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Why is the Mona Lisa Painting So Famous?

Abhijit Naik
That the Mona Lisa is Leonardo da Vinci's famous work of art is a well-known fact. But have you ever wondered what makes this 16th century painting so famous... why is it thought to be such a great painting?

The Picasso Connection

When the Mona Lisa was stolen on August 21, 1911, even Pablo Picasso was called in for questioning.
The Mona Lisa is a 16th century oil painting that hangs in the Musée du Louvre or the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. Such is its popularity, that an estimated six million people visit it every year. While most people associate the Mona Lisa painting with secret messages―most of which are hoax―others associate it with numerous parodies that have flooded the Internet. Are these secrets and parodies the only reason why the Mona Lisa is so popular?

Why is Mona Lisa so Famous?

One may believe that the fact that it was made by the great Italian painter Leonardo da Vinci would be enough to make it the most famous painting in the world. After all, it is widely considered da Vinci's magnum opus. But that's not the case.
It is believed that da Vinci painted it somewhere between 1503 and 1506, but it shot to fame only in 1911, when it went missing. The person who pulled off what is considered the greatest art theft of the 20th century was a former employee of the Louvre Museum, Vincenzo Peruggia.
He and his aides got into the museum on August 20, spent the night hiding there, and the next day walked away with the painting hidden in the white artists' smock he was wearing. Peruggia hid the painting in his apartment in Paris for two years, before he took it to Florence, Italy, where he tried to sell it to an art gallery.
The owner of the art gallery informed the police, and Peruggia was arrested. In his defense, Peruggia said he wanted to return the painting to its homeland from where―according to him―Napoleon had stolen it.
He was perhaps unaware of the fact that Napoleon was only born 250 years after da Vinci made this painting, and gifted it to Francis I of France when he was appointed as a painter in the latter's court. When the painting was recovered, it was exhibited all over Italy, and brought back to the Louvre in 1913.
When it went missing, it had created a lot of hype, with the media going berserk, and authorities leaving no stone upturned to find it. While Picasso was called in for questioning, people like J.P. Morgan, the American tycoon and art lover, and renowned French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, were in the list of suspects.
With all the chaos that followed, it was but obvious that people flocked to the museum to see it when it was returned. More than 100,000 people came to see it over the course of the first two days after it was brought back.
Once the general public started taking keen interest in it, even the Louvre put it up as one of the major attractions. Until then, it was just another less-known painting in the museum. Over the course of time, experts from different fields, right from historians to filmmakers, began focusing on it.
Thus came to light several facts about the Mona Lisa that just added to its popularity. It may come as a surprise for most people, but the truth is that, it was hailed as a Renaissance painting masterwork only in the 1860s.

Other Reasons

The identity of the subject is shrouded in a mystery.
Most accounts state that the Mona Lisa is a half-length portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. However, there do exist accounts which throw up other names as the subject of this painting.
These include Cecilia Gallerani, the mistress of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan; Costanza d'Avalos, the Duchess of Francavilla; Isabella of Aragon, the Duchess of Milan; and so on. In fact, some accounts suggest that the subject of this painting was da Vinci himself.

**The word Mona in Mona Lisa is the short form of Madonna, which is equivalent to Madam.

Its ambiguity adds to its mysteriousness.

Mona Lisa's smile has been interpreted in many ways. Some consider it innocent, while others term it mysterious. While some attribute its smile to the viewers' vision, others say it indicates that she was pregnant or probably just had a child.
In 1910, Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud stated that the Mona Lisa's smile signified da Vinci's attraction to his mother. Besides the smile, a unique thing about the Mona Lisa is the absence of eyebrows and eyelashes.
While some historians are of the opinion that it was a common practice to get rid of 'unsightly' facial hair, a more plausible explanation is that da Vinci didn't complete the painting for some or the other reason.

It has been vandalized on several occasions.

Despite the fact that it had been kept in secured environment after the theft, it continued to be the target for vandals. In 1956, for instance, it first had acid and then rocks thrown over it.
With rising instances of attacks, the painting was eventually shielded by bulletproof glass, as a result of which it was saved from further damage. Interestingly, the Mona Lisa has had several things thrown at it, right from pen and paper, to mugs.

It is the most parodied work of art in the world.

Mona Lisa has been replicated and parodied thousands of times. One of the most famous replicas is the L.H.O.O.Q. by Marcel Duchamp. That is not to say that the Mona Lisa was parodied only after it became so famous. At the 1883 show of the Incoherent (Les Arts Incoherent), a French art movement, Mona Lisa was depicted smoking a pipe.
Also, there is the famous Isle worth Mona Lisa, which is believed to be a 16th century replica of the famous painting. If at all, there was a spike in the number of parodies after its theft. More recently, with the advent of social networking websites and a host of photo-editing software, the Mona Lisa has become all the more famous.
Considering that it was the theft of this painting that propped it into the limelight, one can say that it was more about luck than quality. Back in December 1962, the Mona Lisa was valued at USD 100 million.
If we adjust that for inflation, it would amount to USD 780 million today. So, the theft of the Mona Lisa didn't just add to its popularity, but also made it one of the most valuable paintings in the world.
Post Script: That the painting was stolen was no doubt true, but there is an alternative story to it. It is said that the theft of Mona Lisa was masterminded by the Argentine conman Eduardo de Valfierno, who had planned to make six copies of the painting and sell them to make a fortune.