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Mona Lisa – No Wonder She's Smiling


My wife and I spent three weeks in Paris recently before we were hit by a wave of guilt. We had strolled the avenues, rode busses and subways, dined at bistros, visited friends – even played tennis at Jardin du Luxembourg. We vacationed. We enjoyed. But with 10 days left, we realized that we had not been conscientious tourists. We had not been to the museums. No more tennis. We had work to do.

A war council was convened. We got out our guidebooks and made plans. The first order of business was to procure passes to the museums. La Carte Musées et Monuments is a bargain. The five-day version is 240FF. It allows you to visit a host of museums and monuments, including Versailles – without standing in line. The only catch: they must be visited within a five-day period. One, three and five-day passes are available at the Paris Tourist Office, major Metro and RER stations, and the seventy museums and monuments bundled into the discount package.

Courtesy of Maison de la France.Seventy? That sounded like enough. The following morning we purchased our five-day passes at a Metro station.

Then we began our assault. We started at the top of the list – where else but at the Louvre? It houses one of the most significant art collections in the world. Initially constructed in about 1190 as a fortress to defend against Viking raids, the immense facility contains 30,000 works of art.

We entered and began to explore. We strolled through hall after hall, room after room, viewing one exposition after another, barely able to grasp the enormity of the space, and certainly unable to see everything. We walked through chambers of French sculpture, furniture, and tapestries, and halls of Italian art.

Every piece was interesting. But after hours of viewing, there was still one thing – and one thing only – that I wanted to see before leaving, the woman with the enigmatic smile, Mona Lisa. We hastened our steps as we neared our goal.

Surprisingly, she was in a room with many other works of art, including others by her creator, Leonardo DaVinci. Seen by millions every year, she was surrounded by a hoard of excited visitors. It was hard to get near her, but we did.

Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinci.DaVinci's well-traveled masterpiece, also known as La Joconde, the smiling one, has a fascinating history. It is presumably the portrait of a Florentine noblewoman, Lisa di Gherardini, commissioned by her husband. The artist started work on it in 1503. It later became recognized as the prototype for Renaissance portraits.

Francois I ruled France from 1515 to 1547. Early in his reign, he met Leonardo – architect, engineer, sculptor, and painter – in Italy. They hit it off famously. The king invited the aging artist to come to France to live and work, an invitation Leonardo readily accepted. He journeyed to Amboise in 1516 with his favorite pupil and a devoted servant. In his luggage were but four of his paintings. One was the Mona Lisa. Apparently unable to part with it, Leonardo never sold the portrait to the family that requisitioned it.

Francois treated DaVinci with great honor and respect, granted him a pension and allowed him to live in a peaceful castle, Clos-Luce. All Francois asked in return was the pleasure of the artist’s company, which was given in abundance. The king lived at nearby Chateau D’Amboise. Overlooking the Loire, it was his favorite provincial residence, and only a short walk to Clos-Luce. The dwellings were positioned such that the two men could see each other when they were not together. Leonardo finally parted with Mona Lisa when the king acquired her to hang over his bath. (Is that why she's smiling?) Just three years after arriving in France, and in ailing health, Leonardo died in the king's arms.

Since her inception, Mona Lisa has had a penchant for association with the rich and famous. Eventually finding her way out of the king's bath, she proceeded to Fontainbleau, Paris, Versailles, and the collection of Sun King Louis XIV. After the French Revolution, she was escorted to her current residence, the Louvre. But Napoleon wanted her. He removed her from the museum and hung her in his bedroom. (Is that why she's smiling?) But after Napoleon's banishment, back to the Louvre she went. And that’s not the end of it.

Musée du Louvre. Courtesy of Maison de la France.One morning in 1911, the painting was discovered to be missing. The search was on for the celebrated work and its thief. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire was suspected of the crime and was jailed and interrogated. Under pressure, he accused his friend Pablo Picasso of the heist, but both men were finally cleared. In fact, the painting was taken by a former Louvre employee, who absconded with it under his overcoat. It turned up in Florence in 1913 and was reinstated in the Louvre.

Apparently the burglar had entered the museum, strolled up to the priceless piece, cut it out of its frame, and walked out undiscovered. When later asked why he did it, he said he wanted to restore the art treasure to Italy, its rightful country. Is there any wonder that it now hangs in a frame covered with bulletproof glass?

I had no such designs on the work. I just wanted to see it and find out what the fuss was all about. The only image I escaped with was the photo my wife took of me standing near the famous painting.

The history of the Mona Lisa, however fascinating, is not its principal allure. There is still this burning question: Who was the woman with the smile? As it turns out, it's not entirely clear that she was a Florentine noblewoman. Dr. Lillian Schwartz has astonishingly theorized that Leonardo did not use a model to create the Mona Lisa. He painted himself. DaVinci kept notes of model sittings, but nowhere can a record of a model for the Mona Lisa be found. Using DaVinci’s self-portrait and a computer technique, the artist's facial structures are said to align exactly with those in the Mona Lisa. Hmm.

A map of Paris in portable, durable silk, 11''x11''. To order silk maps, visit the Travel Accessories department of the GreatestEscapes.com Online Store.But that's not the only intriguing theory. In the book Mystery of the Mona Lisa, author Rina de' Firenze contends that Leonardo, the devoted son, painted his mother, Caterina, and titled the work Mona Lisa. Add to the mix a stage play called The Smile, which also deals with the mystery of who posed for the picture. This musical production, set in DaVinci's time, portrays a young man who sees the portrait and falls in love with the woman in it. He endeavors to discover who she is, finds Leonardo surprisingly unhelpful, and hires a detective to get to the bottom of it. I haven't seen the play. I don't know how it comes out. I still don't know who she was.

So why is she smiling? If Leonardo painted himself, was he smiling at his own subterfuge? If he painted his mother, that would certainly make her smile. But let's assume that she was the Florentine woman. While she sat for the portrait, did she have any inkling of what would happen over the next 497 years: all the theories, all the hubbub, all the countless multitudes that would gaze at her? Did she foresee that her portrait would become the most famous painting in the world? That would make anyone smile.

When you go:

Tourist information is available at the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau www.paris-touristoffice.com or at Maison de la France (the French Government Tourist Office) www.francetourism.com.

Information about the Louvre can be found at www.louvre.fr

Guidebooks and the following volume and links were sources for this article: Leonardo Da Vinci, Reynal & Company Inc., New York, © Copyright in Italy by the Istituto Geografico De Agostini S.p.A-Novara-1956, printed in Italy.

Other helpful Web sites are:

www.paris.org/Musees/mmc.html www.members.tripod.com/~leodv/index.html www.library.advanced.org/13681/data/link2.htm www.library.advanced.org/13681/data/rinadf.htm

Musée du Louvre. Courtesy of Maison de la France.One morning in 1911, the painting was discovered to be missing. The search was on for the celebrated work and its thief. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire was suspected of the crime and was jailed and interrogated. Under pressure, he accused his friend Pablo Picasso of the heist, but both men were finally cleared. In fact, the painting was taken by a former Louvre employee, who absconded with it under his overcoat. It turned up in Florence in 1913 and was reinstated in the Louvre.

Apparently the burglar had entered the museum, strolled up to the priceless piece, cut it out of its frame, and walked out undiscovered. When later asked why he did it, he said he wanted to restore the art treasure to Italy, its rightful country. Is there any wonder that it now hangs in a frame covered with bulletproof glass?

I had no such designs on the work. I just wanted to see it and find out what the fuss was all about. The only image I escaped with was the photo my wife took of me standing near the famous painting.

The history of the Mona Lisa, however fascinating, is not its principal allure. There is still this burning question: Who was the woman with the smile? As it turns out, it's not entirely clear that she was a Florentine noblewoman. Dr. Lillian Schwartz has astonishingly theorized that Leonardo did not use a model to create the Mona Lisa. He painted himself. DaVinci kept notes of model sittings, but nowhere can a record of a model for the Mona Lisa be found. Using DaVinci’s self-portrait and a computer technique, the artist's facial structures are said to align exactly with those in the Mona Lisa. Hmm.

A map of Paris in portable, durable silk, 11''x11''. To order silk maps, visit the Travel Accessories department of the GreatestEscapes.com Online Store.But that's not the only intriguing theory. In the book Mystery of the Mona Lisa, author Rina de' Firenze contends that Leonardo, the devoted son, painted his mother, Caterina, and titled the work Mona Lisa. Add to the mix a stage play called The Smile, which also deals with the mystery of who posed for the picture. This musical production, set in DaVinci's time, portrays a young man who sees the portrait and falls in love with the woman in it. He endeavors to discover who she is, finds Leonardo surprisingly unhelpful, and hires a detective to get to the bottom of it. I haven't seen the play. I don't know how it comes out. I still don't know who she was.

So why is she smiling? If Leonardo painted himself, was he smiling at his own subterfuge? If he painted his mother, that would certainly make her smile. But let's assume that she was the Florentine woman. While she sat for the portrait, did she have any inkling of what would happen over the next 497 years: all the theories, all the hubbub, all the countless multitudes that would gaze at her? Did she foresee that her portrait would become the most famous painting in the world? That would make anyone smile.

When you go:

Tourist information is available at the Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau www.paris-touristoffice.com or at Maison de la France (the French Government Tourist Office) www.francetourism.com.

Information about the Louvre can be found at www.louvre.fr

Guidebooks and the following volume and links were sources for this article: Leonardo Da Vinci, Reynal & Company Inc., New York, © Copyright in Italy by the Istituto Geografico De Agostini S.p.A-Novara-1956, printed in Italy.

Other helpful Web sites are:

www.paris.org/Musees/mmc.html www.members.tripod.com/~leodv/index.html www.library.advanced.org/13681/data/link2.htm www.library.advanced.org/13681/data/rinadf.htm