|Giorgio Vasari, biographer of Da Vinci, reported that even beginning in Leonardo's era, artists came from far and wide to the master's
studio to study the life-like Mona Lisa: "This work is executed in a manner well calculated to astonish all who behold her." The young Raphael was so fascinated by Leonardo's composition that he created a series of Florentine portraits, several of which display a striking resemblance to the Mona Lisa. But they have none of the drama of Da Vinci's masterpiece.
Leonardo continued to work on the painting for many years. Only at his death did he part with it, leaving the portrait to his close friend and patron, Francois I of France. The king hung Leonardo's treasure in a prominent place in the Apartement des Bains in the palace at Fontainebleau, where she was admired by visitors from all of Europe. Perhaps it was her presence in these rooms that contributed to the hint of sexuality in the Mona Lisa myth.
It is said that the Louvre museum was born in the French king's bathroom. He had so many paintings in his private quarters that the area was converted to a semi-public art gallery. "La Joconde was one of these, part of the National Collection at the beginning of the 16th century," says Cuzin, Curator of Painting at the Louvre.
When Louis XIV moved the French court to Versailles, he took La Joconde with him. But his son, Louis XV, hated the picture and ordered it removed from the palace. For a time it wound up in the hands of a palace bureaucrat; during the chaos of the French Revolution, it was hidden in a warehouse. When Napoleon came to power, the enigmatic lady was restored to a place of honor in the emperor's luxurious bedroom.
"The Mona Lisa is one of the rare cases of a work that has never moved around very much," says Cuzin. "It has always been at Fontainebleau in the collection of King Francois I in other royal palaces, and afterwards brought to the Louvre when it first became a public museum just over two centuries ago. So she has led a very calm existence." Calm indeed, until that morning in 1911...
Over the years, the Louvre has been flooded with poems and love letters written to Mona Lisa, and her praises are still sung in popular songs. But along with the affection lavished on her came a growing annoyance among new generations of painters trying to break free from the artistic constraints of classical painting. Dadaist Marcel Duchamp drew her with a beard and mustache; surrealist Salvador Dali later superimposed his own signature mustache and eyes. But imitation and, in this case, insult can be the sincerest form of flattery.
Her face now graces museums and barns, wine bottles and billboards around the world. She is instantly recognized on every continent. The list of copyists is endless, and the number of imitations phenomenal. Even limiting mention to those of artistic merit and recognition, there have been nearly one hundred copies, several of them mistaken as the original at one time or another.
Arguably the most famous painting in the entire forty-thousand-year history of the visual arts, the Mona Lisa has inspired more interpretations than any other work of art... some more or less faithful than others.