The paparazzi stand before her 10 deep…elbowing to move forward, arching onto tip toes, and holding their cameras above the crowd. After about fifteen seconds a new crowd emerges, having rushed past Caravaggios, Raphaels, and Bellinis, but seeing only the signposts that lead them to her.
“People no longer study it. It is no longer a painting, but has become a symbol of a painting,” says historian Donald Sassoon.
I’m talking about, of course, the Mona Lisa, a 16th century oil painting created by Leonardo da Vinci. She hangs behind bulletproof glass, embedded in a wall of her own, and six feet from a wooden barrier in the Musee du Louvre in Paris.
The small painting was the earliest Italian portrait to focus so closely on the sitter, previous portraits having been painted full-length, and to be painted in front of an imaginary background. There are countless theories about da Vinci’s technique, about the sitter, and about the famous smile of the enigmatic young woman.
The history and discussion of da Vinci’s artistic technique is rivaled only by the history surrounding the painting itself. The painting was apparently never given to the merchant who commissioned it. It is said that Leonardo kept it, and later sold it to the King of France. After the revolution it hung in Napoleon’s bedroom, until he was banished and it became the possession of the Louvre. In 1911 it was stolen and disappeared for two years, until it was found in Italy when the thief attempted to sell it. In 1956 acid was thrown on its bottom half, resulting in years of restoration. The portrait’s fame grew as mystery and curiosity surrounded it.
Today, the Mona Lisa is said to be the most famous painting in the world, and she is a top-of-the-list tourist destination. Years ago, when I first saw the painting, it was simply hanging on the museum wall among the others. At that time I was able to actually see the portrait and observe the delicate brushstrokes and how her eyes followed me as I moved.
On a recent trip to Paris, I became fascinated by the obvious fact of people not seeing the Mona Lisa, but of simply capturing her with their cameras. With proof of having been in her presence, they move away quickly…on to capture the Venus de Milo.