More than five centuries after his birth on April 15, 1519, Leonardo da Vinci and his Mona Lisa are still making headlines. A front-page article in the New York Times claims that the Saudi Cultural Ministry, which bought Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World) for a record $450 million in 2017, refused to display the painting in a major Leonardo retrospective in 2019. The reason: The Louvre would not hang the world’s most expensive painting next to the most famous, the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo could never have imagined the adventures — and misadventures — both these art works have survived. The Salvator Mundi, once in the collection of King Charles of England, somehow made its way to New Orleans. A pair of New York art dealers spotted it, badly restored and partially painted over, in an estate sale and acquired it for less than $10,000. The painting changed hands several times until its sale to a Saudi surrogate. La Gioconda, as Italians call the portrait, has endured more public and dramatic ordeals. In Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, my biography of Mona (Madame) Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, Leondardo’s model, I chronicled some of these indignities.
1. She was hung in a steamy bathing suite. Decades of high humidity in the rooms where French royals soaked, smoked and sweated took a toll on the painted lady. A restorer applied a thick coat of lacquer, which fractured into a permanent web of threadlike fissures
2. She inflamed fatal passions. Mona Lisa became the face that launched a thousand fantasies. “Lovers, poets, dreamers go and die at her feet,” a French curator wrote in 1861. He wasn’t exaggerating. One artist threw himself from the window of his Paris hotel, leaving a farewell note that said, “For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die.”
3. She was kidnapped. On August 21, 1911, Mona Lisa disappeared in what tabloids called the “heist of the century.” The unlikely thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman who hid the painting in his cheap rooms in Paris for more than two years. His only defense: He was enchanted by her smile.
4. Artists monkeyed with her. DuChamp, Dali, Magritte, Warhol and other modern masters couldn’t resist toying with the iconic image. Contemporary artists have transformed Mona Lisa into a conehead, dinosaur and unicorn (with a horn in the middle of her forehead).
5. She had to flee Nazi art looters. In 1939, bracing for a German invasion, the French spirited the painting out of the Louvre. During World War II Mona Lisa was shuttled to a series of safe houses.
6. She was attacked. In 1956 a vandal threw acid at the lower part of the painting; later that year a young Bolivian flung a rock, chipping pigment on the left elbow. Bullet-proof, triple-laminated glass has kept Mona Lisa safe against more recent missiles.
7. Advertisers exploited her image. Retailers have harnessed Leonardo’s lady to pitch choclates, soaps, champagne, toothpaste, deodorant, condoms, shampoo and a top-of-the-line “artful restroom” called the “Porta Lisa.”
8. She was misdiagnosed. According to various medical theories, Mona Lisa was pregnant, cross-eyed or suffering from an enlarged thyroid, high cholesterol (which created fatty deposits around her eyes) or a paralyzed facial nerve that immobilized her mouth.
9. She’s been morphed. Leonardo’s oil-on-poplar painting has been translated into every conceivable medium, from coffee cups (filled with varying amounts of milk) to jellybeans to Legos to toast to seaweed.
10. She became the queen of kitsch. Mona Lisa has appeared in sunglasses, hair curlers, burka, kimono, sari, nose ring, Mickey Mouse ears, black boots, Santa hat, see-through blouse and nothing at all. During the pandemic, she sported a face mask and more recently smiled stoically while receiving her vaccine.
Yet despite all the low-brow locations she’s graced, Mona Lisa has never lost a timeless touch of class. You can learn more about the portrait and its muse in this video for Simon & Schuster’s “History in 5” series.