Episode 25: Mission: Mona Lisa


TAMAR: So, when I say “art,” what do you think?

KID VOICE 1: Paintings.

KID VOICE 2: People.

KID VOICE 2: The Mona Lisa.

KID VOICE 1: Uh huh!


TAMAR: Why the Louvre, what brings you here today?

VOICE 3: Well, the Louvre for me is like a…I’ll use the term bucket list.  I want to see the Mona Lisa.

VOICE 4: Um… well, the Mona Lisa.

VOICE 5: I want to see the Mona Lisa.

VOICE 6: I think the Mona Lisa is a big one to tick off.


TAMAR: Describe the Mona Lisa.

KID VOICE 1: It’s a woman sitting.  Um. [giggles]

TAMAR: Just a lady.

KID VOICE 2: Yeah.  With a dress on.

KID VOICE 1: It kinda, kinda looks creepy.

TAMAR: How come?

KID VOICE 1: ‘Cause she’s staring right at you.


TAMAR: You know somebody once stole it?

KID VOICE 1: Really?

TAMAR: Yeah.

KID VOICE 1: They’d have to be pretty sneaky to actually steal it.

TAMAR: Yeah.  And brave.

KID VOICE 1: Yeah!

TAMAR: And bad.  Very bad.


TAMAR: Why the Mona Lisa?

VOICE 5: Because it’s one of the most famous paintings in the world.

VOICE 6: She’s just the most famous woman in the world, so.  Probably smaller than I expected and more crowded than I’d like.

TAMAR: It’s funny, though, that, you know, there are paintings all around the Mona Lisa that are just as beautiful, and they’re not famous.

KID VOICE 1: Then why’s the Mona Lisa so famous?

TAMAR: I don’t know.  That’s a good question.  Maybe because that’s one of the first things that everyone learns about it, is that it’s famous.

KID VOICE 1: Our dad told me that it isn’t really that big.  He said he saw it once.


VOICE 7: And I think a lot of it is, tourists are pointed in a certain direction.

VOICE 6: Well, there’s a – if you want to go just to the Mona Lisa, there’s a hot tip, right? 

TAMAR: [reading] “Mission Mona Lisa”?

VOICE 6: Yeah.

TAMAR: Could you read that out loud actually?

VOICE 6: “If you just want to venerate the Louvre’s most famous lady, use the Porte des Lions entrance, it’s closed Tuesdays and Fridays, from where it’s a five-minute walk, go up one flight of stairs, and through rooms 26, 14, and 13 to the Grand Gallery, and adjoining room 6.”

TAMAR: Alright.

VOICE 6: Hot tip.

TAMAR: Mission Mona Lisa.


TAMAR: Do you want to see the Mona Lisa?

VOICE 8: I feel like I have to.  Whether or not it’s my favorite painting, or the best painting, it’s the painting.  You have to see it.

VOICE 4: I hope it’s going to be as good as I’ve heard and seen in books, or in movies.  But I’m hoping that the crowd won’t take away from the majestic-ness of it.

VOICE 8: You know, at the end of the day, it’s paint on wood.  It’s as ephemeral as the rest of us.

VOICE 3: Just…take it in. Take pictures of course, but I really want to focus on…the eyes. Her face. Take it in. And that’s a memory that I’ll always have.


Intro credits.


This is it, you guys.  It’s actually happening. You signed on for a podcast about art history, and you instantly recognized the icon with the headphones in the logo.  You stuck it out during the weird stuff, the urinals and curved steel and trash tapestries, knowing that we’d have to get here some day.  And now that day has come.  We’re about to take on the most recognizable painting in all of Western art history, the very painting that is itself synonymous with art.  She is the most written about, sung about, visited, and spoofed artwork of all time.  She is our lady of the hour, muse of Dan Brown, satisfier of bucket lists, those eyes, that smile, La Gioconda, El Hefe.  The Mona fucking Lisa.

She lives, of course, in the Louvre, in Paris, which itself is no stranger to preeminence.  It’s the world’s largest museum, almost 800 thousand square feet of art.  And even though there are over 6000 paintings hung at any given time, and over a million objects in its collection, let’s be honest, they know what you came here for.  There’s only one painting in the museum that’s merited its own mailbox for all the love letters it receives.  There are helpful directional signs throughout the museum with her picture on it, ostensibly to show you to the High Italian Renaissance gallery, although we all know the movement she lives in is beside the point.  The gallery is packed, any time of day, any time of year, and no one is here to learn about the stylistic nuances of the High Italian Renaissance.  This painting receives approximately 1500 visitors per hour.  Per hour.  It’s protected by a thick layer of bulletproof glass, and when I was there on my own little pilgrimage last summer, the closest I could get to it, squishing myself through the crowds and their iPhones, was still a good five feet from the barrier.  And if you're lucky enough, or have thrown enough elbows, to get to the front, what do you even see?


You see a smallish oil-painted portrait of Lisa del Giocondo, nee Gherardini, the name of who we presume was Leonardo DaVinci’s sitter.  The French pun her last name, Giocondo, by calling her La Joconde, or “an amused woman.”  Mona Lisa really should be Monna Lisa, with two “n”s, which is an abbreviation of the Italian Madonna Lisa, or, “my lady Lisa”.  Which means that her famous moniker, Mona, is a spelling mistake, but of course it doesn't matter.  The original painting is actually much lighter than in its current form, and is in desperate need of being cleaned, but of course it doesn’t matter.  Because when it comes to the Mona Lisa, the normal rules don’t apply.  Mob rules apply.  She needs to stay in the condition that her audience expects of her, because without her audience, what’s left?  A small portrait of an obscure Florentine silk merchant’s wife.  That went viral.  That’s it.


But of course that isn’t it.  Because just like when anything goes viral, its very substance is fundamentally changed.  It transforms from a famous old master’s perfectly lovely and technically experimental contribution to high Renaissance portraiture, to a referendum on the very nature of celebrity.  The Mona Lisa’s fame puts her in a class of her own; there are only a small handful of people who would describe seeing a painting next to the Mona Lisa, a painting from the same time and the same place and maybe even the same artist as “checking something off their bucket list”.  Somewhere along the line, this little painting’s reputation ran away on wheels, and just as it’s nearly impossible to separate viewing the painting from the throngs of people right there with you, it’s nearly impossible to view this portrait without its layers of scholarship and iconography and exploitation and pastiche and spoof.  And as such, there are two ways to approach an art history podcast episode about the Mona Lisa: one is to argue that there is a portrait under there, and that the portrait alone is worth our time.  And to all the Renaissance art historians who have spent their careers attempting to do just that, I say, fair enough – we can totally be purists and meet her where she lives.  But another way is to examine the full package, the Mona Lisa as celebrity, and try to understand how we got here, which I think is the more interesting way to go.  But the first way informs the second way.  So let’s go one at a time.


To understand Mona Lisa’s birthplace, Florence in the early 16th century, we need to understand the Renaissance, and the circumstances that lead to it.  Western Europe had experienced the great age of cathedral building in the 12th and 13th centuries, which came to an end when a series of popes, culminating in Pope Julius II, a.k.a. the Warrior Pope, made the history-changing decision in the early 1500s to fund the arts instead of the cathedrals.  These Gothic cathedrals, which, as we remember from episode 7, had been so good at overwhelming, converting, and transcending human experience, was now gave way to humanism, to a world returning to the scale of the individual.  Renaissance art and architecture came back down to our level, and the arts flourished.  Commissions starting coming not just from the church or the aristocracy, but from private sources.  Suddenly a newfound middle class was beginning to amass wealth, to collect art, and to patronize artists.  A middle-class man could, say, commission a portrait of his wife.  Wink.  And in Florence in particular, three heavy-hitting artists became the go-to’s that you’d commission work from: Michelangelo Buonorotti, Raphael Sanzio da Urbino, and Leonardo DaVinci.  It should be said that Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi, commonly known as Donatello, was a generation earlier.


Because let’s admit it: you first knew these names from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  And that’s totally fine, because I did too.  And there’s a reason for this.  For one thing, these artists have had an extraordinary impact on pop culture, mostly because of their extraordinary impact on the art history that came after them: when I talk about more contemporary artists looking back to the Old Masters, these are by and large the ones I’m talking about.  But the fact of the matter is that we wouldn't be talking about them like this if they didn’t have the great good fortune of living in a period that loved artists, for the first time, really, in Western art history.  This break from church-controlled art meant that artists could actually hang out a shingle.  They could establish a reputation of their own, they could be sought after, they could be celebrities much the way they are today. 

The high renaissance, the rebirth of the aesthetic principles and ideals of antiquity, was also the birth of the artist as a creative genius, not just a talented, trained pair of hands that you paid to render a likeness of something.  And much of this cult of celebrity is due to our old friend Giorgio Vasari, remember, the guy from episode 7 who decided that the great cathedrals could only have come from the depraved minds of the barbarian Goths.  He was in his prime, writing exclusively about artists: their lives, their influences, their styles, their personalities.  Vasari is considered by history to be the first art historian, although it should be said that he holds that mantle in a similar way that Janice Dickenson is the first supermodel – it helps when you’re your own loudest promoter.  Anyway.  What’s important here is that, for the first time, we knew enough about the artist as an individual to be able to someday base a cartoon TV show about crime-fighting turtles on their personalities.  And so it’s not a coincidence that it is in this context, with a society that promoted the celebrity of its artists, that we end up with a portrait where the artist is much, much more important than the sitter.


Leonardo, no last name given, was born in the tiny Tuscan village of Vinci in 1452, and moved to Florence around the age of 12.  As a young artist, he was the apprentice to the early Renaissance master Andrea del Verocchio, and quickly surpassed his master in the practices of careful geometry, convergence of perspectival lines, stability of pyramidal forms, and overall sense of calm, gravity, balance, and timelessness that came to define Renaissance artistic convention.  Leonardo then moved to Milan, where he was hired to paint The Last Supper, which was a career-making commission.  You might know something about this first famous painting of his, which has become a sort of cautionary tale – it’s been falling apart almost since the first brushstroke, where he attempted to resolve his preference, the slow ponderous application of oil painting, with fresco, or tempera paint applied directly onto plaster, which dried quickly and required a much speedier execution.   The Last Supper was painted with his own concoction of oil and tempera, which never bonded properly to the plaster and started flaking off almost immediately.  But even this technical failure served as an example of his penchant for technical experimentation, which we see all over the Mona Lisa.  It’s not coincidental that, though the bulk of the Mona Lisa was painted between 1503 and 1506, art historians will cap the end date as late as 1517 to 1519 – the year Leonardo died.  In other words, he never really finished it.  He never stopped using it as a platform upon which to experiment.  And he never stopped tending to it, dabbing at it, caring for it.  And, most importantly, he never gave it up, which, you have to admit is an odd thing for an artist commissioned by someone to paint a portrait of someone else to do.  You can’t help thinking that Signore Giocondo should have gotten a refund.


But, see, Leonardo’s love for this painting is already a step removed from who the painting is of.  In that way, a woman by the name of Lisa del Giocondo is kind of beside the point.  Ordinarily, portraits are almost always defined by who the sitter is, the same way the sandwiches are defined by the filling.  The bread, or in this case, the paint on the canvas, is the vehicle for the tuna, that is, the sitter.  But when it comes to the Mona Lisa, it was the painting itself that Leonardo loved, both the object itself and the physical act, and not the fact that it was a portrait of an actual living person. 

So how does the Mona Lisa push the envelope?  Well, to begin with, he presents her in a solid, pyramidal form that shows her whole torso, not unlike what we saw with Degas’ aunt Fanny in episode 4, which breaks the Renaissance convention of showing the upper torso only.  This expanded view creates an air of lovely naturalism, the whole of her weight settled into the chair, which also serves to heighten her overall sense of welcome, of openness. Though she would have been wealthy, Leonardo paints her without any jewelry, not even a wedding ring, which adds to the warm, fleshy tenderness of those gorgeous hands.  Much ado, of course, has been made about those eyes, which maintain eye contact with the viewer in the same way every portrait that is painted to make eye contact with the viewer, but for some reason she makes people feel especially watched, or maybe especially seen.  Maybe it’s because she comes off as a little otherworldly and haunting – the plucked eyebrows and shaved hairline style of the period will do that – but it’s also in tandem with that smile, whose descriptions could fill another whole episode.  The word associated with her smile is almost always enigmatic, full of secrets, like we think we know her, but we don't.  We think we’re invited in, and then we aren’t.  When you stare at her mouth, it appears almost to shift imperceptibly, from an initial warm politeness to a slight sense of strain, like she’s just found out her husband’s boss is staying for dinner.  Those lips are so beautifully naturalistic, and with good reason: Leonardo, the artist and the forensic scientist, was particularly fascinated by lips muscles, which he alternately dissected and drew, both with the skin and underneath it.  They feel real.  And we feel like a smile that authentic, that polite, yet that unmoving, must be repressing something.  And even though it’s a futile effort, we want to know what that something is.


That soft mutability of her smile is evidence of a greater desire on Leonardo’s part to create the closest thing to naturalism that portraiture had ever seen.  One particular point of contention between Leonardo and his rival Michelangelo was where painting and sculpture fell relative to one another in terms of the ability to achieve this kind of naturalism.  Michelangelo came down on the side of sculpture and Leonardo on painting, and yet you can see that this rivalry encouraged an attempt on Leonardo’s part to create a sense of sculptural volume on the canvas.  He was a virtuoso when it came to chiaroscuro, or the interplay of light and shadow to create modeling and dimensionality – as if carving a sculpture on the canvas.  He then softens these high contrast pockets of shadow with a technique called sfumato, Italian for smoke. It’s the reason the painting has this gentle atmospheric haziness, the Vaseline on the lens, the lack of hard, structured outlines.   He covered the paint with a thin, lightly tinted varnish, creating this overall sense of smokiness, like lip gloss, like seeing the world in the dusky light a gas lamp.  This effect was in fact meant to echo dusk, which Leonardo believed to be the finest time of day. 

And this shadowy, naturalistic, and otherworldly quality extends to the background, which art historians find to be as much of an enigma as her smile.  The distant and desolate mountains serve no real purpose other than to add to her mystique and heighten her connection to nature.  Recent analyses suggest that Leonardo was influenced by Chinese landscapes, although there’s no real evidence to back that up.  And others believe that, despite all our metaphysical speculation, he was simply just using a studio backdrop.


So that’s it.  A smoky, calm, naturalistic little portrait.  And this is when our train leaves the station, where Mona Lisa’s afterlife now becomes the subject of our story.  Leonardo was living in France when he died in 1519, and after his death, Mona Lisa’s provenance is a little cloudy, involving some questions about multiple versions and ownership.  But what is known for certain is that the French took possession of the painting, it was brought to Versailles by Louis 14, and, later on, following the French Revolution in 1789, added to the state collection.  It was hung in Josephine’s bedroom during Napoleon’s reign, and then installed in the Louvre.  But while it must have been admired, you certainly wouldn’t have been ducking elbows to get to it originally.  Because, for a kind of celebrity we imagine to have always existed, the truth is that Mona Lisa’s fame is entirely a 20th century construct, when, in 1911, it became the artwork on everyone’s lips because it was stolen right off the wall.  It was an inside job: an Italian handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia, who was hired to make the painting’s protective glass case, hid in a closet overnight, slipped it under his coat, and basically walked right out the door.  And the story of the painting’s return is so delightfully mundane, so unworthy of its subsequent impact: Peruggia confessed to the crime two years later, claiming that as an Italian national, he was simply bringing her home.  But, when it became clear that he would never be seen as hero he thought he’d be, he returned her, was arrested, and served six months in prison.  In sum, Peruggia was, according to the art historian Noah Charney, “maybe a few pickles short of a sandwich, but not a lunatic.”  Just a guy who wanted some alone time with her.  And in some ways, that was that. 


But of course that was no such thing.  Peruggia could never have guessed at what this basic little act of thievery would have come to mean to the world, how far beyond him the shockwaves would extend.  Because for two years, Mona Lisa was the subject of a manhunt, of a hostage-taking, her photo splashed across newspapers – and don’t forget that the technology required for anything to really go viral to this extent only originated in the 20th century as well.  The French press used the theft as an opportunity to mock the French government for its lax museum security, and the incident even provoked a xenophobic crisis in France, assuming at first that foreign-born artists, specifically Picasso’s posse, the “Wild Men of Paris,” had been involved because of their own disapproval of snooty, bourgeois high culture.  Picasso was interrogated; Apollinaire was briefly imprisoned.  And the Mona Lisa subsequently became an innocent victim of an intense geopolitical climate, a beloved icon, the subject of a Sherlock Holmes-style true-crime whodunit, a road sign at the intersection of Europe and its history, of high and low society.  So when the Louvre finally got her back, they weren’t really getting back a painting.  It would never be a painting again.  She had been skyrocketed up into the stratosphere.  And she’s never come back down.


[ambient sound fades up]

TAMAR: Okay, so we’re looking for the Mona Lisa now.

NATHAN THE AUSTRALIAN: We’re looking for wifi.  [laughs]  Just follow the most dense piece of crowd –

TAMAR: Yeah.

NATHAN THE AUSTRALIAN: – you’ll find your way to the Mona Lisa.

TAMAR: Alright, we need to find some confident tourists…. Oh wow!  There’s a picture that just is “Mona Lisa this way.”  I mean, to their credit, at least they say that the Mona Lisa is with other Italian art.

NATHAN THE AUSTRALIAN: And then I’ll see it, ‘cause I’m not really that much into art, I’ll probably see it and go, aw yeah.  After about five seconds. [laughs]  Hopefully I don’t.

[ambient sound getting louder]

TAMAR: So now the crowds are getting more confident and more dense.  Everyone is flowing in the same direction.


[ambient sound getting louder]

TAMAR: So we’re in the Renaissance hallway now and it’s definitely getting louder and denser.  And you have to duck all these people that are taking photos.  The thing is, people aren’t taking photos of the art, really.  You know, it’s nothing they couldn’t just… get online.  They’re taking photos of being here.

[ambient sound fades down]


Now, we’ve talked about celebrity artworks before.  In the age of the Kardashians, we’re no strangers to things going viral, to a bandwagon that becomes famous and then famous for being famous, and suddenly something arbitrary becomes impossibly recognizable, and then the aura of an object, and standing in its presence, entwining its narrative with your own, becomes more powerful than the experience of any modest little portrait could ever be.  And I want to focus on this word, aura.  It’s a deliciously intangible word – almost impossible to describe, but you know it when you feel it.  And you know it when you don’t.  The term was brought into the popular imagination in 1936, when the German-Jewish Frankfurt School philosopher, Walter Benjamin, offered a definition of aura that was specific to its role in art, in his essay “A Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”.  Benjamin was a cultural critic, exiled from Nazi Germany and living in Paris, and turning a critical eye on what he saw happening as technology was playing a larger role in the images we see, and how more and more people were gaining access to these images because of technology.  This was incredibly significant development in the 19th and 20th centuries, because, don’t forget, once upon a time, seeing art was an experience exclusively limited to the aristocracy.  It was basic supply and demand: art was scarce – there are only so many Rembrandts, after all – which meant that there were fewer places to see them and, of course, a very high value placed on them.  Benjamin referred to these paintings monads.  They’re singular, they’re original.  There’s only one moment where that hand drew that brush along that canvas, leaving that pigment in its wake.  There’s only one Mona Lisa that we all flock to see, whose absence we would feel if it was stolen, and even if someone paints the perfect replica, it will never be the original.  And, it goes without saying, if you’re not rich, you’ll never have the access to experience them.  But put a pin in that for now.


Benjamin talks about the aura inherent in paintings like the Mona Lisa.  Aura, he believes, is the residue of the past that is present in the object, that also cushions an artwork from the present in “an appearance of distance, no matter how near it may be.”  Stripped of its fancy philosophical language, what he’s really saying is, it makes us think about the fact that we, and this object, exist in time.  And we’re suddenly jolted with the realization that this painting is old.  And we rarely ever think about that, not really.  We almost never walk through an ancient Egyptian gallery and think about how long those objects have been on this planet, what they’ve lived through, how much longer they've been around than we have, and, hopefully, how much longer they’ll stick around after we’re gone.

A number of years ago I interned in the MFA’s provenance department – the department that tracks the history of object’s ownership – and I distinctly remember holding a loan document from 1916 in my hands, how the thin tissuey paper and purple ink and old timey salutations felt incredibly precious, like I was being trusted with this delicate portal to the past, where World War 1 hadn’t even ended yet, even though I walked past the painting that this loan document was referencing every day and never felt that way, a painting that was a good 200 years older.  When Benjamin talks about aura, he’s recognizing that the interaction with a historical object, when done right, reminds us that we, and it, exist in this continuum.  And that's a pretty powerful thing.  When we look at the painting from our point on the timeline, and it looks right back from its own, the period in which it was created, and we meet in the middle.  And aura is, specifically, this meeting point, this exchange.  We look at the painting, and it’s looking back at us.  Or, in Benjamin’s words, “to perceive the aura of an object means to invest it with the ability to look at us in return.”


[ambient sound fades up]

TAMAR: Oh!  What’d ya think?

VOICE 3’s BUDDY: How did you get in here?

TAMAR: We…we made our way in, it took a while.

VOICE 3’s BUDDY: He had to see that, Mona Lisa.

TAMAR: Okay, so now, now that you’ve seen it…

VOICE 3: Amazing.  Uh, I made my way like everybody else to the center because I, I told myself I needed to go to the center –

VOICE 3’s BUDDY: Elbows are flying…

VOICE 3: – and before I took any pictures, I looked as deep as I could into that painting, um…

TAMAR: Were you able to get close enough to it?

VOICE 3: Oh yes I was, I was.  And I expected it to be a little bigger, but then again, it’s a portrait.  Um.  Simply beautiful.  It’s all I gotta say.  I’m amazed.

TAMAR: It’s so nice to hear that.  I feel like so many people, you know, they flock to it, and then they’re worried—they’re just disappointed.  It’s just a painting!  It’s not that exciting.  It’s just a portrait.

VOICE 3: Again, for me, it’s about the eyes, I look at those eyes and what they’ve, what they’ve seen, you know?

TAMAR: Yeah.

VOICE 3: The lips, the nose, everything, the detail.  And then the background.  It’s amazing.

TAMAR: Okay, so you’re raising your hand.  It’s just a portrait.

VOICE 3’s BUDDY: It’s just a portrait.  You know?  But it’s Mona Liiiiiisaaaaaaaa.

VOICE 3: It’s the Mona Lisa.  What more can be said about that?

TAMAR: I love what you said, I think this is so beautiful, “what her eyes have seen.”  You know?

VOICE 3: I almost feel like… I’m standing, and she’s looking at me, because I’m making eye contact, I really feel that, it’s just amazing.  It’s like making eye contact with history, and wanting to see what she has seen through her eyes.  You know?  It’s amazing.


It must be said, of course, that the reason Benjamin was so consumed with the idea of aura is because he saw it as something that was threatened in the age of mechanical reproduction.  Technical reproducibility means that art has hit the streets, with the ability to reach everyone through lithography and photography and film.  These are the opposite of monads, they’re outside the museum, they’re in newspapers and journals. They get thrown away. They’re blind to socioeconomic class, and produced and disseminated on a mass scale.  And, crucially, they have no original.  I mean, what’s the original of a photograph?  The negative?  They only become an aesthetic object because they’re reproduced – a photo is only a photo because it’s technologically printed to be a multiple.  And if there’s no original, he argues, then there’s no aura.  And, I should say, he wasn’t exactly shedding tears over this – he was a political writer, and a political exile, and he was make a passionate argument that the art that can reach the most people the fastest was excellent for politics.  But you do get the sense that he, an intellectual and an aesthete, felt a little ambivalent about the direction he saw art going in.  I mean, we can all agree that art shouldn’t be used as a weapon to cloister the rich and alienate the poor.  But you feel, even in his most political writings, that there’s a feeling of loss too.  That relationship between the individual viewer and that singular original object is a special one – a good bucket-listy story at worst and borderline transcendental at best.


[ambient sound fades up]

EVAN THE HUSBAND: When we’re ready…

TAMAR: OoooooOOOOOOOooooo….

TAMAR: There’s a steady stream of people that are just filing into this room.

EVAN THE HUSBAND: It’s insane up there, it’s like…

TAMAR: Yeah.

NATHAN THE AUSTRALIAN: It’s pretty much a mosh pit.

TAMAR: Do you think people get hurt?

NATHAN THE AUSTRALIAN: Uh, there’s a probably a few bleeding noses coming out, yeah.

TAMAR: Okay, I’m gonna go!  I’m gonna do it!


TAMAR: I’m gonna make my way in!

[ambient sound as TAMAR elbows her way in]

TAMAR: …oh my God.

[more ambient sound]

TAMAR: It’s about as close as I’m going to get.

[ambient sound fades down]


Of course, it’s hard to talk about an individual viewer and a singular object when you’re in the High Renaissance gallery at the Louvre.  When I was there, after I’d squeezed my way as close as I could to the Mona Lisa, which as I said, wasn’t even all that close, I stuck around to watch people check off their bucket lists in real time.  iPhones in hands bobbed up and down above the fray like flamingo heads; the sheer number of them was arresting.  The average viewer only spends 15 seconds with her, either because that’s as long as it takes to check it off the list, or because they’re pushed out of the way.  And it got me thinking about Benjamin and the destruction of a painting’s aura.  After all, what are people taking pictures of, anyway?  Having been there?  It doesn’t really translate in a photo, it can’t.  Are they photographing the painting?  Hardly, you can barely see it, and certainly not the subtle sfumato tint, the delicate shadows around her mouth, which you can much, much more easily pull off the internet.  And that’s when you overhear the disappointed little side conversations, how little she is, how noisy the gallery is, and how the expectation of stratospheric greatness has been deflated down to nothing more than a lame little painting.  Maybe the joke’s really on us, you can almost hear people mutter, and you can understand why her fame became fodder for satire as early as 1919, when Marcel Duchamp, art history’s gift that keeps on giving, painted his hot take on the Mona Lisa by giving her a mustache and goatee and titling the painting the letters LHOOQ, a French pun, read aloud as “elle a chaud au cul,” or, “she has a hot ass.”  Nuts to anything this famous he seems to be saying. Nothing deserves this kind of fame.  Nuts to celebrity.  Nuts to the aura.  She’s more useful as an icon than as a painting.


But then, for me, seeing her wasn’t really about seeing her, it’s about seeing her along with everyone else.  It has to be.  We don’t have a choice.  The crowds are beasts in themselves; bodies literally pour into this gallery all day long.  And in a way, those crowds have an aura all their own.  They represent our desire to locate ourselves in human history, in a community, and to share this moment with so many other people.  Yes, it’s crowded and sweaty and inconvenient, but together, we validate her celebrity, we keep the experiencing of her alive and electric, something that still matters.  My little group and I felt this way as we followed the throngs to this gallery, like we were all anticipating something together, headed in one direction, feeding off the energy of the masses, and taking part in this pilgrimage not just to Paris, not just to the Louvre, but through the crowds, to get to her.

But I don’t want to forget about Benjamin’s definition of aura, that moment of being in her presence, which unfortunately was so elusive to me.  Is it gone, trampled under the crowds, the victim of her fame, or does it have moments where it reemerges?  And in thinking about this, I found myself watching the guards. All day long, they’re cattle herders.  They shoo people away, they catch photographers before they back into other priceless artworks – honestly, it’s amazing that they haven’t all dropped dead from aneurysms at this point.  But each day reaches dusk, its finest time, and most likely, there’s a lone guard in the empty gallery after the last visitor leaves, he’s savoring the roaring silence after so much noise, interrupted only by the brief chirps of the walkie talkie clipped to his belt, and spending a precious minute alone with her.  That huge wall, that small, intimate portrait, smiling at him and only him, meeting up halfway on that auratic space time continuum, just the two of them.  How singularly lucky he is in that moment, privileged as a French monarch.  You have to imagine that he’s resisting the urge to take her off the wall and slip her under his coat and keep this intimacy for himself.  You have to wonder why she isn’t stolen more often.


And then he takes off.  And, though left under her bulletproof, alarmed protection, she’s left alone, just a portrait again in the company of her High Renaissance cohort, a warm, lovely rendering of someone we don’t really know.  She returns to being Lisa Del Giocondo, nee Ghirardi, the woman we don’t really think about; the woman Leonardo barely thought about.  Almost no one knows that she was named Lisa after her grandmother, or that she had five children, or that she lost a daughter in infancy.  Few people know that she spent her final years in a convent, outliving the husband who commissioned the portrait, and dying in her sixties or early seventies, it’s uncertain.  And maybe for her, there’s some pleasure, and some relief, in being the most famous face in the world and still having your secrets.  And so she sits, in the dusky darkness of a nighttime museum gallery, a gentle enigma who’s still got it after all these years, smiling quietly to herself.


TAMAR: Well.  At least we could say we did it.  I mean, that’s the…

EVAN THE HUSBAND: Mission accomplished.

TAMAR: Mission accomplished!




Special thanks to my pilgrimage partners Evan Blanch and Nathan the Australian we met in line outside the Louvre.  Thanks also to my nieces Sofia and Jora for their delightful descriptions at the top of the episode, and their parents Ben and Amy for loaning them to me.  And of course, thanks to all the sunburned folks who talked to me as we waited for an hour to get into the Louvre. 

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The Lonely Palette is a proud member of Hub & Spoke, a collective of idea-driven podcasts. Another Hub & Spoker to check out is Zach Davis’s Ministry of Ideas, which has just officially partnered up with Harvard Divinity School, and we’re so proud of them. Check them out, and particularly their episode White Balance, which I found incredibly moving, at MinistryofIdeas.org.