Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?
It's a combination of da Vinci's genius and a notorious crime in 1911.
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Earlier this week, I wrote a Twitter thread on the question “Why is the Mona Lisa so famous?”
It received enough interest that I’m expanding on the answer here and will answer a related question next week: “How much is the Mona Lisa worth?” (it’s obviously priceless, but let’s put on our hypothetical caps; email me your wildest guesses).
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The Mona Lisa
Back in 2019, I visited Paris with my wife and toddler son.
Travelling with a kid definitely has downsides but there is one massive upside: if you’re visiting The Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, the museum’s staff is so desperate to avoid a crying baby that they will escort you past the giant line and right up to Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.
Like, right up to it while all the other plebs have to stand behind a barrier. And then you can snap your photo and move on.
While getting this close to the Mona Lisa is awesome, the entire process is quite soulless. We spent basically no time looking at the art and neither did any of the hundreds of other museum goers (so many sick IG photos, though).
The Mona Lisa: you just have to see it because it’s the most famous painting in the world. Per Google Arts & Culture, an estimated 10m people visit the Louvre every year. And 80% of the visitors are there only to see the Mona Lisa. We were part of that super basic 80%.
To put the number into perspective, the Mona Lisa is visited nearly as much as the next 5 most popular paintings combined:
The Sistine Chapel ceiling by Michelangelo (1508-1512): 5m visitors per year
The Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh (1889): 3m visitors per year
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1665): 1.5m visitors per year
The Scream by Edvard Munch (1893): 500k visitors per year
The Last Supper by some guy named da Vinci (1495-1498): 460k visitors per year
The Mona Lisa’s popularity is quite a recent phenomenon. da Vinci started the portrait in 1503 but its reputation as “the most famous painting in the world” only really happened in the past century.
In other words: for over 400 years of its 519 year existence, the Mona Lisa was not a “must see”.
What catalyzed the change? In 1911, the painting was stolen from The Louvre and the ensuing unsolved mystery rocketed the Mona Lisa into global prominence.
Let’s start the story from the beginning.
The year is 1503
Leonardo da Vinci is 51-years old and living in Florence, Italy. By this part of his career, da Vinci had established himself as a Renaissance Man’s Renaissance Man.
At 14, he began studying under famed artist Andrea del Verrocchio. Over the following decades, da Vinci carved out a reputation as a scientist, engineer, anatomist and all-around galaxy brain.
Everyone wanted a piece: He worked for the Medici family and painted The Last Supper at the behest of the Church.
But da Vinci was far from the most prolific artist of his time. In comparison, da Vinci’s peers — and fellow Ninja Turtles — had much greater art output. There are less than 25 paintings attributed to da Vinci while Raphael and Michelangelo both have 180+ works to their names.
da Vinci also had a reputation as someone who didn’t finish his work. The dude was such a polymath that new pursuits kept getting in the way of old projects (btw: this part of the story is what I tell my wife before starting any useless side hustle).
This is the backdrop for the Mona Lisa.
Who was she? It’s widely accepted that the subject is Lisa Gheradrdini, the wife of a wealthy Floretian merchant who commissioned da Vinci for the portrait (although one theory that won’t die is that the painting is of da Vinci himself as a cross-dresser). In Italian, “monna” is a contraction of the phrase “ma donna”, which is a polite way to say “madam” (“mona” with one “n” is actually a cuss word in Italian, so the English version of the name is quite offensive as I found out on Twitter).
Many people — me included — that briefly see the Mona Lisa often say they “don’t get the hype”. The painting is quite small (30” x 21”) and isn’t as awe-inspiring as other great Renaissance works like The Last Supper or the outrageous Sistine Chapel.
But we have to remember that da Vinci in 1503 is a fully-formed genius with a toolkit to match. As a painting, the Mona Lisa had a ton of technical innovations for its time. According to a Great Art Explained video, da Vinci applied a lifetime of human anatomy study to the Mona Lisa:
Realism: Below is a comparison of da Vinci with other female portraits from the Renaissance. The Mona Lisa has much more lively skin color and texture while the facial expressions are incomparable. The Mona Lisa’s portrait dimension was also groundbreaking, with its 3/4 perspective of the body becoming the portrait norm. The eyes looking directly at the viewer was another new thing (note how the women in the other portraits aren’t looking directly at you).
Perspective: Look at the backgrounds. Black vs. a lively background that gives the illusion of depth.
Techniques: da Vinci perfected a few painting skills to bring The Mona Lisa to life. The first technique is called sfumato, which gradually blends colors together, producing a “smoky” outline with no clear lines (the other paintings have much sharper lines). Another technique is called glazing, where you apply dozens of thin layers of paint — often only a few millimetres —which make a body part look more realistic (check the Mona Lisa’s hand).
The smile: da Vinci’s understanding of paint techniques and human anatomy culminates in the smile. On the left is da Vinci’s notebook studying all of the mouth muscles (he examined hundreds of cadavers in his life). The mysterious Mona Lisa smile effect is created from da Vinci’s understanding of human optics. Basically, if you look directly at the smile, it looks happy but if you see the smile from your peripheral vision (eg. you’re looking at her eyes), the smile looks neutral. It’s all has to do with how light from the image hits your eye.
Add it all up and it took at least 4 years for da Vinci to complete the painting. Think about this: Michelangelo took the same amount of time — often lying on his back suspended in mid-air — to complete the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling.
Clearly, deadlines don’t apply when you’re a polymath (I also tell this to my wife).
Even after “finishing” the Mona Lisa, da Vinci never gave it to the Floretian merchant. By 1516, da Vinci had kind of burnt his reputation in Italy and moved to France.
King Francis I offered him a place to stay in Amboise, France (I too would not turn down a free palatial Chateau in central France).
If you want a signifier of how much the Mona Lisa was a culmination of da Vinci’s life work, just know he took the painting with him to the French Chateau and kept tinkering with it until his death in 1519, likely from a stroke.
At his death, the French Royal Court took possession of the Mona Lisa and basically nothing happened with it for 300 years.
Out of hibernation
Fast forward to 1789 and the start of the French Revolution.
Everything in the country changed…including the fate of the Mona Lisa.
Why? In 1792, King Louis XVI was put in jail and the Royal Court’s art collection was seized for the citizens of France. One year later, the Louvre -- originally a palace -- was turned into a museum to celebrate art and science.
The Mona Lisa found its way into The Louvre in 1797 but it didn’t last there long.
In 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte took political power in France and — a year later — scooped the Mona Lisa for a 4-year stint…in his bedroom.
The Mona Lisa finally made a permanent home in the Louvre in 1804.
Around the 1850s, cultural critics really began writing and commentating on da Vinci’s masterpiece.
Mona Lisa’s image as a femme fatale — especially the smile — captured the imagination of many men. English writer Walter Pater wrote a particularly thirsty account of the painting in 1878:
The presence that rose thus so strangely beside the waters, is expressive of what in the ways of a thousand years men had come to desire. Hers is the head upon which all ‘the ends of the world are come,’ and the eyelids are a little weary. It is a beauty wrought out from within upon the flesh, the deposit, little cell by cell, of strange thoughts and fantastic reveries and exquisite passions.
Despite the thirst, the Mona Lisa was still decades away from global fame.
The theft heard around the world
In August of 1911, the Mona Lisa went missing from the Louvre. The portrait was such an afterthought that it took 24 hours before anyone even realized it was gone.
But from that moment, the Mona Lisa mystery became the biggest news in the world. The theft got wall-to-wall newspaper coverage for months...and theories ran wild.
Who stole the Mona Lisa?
Pablo Picasso was the most famous suspect. The Spanish artists lived on-and-off in Paris and had actually come into possession of stolen Louvre artwork. He was arrested and questioned for a few days but absolved of the crime. Noted art lover JP Morgan was also a suspect but never officially tied to the theft.
The real thief surfaced in 1913.
His name was Vincenzo Peruggia, a Louvre museum worker that literally just walked out with the painting back in 1911. Peruggia’s flat was a few blocks from the museum and he kept the portrait next to a fire stove the entire time (#WhatCouldHaveBeen). But he was ultimately captured in Florence, where the Italian native kept a flat.
There was no grand plan: Peruggia couldn't sell the Mona Lisa after trying for 2 years and finally offered it to a Floretian gallery owner for 500k lira…who ratted him out.
When arrested, Peruggia offered up a patriotic motive: he said Napoleon "stole" the work and he wanted to return it to Italy (if this was really the case, he probably shouldn’t have asked for the 500k lira).
The Italian government re-possessed the Mona Lisa and toured the painting around Italy before giving it back to The Louvre.
By this time, the portrait — which had been in global newspapers for years — was one of the world's most famous images. da Vinci's work had become a must-see attraction for Paris visitors.
The theft of the Mona Lisa catapulted the portrait into the “famous for being famous” zone. Social historian Daniel J. Boorstin is credited with coining that phrase in 1961 and argued “that the graphic revolution in journalism and other forms of communication had severed fame from greatness.”
The Mona Lisa rode an early wave of the “graphic revolution” via the widespread newspaper coverage around the scandal (1911-1913).
None if this is to diminish from da Vinci’s work. Yes, the Mona Lisa is a beautiful and innovative painting. But very reasonable people have argued that da Vinci has better works (The Last Supper, Saint John the Baptist). Even a better work that is a portrait of a woman (The Lady with an Ermine). And that’s nothing to say of the other great artists.
In 1919, French artist Marcel Duchamp parodied the Mona Lisa by drawing a moustached version of the portrait and titled the work L.H.O.O.Q. These letters read out loud sound like the French words for “she has a hot ass”. Duchamp’s crude joke kicked off countless parodies, knock-offs, advertisements and pop culture references in the following century.
Another noteworthy event: in 1963, Jackie Kennedy convinced the French government to lend the Mona Lisa to the United States. During a 7-week tour in DC (National Gallery of Art) and NY (The Met), more than 1.5 million Americans saw the painting.
President John F. Kennedy remarked:
“This painting is the second lady that the people of France have sent to the United States, and though she will not stay with us as long as the Statue of Liberty, our appreciation is equally great.”
During its stay in America, the Mona Lisa was insured for a record-setting $100m value. That’s $968m in 2022 dollars.
What is the value now? Well, the most famous painting in the world is obviously priceless because The Louvre will never ever sell it.
But next week, I’ll try to answer the question anyways.
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Links and Memes
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Amazon: we own the grocery store and the doctor’s office and now we also own the robot vacuum that knows the exact floor plan of your house
Elon: While the wild Twitter acquisition saga continues to play out, the Harvard Business Review did a breakdown of the business strategy for Tesla and SpaceX.
It’s worth a read but I want to flag two points: 1) Elon takes on highly complex physical problems that require massive capital investment (launch EV company, make re-usable rockets); and 2) with enough scale, these problems become economical because “performance and unit costs can predictably decrease as you increase production volume and build units over time” (battery costs go down for EV, launch prices goes down for rockets).
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Linkedin Hustleporn content has been making its way into Twitter at an alarming frequency. And this tweet was perfectly crafted to go viral: give generic life advice in a templated format that has an equal amount of lovers and haters. The templated format led to 16k+ quotes retweets, including this gem Stephen King reference:
Oh and this was incredible (da Vinci would have laughed):
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