“No other painting receives this treatment. No other artifact in the Louvre is subject to such adoration and curiosity, not even the Greek statues known as the Venus de Milo and the Victory of Samothrace... No other museum in the world possesses an exhibit that so overwhelms in popularity all others. Even Botticelli's Birth of Venus at the Uffizi in Florence, Rembrandt's Night Watch at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, or Velazquez's Las Meninas at the Prado in Madrid do not have such status. Even the vault of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, Michelangelo's complex and grandiose work depicting the Creation, the Great Flood and the Last Judgment, does not outdo in the popular imagination the portrait of this soberly dressed and unknown woman.”
-- Donald Sassoon, in Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon
Not a corner, in fact, but her own hall, to accommodate the huge crowds that invariably make a beeline for the world's most famous painting--Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, aka La Gioconda. But we're getting ahead of the story.
You enter the Louvre through I.M. Pei's celebrated glass pyramid. Escalators then bring you down to a vast lobby, the central hub from which all four wings of the museum radiate. We went last January, in the middle of the coldest winter Paris was having in some 30 years, with ice and snow and temperatures around negative 8 degrees Celsius. There aren't too many tourists and museum visitors at this time of year, said our guide. True enough, at 9:30 a.m. when we came in, there were no long lines yet, though groups (mostly excited school kids--what a heartening sight) were now all over the lobby. Ticket price: 9 Euros.
We only had half a day to tour the museum. There was no way we could see everything. Scrap Picasso and the modernists for now. The non-negotiables for me, magkamatayan na: ancient Greek, Egyptian, Roman and Etruscan art. The Old Masters. The Mona Lisa above all. So where in this daunting, mammoth palace-turned-cathedral to art is “the lady with the mystic smile”?
This is the Grand Galerie, which leads to the Mona Lisa. She holds court at one of the side halls on the right. Before reaching her, however, you behold an incredible array of classical European art mounted on the walls of the corridor. Without glass protection, mind you, so you can go quite near the paintings and scrutinize details. Sassoon again: “Along the walls of the Grande Galerie, reputedly the longest corridor in Europe, are five paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, various Raphaels, Bronzinos, Correggios, Fra Angelicos and a marvelous Caravaggio. Further along, visitors can find Velazquez, Durer, Van Eyck, Vermeer--not to speak of Rubens, Poussin, Rembrandt and Goya.”
I had to dilly-dally awhile in this corridor, staring open-mouthed at priceless works of art I had seen only in books and the pages of Reader's Digest while I was growing up--until the guide called my name, rather loudly, and beckoned me to backtrack. I had missed the turn to the Mona Lisa hall.
And there she was, the most recognized work of art in modern history, besieged by admirers of of all stripes who were kept away from getting too cozy with her only by a cordon and the presence of roving guards. The Mona Lisa looked disappointingly small--and dark.
This was the painting that Leonardo had obsessed over for four years, and then mysteriously kept to himself until his death, from all accounts failing to turn it over to its supposed subject, Lisa Gerardhini, the young wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Francesco del Giocondo (hence its other name, La Gioconda; Mona Lisa itself is a corruption of Monna Lisa, a contracted form of Madonna Lisa, or “My Lady” Lisa). But, like Shakespeare, the Mona Lisa's real identity--and the reason for her “mysterious” smile--remain subject to debate, and that accounts for much of the allure and mythology surrounding the painting and the obscure woman it depicts.
In her presence, nearly everyone angled for a good shot. Cameras flashed incessantly--supposedly a no-no, but as Sassoon noted: “Tourists, who are otherwise well-behaved and somewhat in awe of the museum, also disregard the prohibition to use flash photography. It is almost as if taking a picture of the Mona Lisa was one of the main purposes of their visit to Paris. This makes them prepared to defy the guards, who in most instances have given up trying to stop them.”
In our case, the guards weren't stopping anyone, so I clicked away, too--at the painting, and at the crowd of wide-eyed gawkers before it, pretty much oblivious to the rest of the glorious art around them. While the Mona Lisa occupied pride of place in the hall, she was surrounded by other paintings. Too bad for them, because Leonardo's tiny masterpiece sucked up all the attention, the admiration, the battery life of the cameras in the room.
Opposite the Mona Lisa was a monumental Veronese--The Wedding at Cana. Breathtaking, but it's not La Gioconda. The ceiling, too, demanded attention--ornate and beautifully decorated. But who'd want to look up when Leonardo's Eternal Woman was smiling her mysterious smile at us, her captive, starstruck throng?
PLUS: “Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely, lovely work of art?” Nothing like a hit song to help embed Leonardo's lady more deeply in global pop culture, as Nat Cole did. Now, how about British rock star Seal taking his turn on the song, vintage arrangement and all?