Mona Lisa is in the news, not as a bulletin of the day but rather as a communique from 1911 when the portrait was stolen from the Louvre. This month’s Art News magazine is re-running its original report of the robber and unwittingly resurrecting more than the theft: running off with Mona Lisa made her the icon she is today.
The painting was once so unheralded that no one noticed it was missing until the day after Italian workman Vincenzo Perugia swiped it out of his stated desire “to revenge Napoleon’s looting of Italian #Art treasures from Italy.”
In Art News’ chronicling, several of the museum guards were found negligent and brought before a disciplinary board. Given the notoriety that the burglary brought to the painting and the museum, the guards should have been rewarded. Overnight Mona Lisa became the most visited artwork in the Louvre and ultimately the most valuable, approaching a billion dollars as of last year - more than any other artwork ever made.
Historian Donald Sassoon’s 2001 book Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon also looked at how the painting benefited from the robbery, saying that previously Da Vinci’s The Last Supper was his most famous work. In fact, the Mona Lisa had been valued at less than one-quarter of La Belle Jardinière by Rafael who Sassoon identified as the biggest Italian Renaissance name in the 19th century: “The cult of Leonardo began later, and at first centered on his scientific and mechanical drawings...”
Bring on the paparazzi
The media blitz over the heist started all over again in 1913 when the painting was recovered. Art News recounted the “countless stories in the press (about) the long anticipated recovery of the now most famous painting in the world.” The huge press coverage for the robbery and recovery may have been in part a sign of the times: not much was going on in the world 105 years ago. Prompting this thought is a question raised in the old Art News story: “Is it not all a fascination, extraordinary story in these latter and unromantic days?” Such days included tidings of the first aerial photograph taken (in San Diego) and the opening of the first old age home (in Prescott, AZ).
Smiling women not unusual.
Yet, even despite the exhaustive coverage of Mona Lisa both then and now, it’s a constant surprise that the historic explanation for her so-called mysterious smile has been so under-reported. Giorgio Vasari, an analyst in Da Vinci’s time, made clear that while Da Vinci worked on the portrait for four years and never finished it, he went to a lot of trouble to make Mona Lisa smile: “Leonardo employed singers and musicians or jesters to keep her full of merriment and so chase away the melancholy that painters usually give to portraits.” Smiling women were not unusual in Da Vinci’s art. Vasari said that in the painter’s youth, he made a lot of clay heads of women with smiling faces. #Buzz