What makes great art great?

Maybe it’s more than just a question of aesthetics. Ian Leslie ponders the case of the Mona Lisa. After reading his essay, I felt a little less guilty about not having felt a rush of excitement when I finally got to see the painting in the flesh:

For most of its life, the “Mona Lisa” languished in relative obscurity. In the 1850s, Leonardo da Vinci was considered no match for giants of Renaissance art like Titian and Raphael, whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the “Mona Lisa”. It was only in the 20th century that Leonardo’s portrait of his patron’s wife rocketed to the number-one spot. What propelled it there wasn’t a scholarly re-evaluation, but a burglary.

In 1911 a maintenance worker at the Louvre walked out of the museum with the “Mona Lisa” hidden under his smock. Parisians were aghast at the theft of a painting to which, until then, they had paid little attention. When the museum reopened, people queued to see the gap where the “Mona Lisa” had once hung in a way they had never done for the painting itself. The police were stumped. At one point, a terrified Pablo Picasso was called in for questioning. But the “Mona Lisa” wasn’t recovered until two years later when the thief, an Italian carpenter called Vincenzo Peruggia, was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

The French public was electrified. The Italians hailed Peruggia as a patriot who wanted to return the painting home. Newspapers around the world repro­duced it, making it the first work of art to achieve global fame. From then on, the “Mona Lisa” came to represent Western culture itself.

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