Seeking Mona Lisa

Temptress or icon of innocence, cult figure or cultural archetype, Leonardo’s mysterious madonna has intrigued us for 500 years

Joseph A. Harriss, an American writer based in Paris, recently visited the Louvre to take a fresh look at the preternaturally poised Florentine noblewoman who is that museum's star attraction. The most famous work in the entire 40,000-year history of the visual arts, the Mona Lisa has become part of our collective unconscious. A cross between a cultural archetype and an icon of kitsch, the painting has provoked more crazy reactions, esoteric analyses, addled adulation, scandalous takeoffs and crass commercialization than any other work of art.

Harriss traverses this landscape with an eye for the amusing and the arcane, covering high points in the portrait's celebrity: its goodwill voyage across the Atlantic in January 1963 to be welcomed at the National Gallery of Art by President and Mrs. Kennedy; the frenzy it induced among the Japanese when it was exhibited in Tokyo in 1974; and the heist that shook the world when, for two years, the Mona Lisa vanished.

Along the way, the Mona Lisa has preoccupied critics and historians from Hippolyte Taine to Kenneth Clark to Sigmund Freud. In this century, Leonardo da Vinci's madonna has been transformed into a marketing tool, the image applied to products as various as liquor, bonbons and socks. In the end, she continues to captivate us. The Mona Lisa, says art historian Roy McMullen, "reduces the Venus of Milo and the Sistine Chapel to the level of merely local marvels."

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