Mona Lisa: The History of the World's Most Famous Painting

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9780007106141: Mona Lisa: The History of the World's Most Famous Painting

A narrative history of how Leonardo da Vinci’s painting of the Mona Lisa came to be the most famous in the world – and one of the most powerful cultural icons of our time.

What has made the Mona Lisa the most famous picture in the world? Why is it that, of all the 6,000 paintings in the Louvre, it is the only one to be exhibited in a special box, set in concrete and protected by two sheets of bulletproof glass? Why do thousands of visitors throng to see it every day, ignoring the masterpieces which surround it?

For nearly 500 years the painting – and the mysterious smile on the face of the sitter – has been a source of mystery, speculation and reverence. In this groundbreaking new book Donald Sassoon describes not only the Mona Lisa and its history, but its mythology, and the processes which combined
to raise it to its current unrivalled level of fame. He
examines Leonardo’s innovative techniques; the problems concerning the identity of the sitter; what happened after to the painting after it left Italy when Leonardo joined King François I’s court in France; the copies made in the 17th century; its celebration by 19th-century intellectuals; its theft and disappearance early in the 20th century; the surrealists’, other avant-garde artists’ and cartoonists’ uses of it; its appropriation by the advertising industry; and the never-ending flood of new and ‘conclusive’ theories about Mona Lisa’s smile.

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Review:

If you ever wanted to know the secret behind the enigmatic smile of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, then Donald Sassoon's splendid Mona Lisa: The History of the World's Most Famous Painting is the book to read. Sassoon begins with a simple but daunting question: "Why is the Mona Lisa the best-known painting in the entire world?" What follows is a tour de force of wonderfully readable historical scholarship that begins with the creation of the painting in 1503 and ends with Mona Lisa going global in the 21st century on 93,800 pages of the internet.

Sassoon begins with the controversy around the commissioning and creation of Leonardo's "revolutionary painting", which "was regarded as a masterpiece by many of Leonardo's own contemporaries" for its innovative pose and "sfumato" (or "smoky") style of painting which created "that smile". However, he goes on to explain that, prior to the 19th century, the painting was not treated with anything like the iconic reverence it receives today. With great style and humour he explores how romantic aesthetes such as Walter Pater, Theophile Gautier and Oscar Wilde managed "to transform Mona Lisa into a dangerous woman", a "femme fatale" of her time. The painting's reputation was further enhanced by its theft from the Louvre in 1911 by an Italian decorator who chose the Mona Lisa for no other reason than "it was much smaller and could be hidden under his coat" than larger paintings nearby. Sassoon also chronicles Marcel Duchamp's famous parody of the painting, and the infatuation with the painting that united everyone from Sigmund Freud to President John F Kennedy. In Mona Lisa Donald Sassoon has written the definitive book on Leonardo's enigmatic painting. Written with admirable style and wit, the book is a classic that will make everyone look afresh at "the best-known painting in the world". --Jerry Brotton

Review:

Possibly the world's most famous single work of art, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece has long haunted imaginations and inspired admiration. This is a narrative history of the unique work, which attempts to explain why the Mona Lisa has achieved quite the fame and status that it has: in the Louvre it is the only painting exhibited in a specially secure box, and now has its own room. Sassoon looks at various aspects of the painting's history, such as the innovative techniques used in its creation, the questions over the identity of the sitter, its subsequent history and copies, its theft, its appropriation by the surrealists then the advertising industry, and so on. With such a vast amount of information, conjecture and detail to draw on, Sassoon's book does the subject proud, being both well informed and entertaining. His study is well produced and strikingly illustrated. Ultimately, however, it must be said that the more the Mona Lisa is dissected as a cultural phenomenon, the further we are from understanding just why it is so 'special' to so many. That appeal remains as elusive and enigmatic as its famous smile.

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