Why Must You See the Mona Lisa?

Every day in every famous museum, there is a swarm of visitors mobbing a single piece. The David. Primavera. The Sistine Chapel. And in Paris, the Mona Lisa. Tempers flare as visitors vie for position to get the best view or the perfect selfie for Instagram. And as I observe the madness, I have to wonder, why are we doing this?

Along with the famous pieces, every museum is filled with “other” things. Things that sit alone, unvisited, unloved and collecting dust. I feel sorry for those things. And more, I feel sorry for the people who are killing themselves to see a work of art that they might want to see only because they’ve been told it’s famous.

Fame is a funny thing. We can all name famous works, but how many people can explain why something is famous? Origin stories fade into myth and then disappear, only leaving us with a need to see something and not really knowing why.

Mona Lisa is a great example. Do you know why she’s famous? Yes, she has that smile, but there are other paintings with smiles like that. Yes, there are many interpretations, but every DaVinci is ripe with mysterious imagery and yet, just about 40 feet from the Mona Lisa you’ll find four DaVinci paintings that nobody looks at. Is it because Andy Warhol reproduced her and turned her into a pop icon? Don’t think so. It’s probably because of a story you haven’t heard.

Mona Lisa was not a popular or well known painting, even at the turn of the 20th century. It was a part of the Louvre’s overwhelming collection. In 1911, three Italian men got jobs working in the Louvre. One of them, Vincenzo Perugia, headed up a plan to take the Mona Lisa at night and smuggle it out of the museum in the morning. Apparently, Perugia was convinced that the painting had been stolen by Napoleon and was the rightful property of Florence. That makes sense because so much of the Louvre’s collection was indeed stolen by Napoleon (don’t EVEN start with my Venetian friends about this topic) and still today hasn’t been returned.

What Perugia didn’t know was that Mona Lisa was the rightful property of France. DaVinci led a bit of an outlandish lifestyle and had trouble staying in one place because of it, so it’s said he gave the painting to the King of France as a thank you for allowing him to stay safely in France.

The theft took more than 24 hours to even register. Once it was discovered, it hit the news with a great splash and suddenly an obscure painting was in the spotlight. The thieves couldn’t sell the painting, it was too hot, so they sat on it for two years. Perugia tried to sell to in Florence those two years later and was quickly arrested. The story hit the news again and the painting was triumphantly returned to the Louvre.

Ever since the theft and media blast, the painting has been an object of fascination. Had it not been stolen, would anyone even bother looking at it? It’s hard to say but I doubt it. Beautiful masterpieces that I’d argue are better than the Mona Lisa go unnoticed by the mobs. It’s probably better that way, but it makes you pause. Every star piece has an absurd story that made it famous, and it’s rarely because it’s the best piece.

Next time you visit a gallery, take a break from the famous items and ask why you want to see them. Is it just because someone told you to? If so, change your strategy. Explore the museum and find something lovely that delights only you, maybe 18th century snuffboxes or Etruscan hairpins. That lonely item could probably use some love.

As for the Mona Lisa, the story goes that the King of France liked it, so he put it in a great spot for contemplation, a place he could sit and marvel at it every day…it hung in his bathroom. So much for fame.

12 replies on “Why Must You See the Mona Lisa?”

  1. I didn’t know that story, so thanks for filling us in. I recall when I saw her. 2011 and I was lucky enough to only have 5 other people in the entire room and they were looking at the large paintings on the other walls. (One of the values of going during evening hours). I also was underwhelmed, but remember going to the other Da Vincis and seeing the back grounds and looking at the similarities. I had taken a ‘history through art’ course back in high school and so learned a lot of art appreciation at that time. Yes we covered a lot of the ‘biggies’, but I don’t look at them as tick off items. A lot of those lessons stuck with me, so I consider who commissioned the paintings, the patrons in them, the restriction of painting for the church, the history of the time.
    I rent audio guides, I don’t read RS paper guides or other ‘short cuts’ and ‘efficient’ ways to see the biggies. I go to the museum for all its art. I look at what catches my eye and I stick around if I want to and use the audio guide where I am interested.
    I admit to being caught up and wanting to add ‘must sees’ to my list, but only as part of a larger picture. Too often I am finding myself asking ‘why am I not impressed?’. I think that with so much visual exposure to these must sees, we have higher expectations. And to be honest, really good 360 photo imagery on your computer actually gives better details and longer access to view it, than trying to see around heads or selfie sticks. I was more moved by the war photos displayed in the rooms before Guernica than that art piece itself. I had Rick’s voice ringing in my head of the emotions that made up the piece, but I couldn’t see it or feel it. I know it is a piece that shaped the emotions of many countries for a cause that needed exposure to the world, but those real life photos showing the pain of individuals did it for me more that that monochrome modern representation.

  2. I have been having the same thoughts about European travel. After taking student groups to Germany, Switzerland, and Austria for 35 years, I feel – “Been there, done that!” When my husband and I took an unplanned, unstructured trip, we thought we would stop at Hohenschwangau, one of the few castles in the area we had not seen. Wrong. It was 10:00 am, the parking lots were completely full, and lines at the ticket center were down the street. We drove out, and had a marvelous time driving deep into the Austria alps, found a lovely quiet village up on a mountainside, and overnighted there. The next day was a church feast day, and the whole village turned out in costume to celebrate. They all walked by as we were having breakfast on their way to church. Memorable. The naming of places and things as World Heritage sites has brought exactly that, the world, to them. This means they are totally overrun with mobs of selfie laden tourists, who really have little or no appreciation for what they see, it just checks a box. Many sites are so clogged, it makes people like me avoid them. With a passion. Your article on Venice was so true, and shortly after I read a similar one about Amsterdam. Same problem. Population totally overrun with drunken, high tourists. More than they can handle. When the citizens have had enough, it makes visiting those places not so much fun. Best travel time was post 2008 when the world had less money to travel, and places were happy to see you come to them.

  3. Prior to my first visit to the Louvre in 1995, a friend gave me a photocopy of a Washington Post article on seeing the 3 most famous pieces of art in the Louvre in 30 minutes or less. The article explained that if you looked at each piece of artwork in the museum for one minute that it would take 10 years to see them all (during hours that the museum is open). Further, that when you return from your trip people will ask if you saw the then top three most famous piece of art housed there: The Venus de Milo, Mona Lisa, and Winged Victory.

    The article gave step-by-step instructions on how to get to these three pieces of art and admiire them each for a few minutes so you could check them off your list. It was fun as the instructions had us navigate back stairwells and head in the opposite direction of the masses.

    I know that I have most of the article in a filing cabinet. Somehow the second page got lost. Your blog about ‘famous’ art made me think of that article and how we truly did see all three pieces of art in less than 30 minutes! That was such a fun treasure hunt!

  4. I have to ask – are you sure about that legend?
    I read part of what made this painting so famous is the fact that Leonardo refused to ever part with it. Wherever he traveled, he took her with him. He refused to sell her. And when he died, she was the only painting in his possession. He had a strong emotional connection to her.Perhaps I’m wrong?

    1. No, you’re not wrong but it is also true that it was not a particularly famous painting before the 20th century. Some scholars have speculated that the portrait is not of a woman but actually of a man, his true love.
      The Primavera by Botticelli has a similar story in that it was important in its time but then became unknown for centuries.

  5. Fifty years ago next month, my husband and I were in Paris on honeymoon and saw all the sights, including the Louvre and the Mona Lisa. At that time, one could get pretty close to it, and there weren’t the crowds. But I was underwhelmed by this painting, couldn’t figure out what the fuss was all about. So thanks for this most interesting story, I love your blogs, btw. 💕

  6. I love your points of view…fascinating! I will be sure to remember this in the future.

  7. Thanks for a great perspective and background. I love the louvre, so much great art, but avoid the Mona Lisa. The other da Vinci you show is much more interesting, as it has action and shows a story.

  8. What a great story. I admit I have heard it before but you tell it soooo much better! Can’t wait to pass this on to my granddaughters for their RS Paris tour next month!

  9. I suggest that this could be applied to other “must-see” items, not just museums but landmarks, views, and countries which are visited because everyone has been.
    The number of times I have visited places, including the Louvre, I witnessed people walk-up, take an picture, and move on. No time is spent looking or contemplating the item or view they have just photographed. The other extreme are those people to spend ages trying to get the perfect photograph (usually with their back to the camera) but still not appreciating what they are photographing.
    All that is important to them is to have the photograph to put on social media to say they have been but not appreciate the item or view itself.

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