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.