wikimedia commons, public domain
wikimedia commons, public domain

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 this perplexing portrait is even richer than it looks.

1. "Mona Lisa" is not her name.

The painting’s subject is Lisa Gherardini, whose wealthy—and presumably adoring—husband Francesco Del Giocondo commissioned the work. This explains the less prevalent title for this painting, La Gioconda. The name Mona Lisa (or Monna Lisa, as the Italians prefer) roughly translates to "My Lady Lisa."

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

The French emperor once had Mona Lisa hanging in his bedroom, where he'd presumably revel in her beauty for untold hours. 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. She's smaller than you might think.

Mona Lisa's influence in culture is massive, but the oil-on-wood panel painting measures just 30 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 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, "There were more than one million artworks in the Louvre collection; she alone received her own mail." The painting actually 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 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." Then in 1910, one enamored fan came before her solely to shoot himself as he looked upon her.

7. It's literally priceless.

In the 1960s, the painting went on a tour where it was given an insurance valuation of $100 million. But the policy was never taken out because the premiums were more than the cost of the best security.

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

Mona Lisa gets her own room at the Louvre, one that is climate controlled to keep her in the ideal environment. Additionally, the work is encased in bulletproof glass to prevent threat and injury.

9. She's 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 souvenir mug hurled by an enraged Russian tourist who'd been denied French citizenship.

10. France mourned en masse when she went missing.

In 1911, 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, Picasso was brought in for questioning. But the true thief would not be caught until 1913.

Louvre employee Vincenzo Perugia 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, Perugia 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.

Though Perugia 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 her down from the wall on his own.

Years later, a man who called himself 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 Perugia 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. Her 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. Her 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.

Art
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George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
This Crafty Bicycle Can Knit a Scarf in 5 Minutes
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo
George Barratt-Jones, Vimeo

Knitting can be a time-consuming, meticulous task, but it doesn’t need to be. At least not if you’re George Barratt-Jones. As The Morning News spotted, the Dutch designer recently created a human-powered automated knitting machine that can make a scarf while you wait for your train to arrive.

The Cyclo-Knitter is essentially a bicycle-powered loom. As you pedal a stationary bike, the spinning front wheel powers a knitting machine placed on top of a wooden tower. The freshly knitted fabric descends from the top of the tower as the machine works, lowering your brand-new scarf.

Cyclo Knitter by George Barratt-Jones from George Barratt-Jones on Vimeo.

“Imagine it’s the midst of winter,” Barratt-Jones, who founded an online skill-sharing platform called Kraftz, writes of the product on Imgur. “You are cold and bored waiting for your train at the station. This pedal powered machine gets you warm by moving, you are making something while you wait, and in the end, you are left with a free scarf!”

Seems like a pretty good use of your commute down-time, right?

If you're a fan of more traditional knitting methods, check out these knitting projects that can put your needles to work, no bicycle required.

[h/t The Morning News]

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THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images
6 Works of Art That Were Hiding in Plain Sight
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
An ancient angel mosaic on a wall of the Church of the Nativity
THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images

Earlier this year, an 1820 facsimile of the Declaration of Independence turned up in Texas. Despite once being owned by James Madison, it had been shuffled among the papers of a family who eventually forgot about its provenance and came to consider it "worthless," at least until its recent authentication. As one of only 200 facsimiles created by printer William Stone, it was a rare document, but what made headlines was a curious footnote in the document’s journey: It had been hidden behind wallpaper during the Civil War as protection.

There’s something tantalizing about a precious object concealed by wallpaper or painted over; it suggests treasures might be hiding anywhere—maybe in our own homes. Here are a few stories of art that's been lost, and found, on the same wall, hidden beneath wallpaper, paint, and plaster.

1. ANGEL MOSAIC // PALESTINE

Conservators who began restoring the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2013 after centuries of neglect were prepared to clean its mosaics from years of soot and grime. They weren’t expecting to find new ones.

Using a thermographic camera, one restoration worker noticed a shape in the plaster walls. When the team started chipping off the material, they found the brilliant glow of mother-of-pearl tiles. Soon an 8-foot-tall angel was revealed, dressed in a flowing white robe, its golden wings and halo as luminescent as when they were installed in the Crusades era. It’s believed that the angel was covered up following an 1830s earthquake, perhaps to hide damage. Now the lost seraph (above) has rejoined the procession of radiant mosaic angels who are walking to the nativity along the church’s historic walls.

2. MEDIEVAL MURALS // WALES

Mediaeval wall paintings, Llancarfan church, Wales
Chris Samuel, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

During the Reformation, the murals in Catholic churches of the British Isles were often covered with plaster, turning them into more austere Protestant spaces. In covering them so entirely, this art was sometimes inadvertently protected from centuries of decay. In 2010, conservators announced an incredible find in the 800-year-old Church of St Cadoc at Llancarfan in Wales.

Church staff had long been intrigued by a thin red line of paint on the wall. After conservators began the painstaking work of removing 21 layers of limewash, a dramatic painting of St. George slaying a dragon appeared. The discoveries continued with scenes of other popular medieval motifs, such as the Seven Deadly Sins, a royal family, and "Death and the Gallant," in which a rotting corpse with a worm creeping in its rib cage leads an elegantly dressed man to his mortal end. The murals are now on view for all to enjoy.

3. BRETON GIRL SPINNING // FRANCE

Paul Gauguin, "Breton Girl Spinning"
Paul Gauguin, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Now at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, French artist Paul Gauguin's 1889 Breton Girl Spinning is an enigmatic fresco of a young girl dancing at a small tree. In one hand, she is spinning wool; in the distance, above the water and shapes of ships, a huge angel with a sword is flying. In part because of this angelic figure, the painting is sometimes called Joan of Arc.

The work was painted right on the plaster dining room wall of La Buvette de la Plage, an inn in Brittany, France. After being forgotten under layers of wallpaper, it and two other murals (one by Gauguin and one by his student Meijer de Haan) were rediscovered in 1924 during some redecorating.

4. MAYA MURALS // GUATEMALA

While updating their kitchen around 2007, Lucas Asicona Ramirez and his family in the Guatemalan village of Chajul discovered some old interior design—Maya murals, hidden for centuries beneath the plaster.

The roughly 300-year-old artworks in the colonial-era home featured figures in both Maya and Spanish attire, representing a moment of European arrival. One may be holding a human heart, or possibly a mask used in a dance. Ramirez hopes to turn the room into a museum, but needs more funding. Other households in Chajul also have historic murals in their homes, and some are striving to conserve these memories of their ancestors even while local preservation resources are limited.

5. WILLIAM MORRIS RED HOUSE MURALS // ENGLAND

The 19th century British artist and writer William Morris is celebrated for his textiles, writing, wallpaper, and other work in the Arts and Crafts movement. The house in Bexleyheath, Kent, that architect Philip Webb designed for him and his wife Jane in 1859 was intended not just as a home, but an incubator for art. The "Red House" became a hub for like-minded artists, and Morris founded “The Firm”—which produced decorative objects such as stained glass and furniture—there in 1861 alongside several other artists. However, the Red House community was short-lived, and financial difficulties forced the family to move out in 1865, never to return.

When the National Trust acquired the house in 2003, they found that the group had left behind some of their artistic experiments. Behind a wardrobe, under layers of paint and wallpaper, the trust made a most extraordinary find: a full wall of almost life-size biblical figures. Researchers believe they were collaboratively painted by Morris, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife Elizabeth Siddal, and Ford Madox Brown, all of whom were major artists in the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

6. AMÉRICA TROPICAL // UNITED STATES

Mexican artist David Alfaro Siqueiros had just been expelled from Mexico for his leftist activities when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1932. Local boosters commissioned him to create a mural on the theme of "Tropical America" on the touristy Olvera Street, which was an idealized vision of a Mexican market, but he had no interest in portraying some folkloric fantasy. “For me, 'America Tropical' was a land of natives, of Indians, Creoles, of African-American men, all of them invariably persecuted and harassed by their respective governments,” he said in a 1971 documentary.

His América Tropical: Oprimida y Destrozada por los Imperialismos, or Tropical America: Oppressed and Destroyed by Imperialism, was a moody landscape with gnarled trees clawing at a Maya temple. At the center, an indigenous man is crucified, with an American eagle ominously descending over his head. Innovative techniques such as airbrushing gave the tableau a visceral edge.

The 18-by-82-foot act of subversion was soon whitewashed. Still, many people did not forget it, especially as Siqueiros became recognized as one of the most influential of the early 1900s Mexican muralists. Eight decades after it was painted, the city of Los Angeles, along with the Getty Conservation Institute, began a restoration. The whitewash had protected its details from sun and rain and finally, in 2012, its defiant scene was again revealed to the public. It is now the oldest mural in L.A., and the only one by Siqueiros in its original location.

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