If you’ve ever been to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, you likely encountered controlled chaos within. Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece is buried in a crammed ocean of people, all taking photos and trying to get a glimpse of the muse. Many visitors expect a huge painting, but it’s actually quite small—and it’s also kept far away, making it hard to observe its nuances.
That didn’t keep a would-be vandal from attempting to damage the 16th-century painting in an apparent protest this week, the Associated Press (AP) reports. On Sunday, a man disguised as an elderly woman jumped out of a wheelchair and attacked the Mona Lisa and her high-tech glass encasement with cake.
Despite the whipped cream smudge he left behind on the glass that protects the Renaissance masterpiece, museum officials say the painting was not damaged. After the incident, the protester was detained and sent to a police psychiatric unit.
According to the New York Times’ Daniel Victor and Maria Cramer, the perpetrator faked a disability to get closer to the rope separating the piece from the museumgoers, then banged on the glass before smearing it with cake. In a statement, the Louvre said the museum followed its typical procedures when it comes to people with reduced mobility, “allowing them to admire this major work of the Louvre,” added the Times. The Paris prosecutor’s office told the Times they’ve opened an investigation into the incident.
One of the incident’s witnesses posted a video on Twitter showing a museum employee wiping off the cake from the glass protecting Leonardo da Vinci’s celebrated work.
Maybe this is just nuts to me but an man dressed as an old lady jumps out of a wheel chair and attempted to smash the bullet proof glass of the Mona Lisa. Then proceeds to smear cake on the glass, and throws roses everywhere all before being tackled by security. ??? pic.twitter.com/OFXdx9eWcM— Lukeee (@lukeXC2002) May 29, 2022
In the video, the 36-year-old protester said “There are people who are destroying the Earth … All artists, think about the Earth. That’s why I did this. Think of the planet,” in French, per the Agence France-Presse (AFP). Before being escorted out by security, the man also flung rose petals onto the museum floor.
“I was in awe,” Luke Sundberg, an American student who witnessed the incident, told the Times. “It’s something so historic that seems untouchable.”
As the largest museum in the world, the Louvre is home to hundreds of thousands of works, including Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa. But the Mona Lisa, which is about 2.5 feet tall and less than 2 feet wide, is the institution’s most-sought-out artwork. Though its physical size is dwarfed by its massive reputation, the painting is flooded with millions of visitors—and cameras—each year.
Known for her half-smile, da Vinci’s mysterious subject has sparked speculation for centuries. For instance, some claim that there are hidden codes in her eyes, while others say that it’s the painter’s self-portrait. As Smithsonian magazine’s Jason Daley reported in 2019, one of the most common legends is the idea that the eyes of La Gioconda follow her viewers—but in a study published in the journal Perception, German scholars found she is actually looking to the right.
Painted around 1507, those eyes have witnessed—and survived—plenty, including one of history’s most famous art thefts. On a humid August morning in Paris in 1911, three Italian handymen quickly left the Louvre with the Mona Lisa in tow. As James Zug reported for Smithsonian in 2011, it took 28 months and countless “wanted” posters on Parisian walls before the painting was returned.
That didn’t stop people from targeting—and even assaulting—the artwork. In 1956, a museum visitor attacked it with acid. The same year, a man threw a rock at the piece, damaging the muse’s left elbow. That prompted the Louvre to encase the painting in safety glass, Reuters reports. But even that didn’t stop the would-be vandals. In 2009, a woman attacked the painting with a teacup, slightly scratching the case.
Since 2019, Reuters reports, Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile has been protected from disgruntled museumgoers—and now, cake—with high-tech, bulletproof, ultra-transparent glass.