When the presidents of France and Italy laid a wreath at Leonardo da Vinci's tomb on May 2 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death, historians' questioning his renown in the same week became an ill-timed event. In their new Book, “The Da Vinci Legacy” Jean-Pierre Isbouts and Christopher Heath-Brown ask how Leonardo got to be a household name since, as they say, “he died in relative obscurity” in exile to France after being denounced for committing a capital offense with a teenage boy,

Say what?

That's not all that was said by “The Legacy of Da Vinci” authors.

In an article they wrote for Artnet on the same day that the wreath was laid, they asked how it's possible that Mona Lisa and The Last Supper got to be so famous since both works had been so long held privately out of public view. The Last Supper was painted on a cloistered wall of the Convent of Santa Maria Delle Grazie in Milan and the portrait hung in the confines of the Fontainebleau Palace in France. Even after the French Revolution, Napoleon kept it in his bedroom.

Mass marketing

These historians' answer to their question doesn't have anything to do with the Old Master's mastery. The Last Supper and Mona Lisa got famous, they say, due to the rise of mass printing: “We believe the Last Supper was the first work of art to enjoy broad distribution throughout Europe. For the next two centuries, Leonardo’s reputation was sustained by the continuing demand for copies of the Last Supper and the Mona Lisa.

Opposition research

It's hard to reconcile the view of Isbouts and Brown with that of another historian - Giorgio Vasari - who chronicled Da Vinci's life in the same century in which he lived. Rather than seeing him as an unsavory character who was kicked out of his country and died in obscurity, Vasari paid tribute to him like this:His name became so famous that not only was he esteemed during his lifetime, but his reputation endured and became even greater after his death.”

Reasons why

Here's another possible reason for why Mona Lisa got to be so famous that in 2014 former director of the Louvre reported a whopping 80 percent of museum visitors come solely to see the Da Vinci portrait.

As I see it, the popularity of the portrait has less to do with mass printing and more to do with the media attention when it was stolen from the Louvre in 1911 and recovered two years later. There were so many newspaper stories about the theft and recovery that Art News magazine saw fit to itemize the “countless stories in the press,” which the magazine concluded made the work “the most famous painting in the world.

Then in 2001, a book titled “Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon,” art historian Donald Sassoon wrote that the fame of the painting stems from the steadfast discussion about it. “The Da Vinci Legacy” will keep the conversation going.

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