In December, 1913, two years after it was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece was recovered in a hotel room in Florence. This excerpt from Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered describes the painting's brief but triumphant stay in Italy.
After art experts from the Uffizzi and the Louvre confirmed that the portrait brought to Florence was indeed Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, many Florentines hoped that “their” Lisa would remain in residence. However, the Italian government immediately began arrangements to deliver the painting to the French—and to do so “with a solemnity worthy of Leonardo and a spirit of happiness worthy of La Gioconda’s smile.”
For an exhilarating two weeks, La Gioconda was Italy’s to enjoy. On December 14, flanked by an honor guard and carabinieri in full dress uniform, Leonardo’s lady, displayed in an ornate sixteenth-century frame, was carried through the corridors of the Uffizi in reverent silence. Soldiers saluted; men doffed their hats; women made the sign of the cross. La Gioconda was placed on a velvet-draped dias between two of Leonardo’s earlier masterpieces, the Annunciation and the Adoration of the Magi. A crowd of more than 30,000 swept past the guards and mobbed the museum in a wild rush to see her.
After five days (the last reserved for schoolchildren and their teachers), La Gioconda travelled in a custom-fitted padded rosewood box in a private parlor train car to Rome and a viewing by King Victor Emanuel. On December 21, 1913, at a solemn ceremony befitting a coronation, Mona Lisa officially took up residence in the French embassy in the Palazzo Farnese.
During her Roman holiday, the queen of Italy, the queen mother, and the entire diplomatic corps came to call. La Gioconda then went on display for five days in the elegant Villa Borghese. From Rome the painting traveled to Milan’s Brera Gallery, which stayed open to midnight on her final night to accommodate a crowd of sixty thousand. A commemorative medal bore the head of Leonardo and an inscription: “May her divine smile ever shine.” Then La Gioconda left Italy aboard a private railway car on the Milan-Paris express, never to return.
Paris prepared to welcome back its adopted daughter. Her image beamed from posters and banners. As an homage, society women adopted the “La Joconde look,” dusting yellow powder on their faces and necks to suggest her golden complexion and immobilizing their facial muscles to mimic her smile. In Parisian caberets, dancers dressed as La Joconde performed a saucy can-can. After a thorough checkup by experts at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, art’s most notorious woman was ready for her grand entrance.
Grainy black-and-white photos lfrom newspapers of January 4, 1914 show the ecstatic faces of Parisians lining the streets to cheer the portrait as it rode in a gala procession to the Louvre. In her first two days 120,000 visitors streamed to view La Joconde—so many that the museum temporarily set aside a gallery all her own.
Mona Lisa hasn't lost her allure. An estimated 10 million visitors trekked to see the portrait last year. And as new discoveries and old rumors swirl, Leonardo's muse continues to make headlines around the world.