A Painting Soaked in History

Kings, Thieves and Vandals Have All Been Drawn to the Mona Lisa

Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait is 500 years old.
Leonardo da Vinci's famous portrait is 500 years old. (Reunion de Musees Nationaux, Paris, and Journal des Arts via AP )
Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Here's the "Mona Lisa." Look closely and you'll see that she does not have eyebrows. She doesn't have eyelashes, either. And her first name isn't Mona. But she's still the top celebrity among the paintings of the world.

The "Mona" part is a contraction. "Mona" comes from "ma donna" ("my lady" in Italian) the way "ma'am" comes from "madam." The "Lisa" is there because that's who's in the portrait. It was Lisa Gherardini who posed for Leonardo da Vinci in Italy 500 years ago.

The one thing to remember when looking at such paintings is that one is never enough. All Old Master pictures come with built-in twonesses. It's part of what they are.

Mona Lisa is expensively dressed. Her husband, Francesco del Giocondo, knew a lot about expensive clothes. Francesco, who made his money selling silk to rich people, grew rich enough himself to hire da Vinci to portray his wife.

Mona Lisa is seated on a balcony, in an armchair, looking you straight in the eye. She is smiling half a smile, as if she's seen into your head and knows what's on your mind.

But, of course, Mona Lisa is something wholly other, too.

She's a plank of wood, 30 inches high and 21 inches long. That plank was sawn from a poplar tree and slowly dried and sanded smooth before Leonardo painted it. He did so with many glazes of thinned oil paint brushed one on top of another, but so subtly that you don't see any brushstrokes. He dawdled as he worked. The process took him years.

"Mona Lisa" is both an image and an object. That's one of her key twonesses. Here's another. She belongs both to the present and to the deep past.

Today, if you want to see her, as many people do, you have to go to Paris, to the Louvre museum, where she is displayed behind a thick pane of bulletproof glass. Usually her visitors spend just a minute or so in front of her and then shuffle past. They didn't come just to see her for those few seconds. They came to sense the centuries that seem to shine out of her frame.

This painting is soaked in history. King Fran├žois I of France liked her so much that he kept her in his chateau at Fontainebleu. King Louis XIV, a later admirer who was known as the Sun King, brought her to his even bigger palace at Versailles. Napoleon, who loved great works of art and had his armies steal many, kept her in his bedroom. In 1911, she was stolen out of the Louvre. Two anxious years passed before she was recovered. Later, vandals would attack her. All of this has added to her fame.

But perhaps the most remarkable of her twonesses is that she isn't self-sufficient. She needs to be looked at. Here, on this page, she's just colored ink on paper. She isn't Mona Lisa until she is completed by the observer, by you.

-- Paul Richard

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