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.

Rotting Fruit—Made of Glass—Is the Focus of a New Exhibition at Harvard

Strawberry with Penicillium sp. mold, Rudolf Blaschka, 1929
Strawberry with Penicillium sp. mold, Rudolf Blaschka, 1929
Jennifer Berglund © 2019 President and Fellows of Harvard College

A fuzzy blue strawberry, a pear mottled with unseemly blotches—rotting fruit is not normally thought of as beautiful. But just like the trees, flowers, and more attractive crops often featured in artwork, fruits dying on the branch are a normal part of nature. By spotlighting the summer fruits that never make it to market, the Harvard Museum of Natural History is calling on people to examine them in a different light.

The new exhibit, “Fruits in Decay," consists of astonishingly realistic glass models of apricots, plums, and other fruits in various stages of rot. Each intricate sculpture showcases the effects of a real-life agricultural disease. One branch is depicted with peach leaf curl, a disease caused by the fungus Taphrina deformans, and a pear bears the telltale dark spots of pear scab. There are more than 20 glass items on display.


Pear with pear scab, Rudolf Blaschka, 1929
Jennifer Berglund © 2019 President and Fellows of Harvard College

“Fruits in Decay" is the new focus of the Harvard Museum's famous "Glass Flowers" gallery. Every piece in the glass collection was crafted by either Leopold or Rudolf Blaschka, a Czech father-son team descended from a line of glassblowers stretching back to the 15th century. Active in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were known for creating realistic glass models of scientific specimens, 4300 of which are housed at Harvard today. The rotten fruit models were sculpted by Rudolf Blaschka between the years 1924 and 1932, at the end of his career.

“Rudolf Blaschka’s last work centered on the creation of these models of diseased fruits," Donald H. Pfister, curator of the Farlow Library and Herbarium of Cryptogamic Botany, said in statement. "They are the culmination of his lifelong attention to accuracy and innovation. They illustrate the effects of fungi as agents of disease in plants and point to their importance in agricultural systems.”

“Fruits in Decay" is open now at the Harvard Museum of Natural History and will be on view through March 1, 2020.

Branch with peach leaf curl, Model 798, Rudolf Blaschka, 1929
Branch with peach leaf curl, Rudolf Blaschka, 1929
Jennifer Berglund © 2019 President and Fellows of Harvard College

Collection of Star Wars-Inspired Insect Art Is Coming to Los Angeles Gallery

Richard Wilkinson
Richard Wilkinson

The Star Wars universe is known for its larger-than-life spaceships, weapons, and characters. For his new gallery exhibition, "Arthropoda Iconicus," artist Richard Wilkinson decided to take a different approach. As Gizmodo reports, he has reimagined pieces of Star Wars iconography as new species of insects.

The creepy collection goes on display at the Hero Complex Gallery in Los Angeles on September 6. At first glance, the bugs look like specimens you'd find at a natural history museum. But pop culture connoisseurs will recognize that each critter is inspired by something from a movie, television show, video game, comic book, or even a popular product or brand.

The Star Wars-inspired insects are the stars of the show. R2-D2 has been reinterpreted as a beetle dubbed Robodoubus deoduoubus, and Yoda appears as Dominos magister. C-3PO, a stormtrooper, and Darth Vader are all represented, too.

R2-D2 beetle.
Richard Wilkinson

C3PO bug.
Richard Wilkinson

Yoda insect.
Richard Wilkinson

Stormtrooper as bug.
Richard Wilkinson

Book of Star Wars icons as bugs.
Richard Wilkinson

Many of the works on display are taken from Wilkinson's book Arthropoda Iconicus Volume I: Insects From A Far Away Galaxy. All 148 pieces in the exhibit will be available to purchase for $20 as 8-inch-by-10-inch prints when the show opens Friday. The art will also sold through Hero Complex's website starting at 11:00 a.m. PST on September 7.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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