The Mona Lisa has been thought by many to represent the height of 16th century Italian beauty standards, but she’s quite cracked today. This most famous painting was painted by the sculptor, artist, and inventor, Leonardo da Vinci. The world’s fascination with her seems to have begun in the 20th century and today her timeless visage is one of the most-visited paintings on Earth, held in the collection of the Louvre (though many high quality copies exist across the globe). What is it about this painting that still captivates people so much?

Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass
Via: Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

It was painted starting in around 1503 and was acquired in the early 16th century by King Francis I of France for the royal collection, where it remained until the French Revolution. Now part of the public collection of the Louvre, this painting draws millions of people every year to the museum.

The subject of the painting is noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy fabric merchant and mother of 5. “Mona” is a corruption of “monna”, a contraction of the Italian word for the formal title of “madame”. A German researcher discovered a series of letters that revealed her true identity in 2008, though there are some who still insist that she’s a mystery woman or an amalgamation of various women’s faces.

Mona Lisa in gold frame at the Louvre
Via: Josh Hallett/Flickr

FYI, she did once have slightly more prominent eyebrows and eyelashes that were, in a contemporaneous account, described as being extremely lifelike and tinged with just a hint of red. It was only by centuries of too-harsh cleaning that the delicate hairs were rubbed completely away.

The painting was then stolen in 1911, nabbed by an employee of the Louvre, and it was missing for 2 years. During this time the French people increasingly revered the piece as a national treasure, wrongfully stolen out from under their noses, and her fame was much increased by the incident. The Mona Lisa was found in Italy, having been stolen by an Italian national who wished to repatriate the work. It was briefly displayed there before being sent back to France amidst much fanfare.

empty spot where Mona Lisa once hung 1911
The empty spot on the wall where it was hung in the Louvre prior to the 1911 theft. Via: Wiki Commons

The Mona Lisa was further immortalized when Dadaist painter, Marcel Duchamp, drew a mustache and goatee on a print of the painting in 1919, titled L.H.O.O.Q. Having become so famous the painting was then a target during World War II and was hidden away in a series of remote areas of France, far from Paris.

It was returned to the Louvre in 1945, but has since done a few select tours, including to Japan in 1974. At the Louvre it has in recent decades been secured behind bulletproof glass after many attempts to hurls objects at it, cut it with razor blades, and even to throw acid on the priceless painting.

Mona Lisa in Washington DC
Via: Robert Knudsen/JFK Presidential Library

It also went to Washington D.C. in 1963 on a special one-painting loan, personally chaperoned by the French Minister of Cultural Affairs, André Malraux, with a ceremony opened by President John F. Kennedy at the National Gallery.

For all these reasons and more the Mona Lisa is considered the example par excellence of fine art. You can see more about the painting’s history in the video below.