Tuesday, January 09, 2007
Mona Lisa Visits America, January 8, 1962
Today in 1962, the Mona Lisa went on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This was the first time the masterpiece had left France in 50 years. Over 500,000 people viewed the painting in Washington and another million passed by when it was moved to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art. It remains today arguably the most famous painting in the world.
Leonardo da Vinci began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 and finished his work about four years later. It is believed that the subject of the painting is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy merchant in Florence, Italy. "Mona" is a 16th century contraction of "Madonna" meaning "my lady"; thus "my lady Lisa". There have been various theories put forth stating that the painting is not of Gherardini, but of someone else. It has even been suggested that the subject was a man, possible da Vinci himself. Another possibility is that the painting is actually of da Vinci's mother, Caterina. Barring any as-yet-undiscovered evidence to the contrary, however, it seems probable that most art historians will continue to accept Gherardini as the woman in the painting.
The Mona Lisa left da Vinci's hands in 1516 when French King Francois I bought the painting. It remained the property of French kings until after the French Revolution began in 1789, when the piece was moved to the Louvre. It remained there until Napoleon's reign, when the ruler had it hung in his bedroom; it was later returned. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, the Mona Lisa was removed from the Louvre and hidden elsewhere when it appeared that Prussian forces were going to occupy Paris, which they eventually did.
The dawning of the 20th century saw the popularity of the Mona Lisa continue to grow, so much so that the painting began to attract the attention of art thieves. On August 21, 1911 the piece was discovered to be missing. The Louvre was closed for a week as French police tried to determine how someone could have walked out of the museum with one of the most famous paintings in history. Many people were questioned with regard to the theft, including Pablo Picasso. All the leads went nowhere. The police finally gave up and admitted that the painting would never be seen again. Most likely, they surmised, it would end up in the private collection of a wealthy art collector, hidden away from public view.
As it turned out, the theft of the Mona Lisa was an inside job. Vincenzo Peruggia, an Louvre employee, simply hid in the museum until after closing time and then walked out with the painting hidden under his coat. The mastermind behind the theft was Eduardo de Valfierno, who also hired an art forger to make copies of the Mona Lisa that he planned to sell as the original once the true painting was stolen. Since he did not need to have the piece in his possession in order to carry out his scheme, de Valfierno never contacted Peruggia. Knowing that he had been conned, Peruggia hid the painting in his apartment for the next two years. Finally, in need of money and fearful of being discovered with the Mona Lisa, Peruggia tried to sell it to an art dealer in Florence, Italy. He was caught, and the Mona Lisa went on a tour of museums in Italy before being returned to France and the Louvre in 1913.
During the Second World War, the Mona Lisa was kept successfully hidden from German occupation forces. It was moved several times during the war, not for fear of being destroyed, but with the knowledge that many high-level Nazi officials, including Hermann Goering, would want to make the painting part of their stolen art collections.
Today, the Mona Lisa hangs in a specially built, climate-controlled enclosure made of bullet-proof glass. For now, it seems, her traveling adventures are over.