Arts & Culture

4 little-known facts about the Mona Lisa

The enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa has long been a romantic subject of rumor and mystery. In spite of being one of the world’s most famous paintings, there’s still much about Mona Lisa that remains hotly debated and shrouded in ambiguity. Whether or not you’ve had the pleasure of viewing the original at the Louvre in all of its well-protected, smaller-than-you-expected glory, there are a few tidbits about her that you may not be aware of.

Her fame arose from theft

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On the night of August 20, 1911, three Italian handymen stood crunched together in a supply closet at the Louvre. The next morning, the three of them lifted the Mona Lisa from its glass casing and frame and changed the face of the art world in the process.

Prior to the theft, the Mona Lisa was still a valued piece from da Vinci’s lifework, but she spent the first 300 years of her life in relative obscurity. In fact, it took 28 hours for anyone to even notice that the painting was missing. Once this was discovered, Mona Lisa became the subject of newspapers the world over with suspects of the theft ranging from Pablo Picasso to J.P. Morgan.

Twenty-eight months later, it was revealed that Vincenzo Perugia had orchestrated the theft with two other men when he attempted to sell the painting in Florence. The sale was reported to the authorities, and the Mona Lisa was returned, but now with an international reputation that would carry her throughout the ages.

She may not be who she seems

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The original subject of da Vinci’s painting has long been a topic of debate. In 2005, accounts of the artist Giorgi Vasari, who lived at the time of da Vinci, presented tangible evidence that the painting was a commissioned portrait of Lisa Giocondo, wife of a wealthy silk merchant. This put many theories to rest. However, in 2015, scientist Pascal Cotte shared the findings of an earlier scientific study of the piece that used light to trace beneath the layers of paint. Cotte had uncovered an entirely different portrait beneath the present day Mona Lisa, which has since ignited controversy over the true identity of the original subject.

She has a twin (or at least a doppelganger)

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In the late 19th century, Hugh Blaker spotted a portrait of a young Florentine woman hanging in a manor in Somerset, England. Blaker purchased the piece as an original da Vinci. Since Blaker’s purchase, art historians have been aware of the Isleworth Mona Lisa, but they debated its authenticity. In 2015, the subject of debate was revived with a number of sources convinced in its authenticity. A majority of opinions currently point to this second painting of the same subject as another authentic work by da Vinci.

She’s driven men to madness

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More than a few men have obsessed about the Mona Lisa’s smile, and, as with most obsessions, they didn’t often end well. The Mona Lisa has been the target of both attacks and unhealthy adulation. In 1956, Ugo Ungaza Villegas stared with reproach at the painting until he was overcome with anger and chucked a stone at her, damaging the painting in the process. Later the same year, the painting was the subject of an acid attack. More deranged still was the suicide of Luc Maspero, a young artist who threw himself from the fourth floor of a hotel in Paris. Before his death, Maspero left a note in reference to the Mona Lisa, stating, “For years I have grappled with her smile. I prefer to die.”