- Steve Addazio's inaugural press conference as Boston College head football coach (pg. 9)
- Wake Forest University president Nathan Hatch's keynote address at the Sesquicentennial symposium "Religion and the Liberal Aims of Higher Education" (pg. 34)
- David B. Couturier, OFM Cap., on "New Evangelization for Today's Parish" (pg. 42)
- Guerilla Orchestra: the Callithumpian Consort and student musicians rehearse John Zorn's Cobra (pg. 10)
Updates, special features, and a day-by-day history of Boston College
View upcoming events at Boston College
Books by alumni, faculty, and staff
Alumni in the news
Order books noted in Boston College Magazine
Join the online community of alumni
View the current BCM in original format
A star is made
There are 35,000 works of art on display in the Louvre Museum. How did one of them become the most famous on the planet?
A young woman is seated, her right hand upon her wrist, her left hand on the arm of a chair, gripping its edge. She turns toward us, presenting a three quarter view. Her round visage faces us directly. Her brown eyes glance toward the right. Her broad forehead is enhanced by her missing eyebrows. Her hair, shoulder length, is draped by a translucent veil. She wears a sober, dark dress. A pleated mantle adorns her shoulders. Her neckline reveals the inception of her breasts.
She wears no jewels.
The loggia or balcony where she sits appears to be suspended upon a chasm. Behind her surges a strange and distant landscape: rock formations, mountain peaks, hills, and valleys; to the left a lake and winding path, on the right a river crossed by a bridge, forlorn signs of human existence in a barren landscape.
All this is represented on a piece of wood roughly 21 inches wide and 30 inches high. The Louvre Museum identifies the painting, done in oil, by the inventory number 779. It is the only painting in the museum shown in a special box set in concrete and protected by two sheets of bulletproof, triple laminated glass separated from each other by 9.75 inches. The painting has been in this box since 1974. It is inspected annually—the silica gel used to maintain the temperature is changed, the wood is checked for shrinkage or swelling.
The painting occupies a gallery with 10 Titians, five Tintorettos, and eight Veroneses. Nearby reside seven Raphaels, various Bronzinos, Correggios, Fra Angelicos, and a stunning Caravaggio. All these works—and many more—can be contemplated at leisure by the approximately nine million visitors who come to the Louvre each year. All except this portrait of, allegedly, Lisa Gherardini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo and known throughout the world as the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda.
The obstacle to unimpeded viewing is the constantly shifting crowd (50 deep in summer) trying to catch a glimpse of the famous painting and to photograph it. The flashes from the cameras refracting off the glass not only make it difficult to examine the work, but add to the sense that the object is a celebrity. However, many visitors who stand before the Mona Lisa are left a little disconcerted. She is a plain woman, the painting is not grandiose.
Why then did Leonardo da Vinci, who created the painting in the first decade of the 16th century and in the sixth decade of his life, keep it for himself instead of handing it over to the husband? Is it really a portrait of Lisa Gherardini? Perhaps it is Isabella d’Este, the great patroness of the arts. A biography of Leonardo alleges it is the portrait of Isabella Gualandi, whom the British tabloid Sun, in one of its rare forays into the Renaissance, described as a highly paid tart. Others claim it is a self portrait—as the headline in the Daily Telegraph put it in 1986, “Leonardo in drag.”
Such uncertainty is surely deliberate. Leonardo refrained from providing any of the usual clues—medallions, symbolic objects—that painters used to identify their subjects. Nor can we be certain of the woman’s expression. She is smiling, but not quite. The sfumato technique pioneered by Leonardo, the delicate blurring at the corners of the mouth and of the eyes, lends a slight indeterminacy. And the painting is not still. Leonardo used chiaroscuro to give it depth and the woman’s contrapposto position (her body facing one way, her head facing another) to suggest movement.
Mysteries often surround old paintings—doubtful attributions, inexplicable gaps in their histories. When it comes to the Mona Lisa some mysteries seem invented. Above all the famous question: Why is she smiling? As if smiles never occurred in Renaissance paintings. Leonardo’s teacher, Verrocchio, often represented smiling faces of great subtlety. Antonello da Messina, who allegedly introduced the Italians to the use of oil, painted a beautiful portrait of a smiling man who looks directly toward the viewer. We do not know the origin of his mischievous smile, either, and few seem to care. Could that be because this portrait of an “unknown man” now hangs at a museum in a small town in Sicily, and not in the heart of Paris?
According to Dr. Kenneth Keele (in the Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 1959), Mona Lisa is smiling because she is happy and pregnant. In the Annals of Otology, Rhinology and Laryngology of 1989, Dr. Kedar Adour maintained that, far from smiling, she is controlling her Bell’s palsy, a sort of facial paralysis. Her smile hides missing front teeth, in the view of Joseph Borkowski, professor of dentistry (Journal of Forensic Sciences, 1992). Or, as widely reported in September 1999, she is gnashing her teeth, a practice characteristic of those who suffer anxiety. Dr. Filippo Surano, who deduced this, adds she probably also suffers from a kidney inflammation, which accounts for the puffiness in her hands and face. (As medical interest in Mona Lisa has increased, her health has deteriorated.)
I do not propose to resolve any of these mysteries, but rather to address what I think is the most interesting enigma of them all: Why is the Mona Lisa the best known painting in the world?
In his lifetime, Leonardo was regarded as a major painter, but not the greatest. The competition was considerable. For Christmas dinner in 1501, one could have invited round the table Giovanni Bellini (age 71), Mantegna (70), Botticelli (57), Perugino (55), Bosch (51), Dürer (30), Cranach (29), Michelangelo (26), Raphael (18), and the four-year-old Holbein. Leonardo was able to find a patron in Milan only by stressing his yet unproven skills as a military engineer. His multitude of interests, which helped to fortify his fame in the 19th and 20th centuries, caused Pope Leo X to complain that he never finished anything and to prefer the rising star Raphael.
This helps to explain why, in 1516, Leonardo accepted the invitation of François I and, though no longer young, with the Mona Lisa on his back, crossed the Alps to join the king’s court in France, where he died three years later. The journey was a good career move for the Mona Lisa. François I was laying the foundation for France to become Europe’s artistic center. It took the French Revolution, however, to complete this process. In 1793 the revolutionary government created the Musée Central des Arts of the Louvre out of what had been the private royal collection and exhibited some 530 paintings, including the Mona Lisa, as the common property of the French people. Artists came from all over Europe, especially Britain, to copy the once secluded works. Turner copied Titian, Delacroix copied Rubens, Ingres copied Raphael. The Mona Lisa was copied too, but it was far from heading the list.
Other circumstances would help the Mona Lisa’s reputation inch upward. One was the burgeoning cult of Leonardo that developed in the 19th century. With interests that combined the arts and sciences, Leonardo suited the mood of the day in a way that Michelangelo and Raphael did not, and in the eyes of intellectuals, who were supplanting aristocrats as the arbiters of taste, he became emblematic of the Renaissance.
For intellectuals, the Mona Lisa was an obliging subject: The painting was an open text into which one could read what one wanted; it was not a religious image; and the literary gazers were mainly men, and romantics at that, who decreed that, like all fascinating women, La Gioconda was dangerous. The historian Jules Michelet wrote he was drawn toward Mona Lisa “as the bird toward the snake.” The novelist Arsène Houssaye, a fanatical Leonardian, wrote of the image, “How cruel and divine, how enigmatic and sensual.”
The key promoter of Mona Lisa’s new image as a femme fatale was the litterateur and art critic Théophile Gautier (1811–72). Gautier was obsessed with women of the mythological and ancient world (Cleopatra, Helen), with oriental women, gypsy girls, and dark and mysterious Italian beauties. His fictional women are often unsettling, devouring. In a powerful article published
in Le Moniteur Universel in 1855, Gautier set out his view of the Mona Lisa:
This strange being . . . her gaze promising unknown pleasures . . . her divinely ironic expression . . . her mocking lips subtly despising
the common pleasures of mortals.
The British, too, lent their voices, foremost in the words of the essayist Walter Pater, whose much cited 1869 work on Leonardo pronounced La Gioconda “Leonardo’s masterpiece,” then continued:
She is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas. . . . Lady Lisa might stand as the embodiment of the old fancy, the symbol of the modern idea.
One might fancy Lady Lisa, sitting on a heavenly cloud, shedding her slight smile and bursting into laughter at this extraordinary outpouring. Held up as the Eternal Feminine, she had come a long way from the criticism of Cassiano del Pozzo, who in 1625 described her succinctly and simply as “di faccia un alquanto larghetta” (a little puffy in the face).
If a function of art criticism is to enable the amateur viewer to have an opinion about a painting before seeing it, all the Mona Lisa needed at this point to thoroughly charm the masses was a photo opportunity.
Enter Vincenzo Peruggia, an émigré Italian carpenter in Paris. While working at the Louvre, he was told by a friend that the small, unprepossessing Mona Lisa was one of the most valuable paintings in the world. On August, 21, 1911, he stole it. Reaction in the press and officialdom was swift. The Cabinet met. The director of paintings at the Louvre resigned. Parisians learned they had lost a masterpiece many did not realize they’d possessed, and they flocked to the Louvre to see the nail where it had hung. Postcards were printed, cartoons appeared mocking the security of the museum, songs were composed.
Two years later, after the clamor died down, Peruggia, who had kept the Mona Lisa in a box in his Paris bedsit, went to Florence hoping to sell it to a dealer, who immediately informed the authorities. Despite nationalist pressures to keep the painting, the Italian government returned the Mona Lisa to the Louvre, but not before exhibiting it in Florence and then Rome. In Paris, the public rushed to see their Mona Lisa safely back: more songs, more postcards, more cartoons, more headlines.
With the theft, the Mona Lisa became one of the world’s most recognizable works of classical art. So, in the early years of the 20th century, when avant-garde artists wanted to send up high art, they turned to this image. In 1919, Marcel Duchamp used a traditional schoolboy method of desecration: He took a postcard of the painting and drew on a mustache and goatee; on the back he wrote LHOOQ (the letters, read aloud in French, sound like the words “she has a hot arse”). He repeated the joke several times with variations, including, in 1941, a drawing of only the mustache and beard.
A pattern was set: Artists would use the Mona Lisa, disfigure it, distort it, and play around with selected parts of it (the hands, the smile, the eyes). In Fernand Leger’s 1930 La Joconde aux Cléfs, the Mona Lisa is an object alongside of and no bigger than a set of keys. Fernando Botero rendered a plumpish Mona Lisa Aged Twelve
in 1959. And in 1963, Andy Warhol painted Thirty Are Better than One. Magritte, Jasper Johns, and dozens of other artists—and cartoonists—followed suit. By now, almost every politician and celebrity of note has been caricatured as Mona Lisa: Golda Meir, Charles de Gaulle, Margaret Thatcher, Silvio Berlusconi, Monica Lewinsky.
It was during the 1960s that the Mona Lisa began to eclipse all other paintings. France gave it a helpful push on December 14, 1962, when the government carefully packed it in an airtight aluminium case for a trip in a first-class cabin in an ocean liner bound for the United States. The painting was unveiled in Washington, D.C., on January 8, at a glittering party in the presence of President and Mrs. Kennedy. In just over six weeks 1,751,521 people lined up to contemplate La Gioconda at the National Gallery in Washington and at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Newspapers juxtaposed the radiant smile of Jackie Kennedy with that of Mona Lisa, while souvenir manufacturers made quick profits. Twelve years later, in 1974, the enterprise was repeated as the French sent the Mona Lisa to Japan. By then, the image of Mona Lisa was everywhere.
Marketers have long made sporadic use of the Mona Lisa: There was an American corset in 1911 (the Corset Mona Lisa); even a British-made condom sold in Spain in the 1950s under the brand Gioconda. Since 1980, there has been, on average, one new advertisement a week bearing her image (an estimate based on examples forwarded to the Louvre by Jocondologues); they’ve touted products from computers to wine to luxury hotels to cosmetics. Advertisers use the Mona Lisa for their own ends, but at the same time they advertise the Mona Lisa.
So how could Lisa Gherardini fail? Painted by a genius, bought by a king, set in the heart of Paris, worshipped by intellectuals, kidnapped by an Italian, sent up by the avant garde, chosen to represent France abroad, and backed by the advertising industry—it is also, I think, quite a beautiful painting.
Donald Sassoon is professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary College, University of London, and the author of One Hundred Years of Socialism: The West European Left in the 20th Century (1996), Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of an Icon (2002), and The Culture of the Europeans: From 1800 to the Present (2006). His essay is drawn from a talk he gave during the week of March 14, when he was a distinguished visiting professor in the history department, sponsored by the Institute for the Liberal Arts and the Clough Center. Sassoon also took part in a faculty seminar on changing attitudes toward capitalism and led a graduate student workshop on cultural markets while on campus.