These Are the 400 Years No One Gave a Shit About the Mona Lisa

That smile’s only been mysterious as of recent times
These Are the 400 Years No One Gave a Shit About the Mona Lisa

Today, it would be incredibly hard to argue that anything other than the Mona Lisa is the most famous work of art in the world. Its on a tier of its own, as indicated by the seemingly hermetic seal placed around it in the Louvre. No other paintings are locked in a little see-through bunker, so it has to be the best one, right? 

That is, of course, an objectively strange and market-value way to consider art. Which, it turns out, is also the baseline through which much of the population has been viewing art, with the Mona Lisa in particular being the best example.

These days, even a man of most modest education and means would feel slightly too embarrassed to say that he didnt get what the Mona Lisa is all about. If youve ever visited the Louvre, observed her gaze, and walked away unchanged, you might have even felt slightly bad about yourself. 

It turns out, though, if you wanted to be surrounded by other people who were generally pretty nonplussed by her famous smile, you only have to go back a little more than 100 years.

The Mona Lisa was originally painted by Leonardo Da Vinci between the years 1503 and 1519, and if you think he immediately brandished it on a nearby balcony and hundreds of people fainted from its beauty, youre way off. Both in a literal sense, because of course not, but also figuratively: It just wasnt a particularly popular painting. 

Now, painters and their work being underrated in their lifetime is nothing new, something Vincent Van Gogh would be glad to hear as long as I was on the side he could hear from. The Mona Lisa had quite a long journey to relevancy, however, and even among art critics, it wasnt until roughly 300 years later, around the 1860s, that they started considering it a masterpiece.

Public Domain

Really, its fine if you dont like it that much. I promise.

An opinion that didnt reach the public at large. As historian James Zug explained to NPR, “The Mona Lisa wasnt even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre.” 

So what happened? As time passed, did the taste and interest of the public evolve? Did they slowly come to terms with the masterpiece in their midst? Not even close. What made the greater world aware of the Mona Lisa was the fact that it was stolen in 1911. If you want more evidence that it wasnt that big of a deal at the time of its theft, nobody even noticed it was gone for over 24 hours.

But all of a sudden, pretty much every newspaper in the world was running stories about a famous work by a famous artist that had been stolen. The case dragged on for over two years, and the location and well-being of the Mona Lisa was now a worry of the general public, whod never given much of a rats ass about her before. 

When the thief, Vincenzo Peruggia, was finally caught trying to sell the painting (good luck with that), the world suddenly rejoiced at the return of a painting they probably couldnt have described two years prior. From then on, her fame skyrocketed, leading to her throne as the most recognizable and valuable painting in the world today, bar none.

In a weird way, she should be thankful to Peruggia for picking her. A professor of art history and the author of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, Noah Charney, even suggests to CNN that “if a different one of Leonardos works had been stolen, then that would have been the most famous work in the world — not the Mona Lisa.”

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