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Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

The Mona Lisa, known as La Joconde in France, has one of the most famous faces the world has ever known despite being more than 500 years old. Her likeness hangs in the Louvre Museum in Paris and each year millions queue to see her face behind its thick bullet proof glass. Many wonder what it is about this particular painting that make it so very famous…

Just why is the Mona Lisa so famous?

The Mona Lisa was painted by Italian artist Leonardo da Vinci. He began the painting in Italy and finished it in France. He was invited to live in France in 1516 under the patronage of the French King Francis I who offered him the gorgeous Chateau du Clos Lucé in Amboise as his home. Leonardo, who was by no means wealthy was thrilled to go to France. He travelled there by donkey across the alps, taking the Mona Lisa painting with him. It’s believed by historians that he finally completed his masterpiece in his grace and favour chateau, though he himself considered it unfinished.

Who was the Mona Lisa

Her real name is Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo – hence the alternative title, La Gioconda in Italian, La Joconde in French. The painting is shrouded in mystery, it’s said to have been painted several years earlier in 1503 but nobody knows why da Vinci kept it when presumably it was a commissioned portrait.

Many who saw the Mona Lisa feel head over heels for her. Francis I bought the painting and adored it. He took it with him to another of his chateaux – Fontainebleau where he hung it in his bathroom. It seems strange to us but in those days bathrooms were thought to be creative spaces! Louis XIV took the painting to  Versailles. His son Louis XV hated it and had it taken away and she ended up in a warehouse for a while. Napoleon hung the painting on his bedroom wall at the Tuileries. In 1804, the  Mona Lisa was placed on a wall in the Louvre Museum, and in those early days she didn’t get much attention.

If you’ve ever seen the painting in the Louvre, you might well wonder just what is it that makes her so very famous. She, with her enigmatic smile, missing eyebrows, showing the special trademark technique that Leonardo used – called sfumato. Technically it means where colours blend in so well you can’t see where they start or end. In the case of the Mona Lisa, this applies to that famous smile. There is a veil of craquelure, tiny age cracks in the paint that cannot be imitated. But why, out of the artist’s many paintings, would this be the one that everyone remembers him for?

The stolen Mona Lisa

According to Irina Metzl, the communications manager at the Chateau du Clos Lucé, there are a number of reasons – the enigmatic smile, the mystery of who she was. But most of all, the painting was stolen, and the ensuing publicity is what really propelled her to fame.

In 1911 an Italian workman employed at the Louvre spent the night hiding in a cupboard. When everyone had gone home, he slipped the painting out of its frame and took off with it. For a while it was suspected that famous artist Pablo Picasso might even be the thief, which caused a sensation. The police printed 6,500 copies of the Mona Lisa and distributed the paper image to the public. Every newspaper covered the story. Millions of people saw the painting and had an opinion. The story went viral.

The Mona Lisa was the Kim Kardashian of her day

The Mona Lisa became the Kim Kardashian of her day – everyone knew who she was. The painting was eventually found not far from the Louvre  in what is now called the Hotel da Vinci in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Her portrait resides in majestic glory in the Louvre where she is visited by more than 6 million people a year – keen to see for themselves just what makes the Mona Lisa so special.

Chateau du Clos Luce where Leonardo da Vinci lived in France
The strange tale of the Mona Lisa and the monastery
Fascinating facts about the Louvre
The Chateau of Fontainebleau where Napoleon hung the Mona Lisa

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