The History and Legacy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mysterious “Mona Lisa”

The History and Legacy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mysterious “Mona Lisa”

For centuries, audiences have been captivated by the mysterious Mona Lisa. A key piece of Italian master Leonardo da Vinci‘s ouevre and a prime example of High Renaissance painting, the piece has become known as one of the most recognizable and skillfully rendered works of art.

The Mona Lisa is renowned for both its curious iconography and its unique history. Here, we explore these aspects of the painting in order to answer the question: why is the Mona Lisa famous today?

What is the Mona Lisa?

The Mona Lisa is an oil painting by Italian artist, inventor, and writer Leonardo da Vinci. Likely completed in 1506, the piece features a portrait of a seated woman set against an imaginary landscape.

In addition to being one of the most famous works of art, it is also the most valuable. Permanently located in the Louvre Museum, it is estimated to be worth an impressive $800 million today.

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Rendered similarly to Renaissance portrayals of the Virgin Mary, the piece features a female figure—believed by most to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of cloth and silk merchant Francesco Giocondo—from the waist up. She is shown seated in a loggia, or a room with at least one open side.

Behind her is a hazy and seemingly isolated landscape imagined by the artist and painted using sfumato, a technique resulting in forms “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.”

Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa Facts Why is the Mona Lisa Famous

‘Mona Lisa’ detail

The figure sits with her arms folded as she gazes at the viewer and appears to softly smile—an aesthetic attribute that has proven particularly eye-catching over centuries. The halfhearted or even ambiguous nature of this smile makes the iconic painting all the more enigmatic, prompting viewers to try to understand both the mood of its muse and the intention of its artist.

Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa Facts Why is the Mona Lisa Famous

‘Mona Lisa’ detail

In addition to its mysterious appearance, her expression has resonated most strongly with art historians for its possible symbolism, as many believe it to be a clever “visual representation of the idea of happiness suggested by the word ‘gioconda’ in Italian.”

History

While most contemporary scholars are confident that Lisa Gherardini is the figure featured in the Mona Lisa, its exact story is still relatively unknown. “Among the aspects which remain unclear,” the Louvre’s website explains, “are the exact identity of the sitter, who commissioned the portrait, how long Leonardo worked on the painting, how long he kept it, and how it came to be in the French royal collection.”

Still, even the painting’s more recent history is fascinating. Since entering the Louvre in the late 18th century, it has famously faced theft and vandalism. In 1911, it was stolen by Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia—though modern artist Pablo Picasso was first falsely accused—who believed the piece rightfully belonged in Italy, the home of Leonardo.

Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa Facts Why is the Mona Lisa Famous

Newspaper detailing that the ‘Mona Lisa’ had been found two years after its disappearance.
Photo: Le Petit Parisien via Wikimedia Commons{{PD-1923}}

Similarly, in 1956, both acid and a rock were thrown at the painting in separate attacks.

The Mona Lisa Today

Due to both its tumultuous past and its contemporary fame, today, the Mona Lisa is exhibited behind a layer of bulletproof glass. Even in such a unique and controversial display, the painting remains one of the most popular pieces in the Louvre and, unsurprisingly, one of the most viewed and visited paintings in the world.

Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa Facts Why is the Mona Lisa Famous

Photo: Victor Grigas via Wikimedia Commons

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