front of a remarkable painting, but a cipher with so much history and symbolism attached to her that she was already becoming obscured. Her adventures are truly astonishing — in my novel, she recounts them in her own words, in her own voice — but I hope that they send us back to the painting and remind us to look at her and not turn our backs.
Buy I, Mona Lisa here.
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