Should the French return the Mona Lisa to Italy?

A partial transcript of episode 23 of THE ART MOVEMENT, my weekly arts and culture radio show.

If I was to say the word “painting,” which of the most famous paintings would be the first to pop into your head? I bet I can predict that many people would instantly think of the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci.

This half-length portrait, which took Leonardo five years to complete was completed in 1507 and has charmed people all over the world for centuries. It has been defined as the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about and the most parodied work of art in the world.

In Italy, where I was born and where I am currently based, the Mona Lisa has a darker connotation. In fact, it’s been used by populists as a symbol for the traditional hostilities between Italy and France.

The general thought behind it is that the Mona Lisa is an important part of Italian cultural heritage and it was stolen by France (some even claim it was Napoleon who stole it). These people also say that it should be returned to Italy, where it belongs.

Actually, these claims are simply not true and yet another example of how art can be used to nurture unfounded hostilities, and that we should be careful about that.

Yes, Leonardo da Vinci was Italian. Yes, the man who commissioned the Mona Lisa was Italian. His name was Francesco del Giocondo and the sitter was his wife. It took Leonardo five years to complete the painting and he finished it in 1507.

But he never sold it to Francesco del Giocondo, partly because he saw it as a work of conceptual art rather than a mere portrait. It’s hard to disagree and many have written works where they support such a thesis.

Just recently, a research concluded that the much-talked about smile of the Mona Lisa is fascinating because it’s not a fully formed smile but a smile in the process of becoming one.

Because Leonardo realized its worth, he kept it with him and traveled with it in 1511 when he went to France, after being called by the King himself. Leonardo spent his final years in France and when he died there, his assistant Salai, who is also known as being his lover, inherited the painting. It was Salai who rightfully sold it to King Francis the first, the King of France, for 4,000 gold coins and thus, the Mona Lisa has rightfully been kept by the French government since then.

The only exception occurred in 1911, when a worker of the Louvre named Vincenzo Peruggia, stole it and took it back to Italy. This is the only actual known case of the painting being stolen and it was an Italian who stole it from the French. The Mona Lisa was presumed lost for some years until in 1913, Peruggia was discovered and arrested after attempting to sell it to a gallery in Florence for the equivalent of $100,000.

When the arrest was made, the Italian state returned the painting to France, and it has been housed by the Louvre ever since. However, Italy did try and occasionally does try to have its masterpiece returned.

Notable figures joined in the battle cry, in support for this cause, including George Clooney, who resides by Lake Como. Indeed, France may have considered returning the Mona Lisa to Italy, had it not been for the fact that the painting is far too fragile to be moved. Well, at least that’s what they say.

But I don’t see why they should return it. France rightfully bought the painting so it doesn’t need to return anything. In any case, I don’t particularly think that those who call for the Mona Lisa to be returned actually have the interest of the artwork itself in mind.

Actually, there have been cases of artworks from countries taken by other countries, particularly during several of the European wars. But I don’t hear as much said about the vast majority of them.

I mean, Europe was plagued by wars for centuries and the one thing that put a significant stop to that was the establishment of the European Union, which is maligned by the vast majority of the people who ignorantly claim that the Mona Lisa should be returned to Italy but who have no idea of how the Mona Lisa ended up in France in the first place.

In any event, I actually see the presence of artworks of different origins scattered all over Europe or the world, for that matter, as important cultural bridges that should unite people rather than inspire hostilities.

Download the full radio show HERE.

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