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8 Intriguing Facts About the Mona Lisa

Learn more about the history of the enigmatic portrait.

mona lisa
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Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous piece of art in the world. Painted in the early 16th century, it depicts a mysterious woman with a hint of a smile. For nearly the entirety of the painting’s existence, the Mona Lisa has captivated and fascinated people, and its story goes far beyond da Vinci’s Renaissance studio. Here are eight intriguing facts about the Mona Lisa that you might not know.

It may be unfinished.

raphael's sketch of the mona lisa
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Although he began working on the Mona Lisa in the first decade of the 1500s, there is evidence to suggest that Leonardo da Vinci was still refining the painting around 1516 or 1517. Da Vinci’s right hand was partially paralyzed by 1517, so any finishing touches may have been impossible for him to paint. 

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A popular piece of evidence used to argue that the Mona Lisa is unfinished is the subject’s lack of eyebrows, though this has been hotly debated. Some historians argue that not having eyebrows was fashionable for Italian women in the early 1500s. In 2007, French engineer Pascal Cotte performed high-resolution scans on the painting and found that Mona Lisa did once have eyebrows, but they had faded, likely as a result of time and shoddy restoration work.

It was once believed to be a self-portrait.

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One of the most enduring mysteries of the Mona Lisa is the identity of its subject. One particularly interesting theory suggested that the painting is actually a self-portrait of da Vinci himself! Given that the Mona Lisa portrays a woman, that seems unlikely, but bear with us. Artist Lillian Schwartz did a digital analysis in which she found similarities between the facial features of Mona Lisa and da Vinci’s Portrait of a Man in Red Chalk, which is thought to be a self-portrait of the artist. Could da Vinci's famous portrait depict his own face, with a feminine twist?

If you're shaking your head no, most scholars are in agreement with you. The identity of the Mona Lisa has been largely put to rest in recent years. It's now believed to depict Lisa del Giocondo, a wealthy woman from Florence, Italy, and was most likely commissioned by her husband Francesco del Giocondo. This theory is corroborated by a 1503 note written by Florence city official Agostino Vespucci. The note was discovered in 2005, in the margins of a book at Heidelberg University.

It once hung in Napoleon’s bedroom.

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Before it found a home in the Louvre, the Mona Lisa spent time with several French leaders. After da Vinci died, his favorite apprentice was in possession of the painting. It then came into the possession of King Francis I of France, who displayed it in the Palace of Fontainebleau. Later, Louis XIV moved the Mona Lisa to the Palace of Versailles, where it remained until the French Revolution. 

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In 1800, Napoleon had the Mona Lisa moved from the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace. He had the painting hung in his bedroom so he could admire it whenever he wanted, which he did for about four years.

It was stolen in 1911.

In late August 1911, a handyman at the Louvre stole the Mona Lisa. Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian nationalist who believed the painting should be brought back and displayed in its home country. It was in his possession for two years, and no one was any the wiser. He was finally caught trying to sell the painting in Florence. 

The theft of the Mona Lisa was a worldwide news sensation and made the painting the household name it is today. Prior to its disappearance, it had only been well known to members of the art world and academics. People all over the world followed the story of the missing masterpiece, especially the French. People lined up for hours just to see the blank space where Mona Lisa once hung and brought flowers and notes for her.

Pablo Picasso was one of the suspects in the theft. 

Before Peruggia was caught, the manhunt for the Mona Lisa’s thief was immense. Suspicion soon fell on a group of “art dissidents”, including Pablo Picasso and his friend, art critic Guillaume Apollinaire. They had been known for their vocal dislike of the kind of art displayed in museums like the Louvre. Apollinaire had even signed a manifesto that threatened to burn the museum to the ground. 

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The suspicion deepened when it was discovered that Apollinaire had protected a man who had stolen multiple items from the Louvre in the past, and two of those items were found in Picasso’s apartment. Apollinaire was even briefly arrested. Both men were soon exonerated.

It has been attacked multiple times. 

After the Mona Lisa was rediscovered in 1913, major steps were taken to ensure its safety, but that did not stop people from trying to damage the famous painting. In 1956, a Bolivian tourist threw a rock at it, shattering the protective glass and damaging the painting. You can still see where the pigment was damaged near the subject's left elbow if you look hard enough. In 1974, a woman sprayed the protective glass with red paint while the Mona Lisa was on display at the Tokyo National Museum to protest the museum’s failure to provide access to disabled people. 

The most recent major attack on the Mona Lisa was in 2009. A Russian woman who was upset that she had been denied French citizenship threw a teacup at the painting. Luckily, no damage was done as the teacup simply shattered when it hit the bulletproof glass.

It came to America at the request of Jackie Kennedy.

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When French minister of culture Andre Malraux was visiting the United States in 1962, First Lady Jackie Kennedy gave him a tour of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Being an art lover and Francophile herself, Jackie mentioned that it would be wonderful if Americans could see France’s most famous painting. Malraux and French President Charles de Gaulle agreed. 

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The Mona Lisa sailed across the Atlantic and arrived in America in 1963. It was displayed first at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and then at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The very first visitor at the Met to see the Mona Lisa was Ruth Amanuel from Langley Park, Maryland, who had been standing in line since 7:30 that morning. After her visit, she said it was well worth the wait.

It has the highest known insurance valuation in art history. 

When the Mona Lisa went on tour in the 1960s, it was given an insurance valuation of $100 million, the equivalent of roughly $870 million today. The Mona Lisa currently holds the Guinness World Record for the highest insurance valuation for a painting, and it’s hard to imagine another work of art taking her place anytime soon.