Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci: 12 Fun facts and history

Get the facts about the Mona Lisa, Leonardo da Vinci's most famous painting. From its history, how it ended up at the Louvre Museum, and more.
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The Mona Lisa painting, the ultimate diva of the art world. This is one portrait that has seen more spotlight than a Hollywood A-lister.

Arguably the most famous painting in the world, this lady has secrets that even the best detective couldn’t unravel. This Italian masterpiece was painted by the legendary Leonardo da Vinci around the early 16th century, and she has become a timeless celebrity who never ages.

The Mona Lisa painting is currently held in the Louvre museum which is arguably the most famous French museum in the world. The Renaissance painting receives millions of visitors every year, each hoping for a glimpse and a selfie with that renowned enigmatic smile.

But while it is a technically beautiful painting, it is the history and provenance of the Mona Lisa that makes it such wonderfully sought after object. The painting has even gone on some wild adventures, like being stolen and recovered, going on tour, and attracting wild fanatics who claim to have decoded her smile.

So let’s find out some of the most interesting facts about the Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, shall we? Allons-y!

1. It was painted between 1503 and 1506.

It is believed that Leonardo da Vinci started painting the Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1506, likely when he was living in Florence, Italy. (At the same time, in January 1504, da Vinci was part of a committee formed to recommend where Michelangelo’s statue of David should be placed).

While many of the paintings and sculptures of the period were about religious topics, the Mona Lisa stood out as a portrait without any particular religious connotations.

2. No one is sure who the woman in the painting is.

The woman featured in the Mona Lisa is believed to be Italian noblewoman Lisa Gherardini living in Florence. She was the 3rd wife of a silk merchant named Francesco del Giocondo.

The Giocondo family never held the painting however, and it is unclear why Leonardo da Vinci never turned it over to them if they had commissioned him to do the painting.

She was not a random unknown model, as Leonardo presented her in dark garments and black veil, which were signs of Spanish-influenced high fashion.

3. Da Vinci brought it to France when he left Italy.

In 1515, French King François I conquered Milan as the disputed Duke of Milan. As such, he met first Leonardo da Vinci while he was there. He offered to host the Italian Master Leonardo da Vinci, giving him a stipend and lodging near his childhood home in Amboise in the Loire Valley.

Da Vinci moved to France in 1515 at the age of 64, arriving with chests full of notes and sketchbooks, along with 3 of his most famous paintings, the “Mona Lisa“, “Virgin and Child with St. Anne” and “St. John the Baptist“.

François Ier put him up at Clos Lucé next to his own residence at the Château d’Amboise and gave him a rich allowance to continue his work.

4. In French, it is called La Joconde.

The Italian name for the Mona Lisa is La Gioconda which means “jocund” (“happy” or “jovial”). It is also perhaps a pun on the feminine form of Lisa’s married name, Giocondo. Similar to the Italian, in French the painting is referred to as “La Joconde”.

5. It became part of the property of the King Francis I, and later the French Republic.

Upon Leonardo da Vinci’s death 3 years after his arrival in France, his work became the property of King Francois I in 1519.

Francis 1 of France
Francis 1 of France – courtesy of Wikipedia

It is which why France has such a rich collection of works by da Vinci. Many of those famous works are conserved in the Musée du Louvre, with his sketchbooks in vaults owned by the French Govt.

Under François I the Mona Lisa was not at the Louvre, but instead at the Palace of Fontainebleau (aka the Home of Kings). And when it was moved, Louis XIV, husband of Marie-Antoinette, moved it to the Palace of Versailles.

After the 1789 revolution, the Louvre was officially declared a museum. Many artworks including the Mona Lisa became property of the French Republic and went on permanent display at the Louvre.

6. Napoleon Bonaparte put it in his bedroom.

After Napoleon Bonaparte emerged from the ashes of the French Revolution and came to power, he involved himself in a quite a bit of art-collecting. Along with pillaging riches from the countries he conquered, he also had the Mona Lisa moved to his bedroom of Napoleon in the Tuileries Palace.

The painting moved back to the Louvre after Napoleon’s downfall, but it did move briefly into protection again during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870.

7. It was stolen in 1911.

The fame of the Mona Lisa (aka La Joconde in French) is really due to a grand theft.

It was not all that famous when, on 21 August 1911, the painting was stolen from the Louvre. After some confusion as to whether the painting was being photographed somewhere, the Louvre was closed for a week for investigation.

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his friend artist Pablo Picass, both came under suspicion and were questioned. Both were later exonerated.

A couple of years later, it was found to be an inside job. Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, who had helped construct the painting’s glass case, had in fact carried out the theft.

Inspiring spy films everywhere, he entered the building during regular hours, hid in a broom closet, and walked out with the painting hidden under his coat after the museum had closed.

Peruggia was Italian and strongly believed that Leonardo da Vinci’s painting should have been returned to an Italian museum.

After having kept the Mona Lisa in his apartment for two years, Peruggia attempted to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It was exhibited in the Uffizi Gallery for over two weeks and returned to the Louvre on 4 January 1914.

Peruggia served 6 months in prison for the crime and was hailed for his patriotism in Italy.

8. It was hidden during WWII.

Already the most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa was a prized target for the German Reich. But the French started preparing.

Reproduction of the Mona Lisa packed in box at Château de Chambord
Reproduction of the Mona Lisa packed in box at Château de Chambord

Starting September 27, 1938, a few months before the war, convoys of art would leave the Louvre to be hidden in châteaux in the Loire and houses across France.

Over 3,600 paintings were taken down and move to places like the Château de Chambord, Valençay, Louvigny, Pau, etc. Over 200 trips take place with 5,446 boxes are moved including the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, and many many more. The disappointed Germans would find many of the walls of the Louvre empty.

9. It travelled to America in 1963.

While the Mona Lisa rarely travels these days, from December 1962 to March 1963, the French government lent it to the United States. It was shipped on the new ocean liner SS France, to be displayed in New York City and Washington, D.C.

US President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline Kennedy, and his vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson were all at the unveiling of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery of Art in Washington in January 1963.

Mona Lisa at the Louvre Museum

10. It has been attacked several times.

Over the years, the Mona Lisa has moved several times within the Louvre Museum to better protect it, while still allowing visitors to see it. From hanging on a wall with other paintings, it is now by itself on a showcase wall behind bulletproof glass.

Among the recorded acts of vandalism and theft, there was Bolivian Ugo Ungaza Villegas who threw a rock at the Mona Lisa in 1956. In 2009, a Russian woman, distraught over being denied French citizenship, threw a ceramic teacup at the painting, in an effort to damage it.

The painting however remains safe, with the glass protections reinforced to prevent damage and/or robbery.

11. It is highly insured.

The Mona Lisa is one of the most valuable paintings in the world. In 1962, it earned the Guinness World Record for the highest-known painting insurance valuation at US$100 million in 1962.

While current insurance values are not known, this translates to around $870m.

12. It may be unfinished.

For a painting with such a rich history and value, the Mona Lisa may actually be unfinished. It is believed that as late as 1517, Leonardo was tinkering with it, adding paint and making adjustments.

His right hand became paralytic as he aged, so it is possible that Leonardo never managed to achieve the original vision he had for the painting.


If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more facts about French culture. A bientôt!

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