14 Things You Didn't Know About the Mona Lisa

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Her tricky smile and timeless allure have inspired academic study and artistic emulation for more than five centuries. But the story of Leonardo da Vinci's perplexing portrait is even richer than it looks.

1. "Mona Lisa" is not her name.

The painting's subject is commonly thought to be Lisa Gherardini, whose wealthy—and presumably adoring—husband Francesco del Giocondo commissioned the work in Florence, Italy around 1503. This explains the less prevalent title for the painting, La Gioconda, or La Joconde in French. The name Mona Lisa (or Monna Lisa, as the Italians prefer) roughly translates to "My Lady Lisa." Leonardo da Vinci never completed the portrait though—when he died in 1519, it was one of many unfinished works left to his assistant.

2. Napoleon crushed hard on her, then her descendent.

The French emperor once had Mona Lisa hanging in his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace for about four years, beginning in 1800. It's said his fascination with the painting inspired his affection for a pretty Italian named Teresa Guadagni, who was actually a descendant of Lisa Gherardini.

3. Mona Lisa is smaller than you might think.

The Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre
Chris Radburn-Pool/Getty Images

Mona Lisa's influence on culture is massive, but the oil-on-wood panel painting measures just 30 inches by 21 inches and weighs 18 pounds.

4. Her eyebrows are a matter of debate.

Some claim the subject's lack of eyebrows is representative of high-class fashion of the time. Others insist her AWOL eyebrows are proof that Mona Lisa is an unfinished masterpiece. But in 2007 ultra-detailed digital scans of the painting revealed da Vinci had once painted on eyebrows and bolder eyelashes. Both had simply faded over time or had fallen victim to years of restoration work.

5. She's broken a lot of hearts.

The portrait was first put on public display in the Louvre in 1815, inspiring admiration, as a string of "suitors bearing flowers, poems and impassioned notes climbed the grand staircase of the Louvre to gaze into her 'limpid and burning eyes.'"

"Mona Lisa often made men do strange things," R. A. Scotti wrote in Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa, "There were more than one million artworks in the Louvre collection; she alone received her own mail. Mona Lisa received many love letters, and for a time they were so ardent that she was placed under police protection." The painting has its own mailbox at the Louvre because of all the love letters its subject receives.

6. Men have died from loving her.

In 1852, an artist named Luc Maspero supposedly threw himself from the fourth floor of a Parisian hotel, leaving a suicide note that read: "For years I have grappled desperately with her smile. I prefer to die." In 1910, one enamored fan came before her solely to shoot himself as he looked upon her.

7. The Mona Lisa is essentially priceless.

In the 1960s, the painting went on a tour where it was given an insurance valuation of $100 million (factoring in inflation, more recent assessment estimated it's worth $2.5 billion). But the policy was never taken out because the premiums were more than the cost of the best security.

8. The painting hangs in the world's prettiest prison.

Mona Lisa hangs in the center of the Louvre's Grand Gallery where it is climate-controlled to keep her in the ideal environment. Additionally, the work is encased in bulletproof glass to prevent threat and injury.

9. The Mona Lisa has been attacked!

If you look closely at the subject's left elbow, you might notice the damage done by Ugo Ungaza Villegas, a Bolivian who chucked a rock at the portrait in 1956. A few months before, another art attacker pitched acid at the painting, which hit the lower section. These attacks inspired the bulletproof glass, which in 2009 successfully rebuffed a ceramic mug hurled by an enraged Russian woman who'd been denied French citizenship.

10. France mourned en masse when she went missing.

On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. The New York Times retroactively compared the public display of grief to that seen in the wake of Princess Diana's death in 1997. Thousands poured into the Louvre to stare in shock at the blank wall where she once hung and leave flowers, notes, and other remembrances.

11. Pablo Picasso was a suspect in the caper.

Because he'd been caught buying stolen Louvre pieces before, Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning. But the true thief would not be caught until 1913.

Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia was a proud Italian nationalist who smuggled the painting out under his smock because he felt it belonged to his and da Vinci's homeland, not France. After hiding it for two years, Peruggia was busted trying to sell Mona Lisa to a Florence art dealer. However, he did briefly get his wish. Upon her recovery, Mona Lisa toured Italy before returning to Paris.

12. Suspicions arose that the heist wasn't a one-man job.

The Mona Lisa in 1914.
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Though Peruggia was the only one prosecuted for the crime, it's unlikely he acted alone. At the time of the theft, Mona Lisa was encased in a heavy wood backing and glass case that would have weighed almost 200 pounds, making it highly unlikely Perugia could have pulled it down from the wall on his own.

Years later, a man who called himself the Marquis of the Vale of Hell confessed to American reporter Karl Decker that he was the true mastermind behind the theft of Mona Lisa. On the condition his story be kept secret until his death, he revealed Peruggia was one of three men paid handsomely to snatch her. This way, the Marquis could sell multiple forgeries of the masterpiece to collectors for exorbitant sums. The beauty of the scam was that each buyer would believe they owned the authentic missing Mona Lisa. Whether the Marquis was telling the truth or not is still a hotly debated topic around the theft.

13. The Mona Lisa's return inspired a fashion trend.

In her book Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered, journalist Dianne Hales writes, "Society women adopted the 'La Joconde look' [named for the painting's French title], dusting yellow powder on their faces and necks to suggest her golden complexion and immobilizing their facial muscles to mimic her smile. In Parisian cabarets, dancers dressed as La Joconde performed a saucy can-can … Something beyond the painting's wild popularity had changed. The Mona Lisa had left the Louvre a work of art; she returned as a public property, the first mass art icon."

14. Mona Lisa's smile doesn't change, but your mindset does.

That is-she-or-isn't-she smile has long fascinated artists and historians. But in 2000, Harvard neuroscientist Dr. Margaret Livingstone applied a scientific method to why Mona Lisa's smile seems to shift. It's all about where your focus is and how your brain responds.

This story was republished in 2019.

Show Off Your Love of Art With a Frida Kahlo Action Figure

Frida Kahlo Action Figure
Frida Kahlo Action Figure
Today is Art Day

If you're in the market for an action figure based on a real person, you've got plenty to choose from: Everyone from Snoop Dogg to the Pope is getting their own figurine these days. Now, Frida Kahlo has joined the ranks of icons who have become immortalized in plastic.

In 2017, Canadian art website Today Is Art Day (known for its Vincent van Gogh action figure) started a Kickstarter to give Kahlo the action figure treatment. The toy features the artist with a monkey pal on her shoulder, as well as a detachable heart and the faint smell of roses. The packaging has fun facts about the artist, along with some miniature artwork that can be cut out and affixed to a miniature easel.

“Not that I don’t like the great books and reproductions of artworks but, I think it’s more engaging to have a Frida Kahlo action figure on your desk rather than an art history book on your shelf," ‘Today Is Art Day’ founder David Beaulieu told Lost at E Minor during the Kickstarter campaign.

The Frida action figure is available on Amazon for $30.

Frida Kahlo Action Figure

Frida Kahlo Action Figure

[h/t Lost at E Minor]

A version of this article first ran in 2017. It has been updated to reflect current availability.

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Rare Audio Clip of Frida Kahlo Discovered in Mexican Sound Library

Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Even if they're not experts in art, many people are familiar with Frida Kahlo's most famous paintings. The Mexican artist's style, quotes, and artwork are still iconic 65 years after her death, but few people know what she sounded like. As CNN reports, the National Sound Library of Mexico recently announced the discovery of what could be the only surviving recording of her voice.

The clip comes from the 1955 pilot of the radio show El Bachiller. The episode profiles Diego Rivera, a muralist and Kahlo's on-again-off-again husband. In one section, Kahlo can be heard reciting a text entitled "Portrait of Diego" that poetically describes the appearance and temperament of her spouse.

Kahlo had already died when the episode aired, and the radio show notes that the voice being broadcast belongs to a painter "who no longer exists." The original recording of her voice likely dates back to 1954 or 1953 (she died in July 1954).

In a press release, the director of the National Sound Library of Mexico Pável Granados said that audio of Frida Kahlo is one of the most common requests they receive. The authenticity of the tape has yet to be confirmed, and authorities are currently investigating to see if the voice in the recording really belonged to the artist.

Surviving audio of Kahlo may be rare, but the painter left behind many artworks and writings that paint a rich picture of her life. Here are some facts about the icon.

[h/t CNN]

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