There are many Monas, but only one Mona Lisa.
She’s the reason The Louvre opens early on Sundays. The masses swarm into the room devoted to 16th century Venetian paintings. But is anyone looking at Paolo Veronese’s Marriage at Cana, which happens to be the largest painting in the Louvre and sits opposite the Leonardo da Vinci masterpiece? No, they are all there for Mona, arguably the most famous and iconic painting in the world.
Mona hides behind bulletproof glass after countless attacks: with acid, with rocks, with red spray paint, and with a coffee mug from the museum’s gift shop. She was even stolen from the museum in 1911, by an employee who hid in a broom closet during open hours and then put the painting under his coat when he exited. He kept the painting in his apartment (which happened to be just a few blocks away from the Louvre) for two years before taking it back to Italy, where he felt it belonged, as an Italian work. He attempted to sell it to an antiques dealer in Florence who contacted authorities. Mona was returned to the Louvre, and security was tightened.
Mona has mystique, and I wanted to see what the fuss was all about.
Having studied Art History for several years I remember seeing the priceless works of art up close and personal at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. I remember the feeling of awe, and I remember the feeling of accomplishment being able to name the title, the painter, the year, the movement without even looking at the place card. I would smile a smug little smile at the security guard who watched me like a hawk, thinking I might just have a paint bomb in my backpack.
We got up very early on December 26, after having a few too many sips of Bordeaux the previous evening, along with our Christmas dinner of Halal cuisine eating from Styrofoam take-out containers (it was all very romantic). We showered and donned our most ultra-hip museum ensemble (black, black, and more black; with a scarf and hat). My husband and I walked the half-mile from our hotel near the Jardin des Tuileries to the entrance of the Louvre. We thought that perhaps given it was the day after Christmas the crowds would be minimal, hopefully feeling the after effects of their festive gluttony.
We queued up, paid our admission and quickly scanned the Louvre guide to find the direct route to Mona. We raced up the sleek marble steps, down the cavernous halls, past the great salons where masterpieces lined the walls like subway tiles, and past people trying to make sense of their upside-down gallery map.
We rounded the corner, and there was the massive vibrating crowd, and past them, was Mona.
She was magnificent. I tried to divert my eyes to see the other paintings: all Italian, all 16th century, all treasures in their own right. But all I could see was Mona.