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Why is Mona Lisa so famous?

(The following is an excerpt from Hand Crafted Walks in Paris, which includes a self-guided tour of the Louvre. Self-guided walks like this are included in many of the trips that we arrange for our clients. When you are ready to travel to again, Hand Crafted Travel can help you organize your trip, including hotels, restaurants, transportation, and skip-the-line tickets for most major sights. It's the stress-free way to get the most out of your European trip.)

Don’t be disappointed by Mona. She’s smaller and less dramatic than many people expect. So why is Mona so famous? Part of Mona Lisa's popularity lies in the fact that it's a painting by Leonardo da Vinci – a surprisingly rare thing.

Ask just about anybody what Leonardo da Vinci did, and they’ll probably say he was a painter. Mona Lisa and the Last Supper are two of the most famous works in Renaissance art, but da Vinci spent a good part of his career working for the Duke of Milan, who was constantly at war with somebody. Da Vinci designed siege ladders for scaling city walls, innovative multi-shot canons, and an armored tank. He developed pumps for irrigating fields and for draining swamps. He also dreamed up designs for helicopters, airplanes, and cars, although he never actually built them. He cast a huge bronze equestrian statue, an engineering feat in itself. He was an architect, an engineer, and a philosopher – in other words, the original Renaissance man. Oh, and he did a little painting on the side.
I’m sure that if he were alive today, little Leonardo would have also been diagnosed as ADHD, pumped full of drugs and told to calm down and focus. He was constantly jumping from one project to another, often leaving things unfinished as his attention was drawn to some new idea or some untried technique. Any museum that has a single Leonardo da Vinci painting can be considered a major museum. The Louvre has three.

Da Vinci's popularity, and the desire to see his works surged after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, but Mona Lisa was popular long before the imagined intrigues of Dan Brown. Mona has a mystery all her own – she was stolen in 1911, an event that put the painting in newspaper headlines around the world, and made her a household name. Putting these events aside, Mona Lisa deserves to be seen on her own terms.

Leonardo was an artist very much into subtleties.

Mona Lisa was painted by da Vinci sometime between 1503 and 1506. That is about the sum total of what we know about the painting. We don’t know for sure who it is, who commissioned it, how long da Vinci worked on it, or how it ended up in French hands. So what follows is just a guess, but it’s probably a good guess.
The sitter is most likely Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo. The key to this identification is the smile, a riff on the word Giocondo (jocund, cheerful). Da Vinci used similar word plays in other portraits, such as including juniper in his portrait of Ginevra de’ Benci. The painting known as Mona Lisa may have been made to mark either the birth of their second son, or the purchase of their house.
The Mona Lisa is important not because it is such a beautiful painting, which it isn’t, but because it is one of the first portraits to capture the emotions of the person and communicate these to the viewer. Portraits of individuals are almost unknown prior to the Renaissance. In the early Renaissance, the standard portrait was done in profile (not looking at the viewer at all, or making eye contact). The aim was to create the most characteristic view of a person’s head, which is the profile. The portrait was a record. The goal was to create a likeness and a beautiful, aesthetically appealing object.

Even Michelangelo’s David stands aloof and separate from us. We contemplate it and enjoy it, and are thrilled by it, but we only communicate with it vicariously. It’s a one-way conversation. Leonardo’s concentration on the psychology of the figures in his paintings, and communicating them to us, the viewers, was an enormous breakthrough, a revolution that intensified in the Baroque period. Leonardo brought us into the picture.

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