Face to face with Mona Lisa, the words Translyvanian vampire flash through my brain
Paris Letter: The popularity of this rather dowdy matron is a mind-boggling example of the arbitrariness of fame
Visitors to the Louvre take photos of the Mona Lisa. Photograph: Owen Franken/New York Times
The procession takes a good half-hour, from IM Pei’s glass pyramid to the presence of the world’s most famous woman. There are brief bottlenecks at the metal detector, and again as the crowd is herded into the Richelieu wing. For the most part, they flow smoothly. The Louvre’s management of Mona Lisa mania is a masterpiece of crowd control.
The world’s most frequented museum received a record 10.2 million visitors last year, three-quarters of them non-French. Four-fifths of up to 40,000 daily visitors want to see the Mona Lisa first. Many want to see her only.
The tourists walk single file up three floors of escalators. They ignore the splendid Rubens frescos in the room where Mona Lisa has been temporarily located. The silence is almost reverential, as they snake through cordoned lanes resembling airport immigration in high season.
Security guards hover, determined to prevent the crowd coagulating. She stares at us, half-amused, her hands folded in her lap. In my brief face-to-face with Mona Lisa, the words Transylvanian vampire flash absurdly through my brain. The planetary success of this rather dowdy matron is a mind-boggling example of the arbitrariness of fame.
“Let’s go. Let’s go. Avancez, s’il vous plaît. No flash. One picture. Fine guys,” is the sound track provided by guards, heard over the quiet humming of cameras and smartphones.
Mona Lisa’s nationality – and even that of her creator – is a centuries-old bone of contention. Leonardo may have been born in Vinci, now a suburb of Florence, in 1452, but he died in Ambroise, in the Loire Valley, in 1519. Both countries claim him.
“She’s part of French cultural heritage,” a grouchy security guard tells me. “But she’s Italian,” I protest. “Leonardo gave her to François, so she’s French now,” he answers.
The guard has a point. The Italian genius was a friend of François I. The Renaissance king transformed a 12th-century fortress into the royal palace of the Louvre in 1528. He hung his favourite paintings there, including La Giaconda, La Joconde or Mona Lisa. So she was there from the beginning.
On October 24th, the Louvre will open a blockbuster exhibition celebrating the 500th anniversary of the death of Leonardo. The Italian nationalist leader, Matteo Salvini, who is on particularly bad terms with President Emmanuel Macron, has done his best to thwart loans from Italian collections.
In the anteroom on the far side of the Mona Lisa, I meet 10-year-old Giuliana Afflitto, from Naples. The schoolgirl is in ecstasy at having seen her icon. “What emotion! She’s so refined! So impressive!”
Is the painting French or Italian? I venture, anticipating the Afflitto family’s answer. “Italiana!” they exclaim in unison. “They stole her. She should be in Florence!” says Giuliana’s father Salvatore. “It’s not right we have to pay to see our history.”
In 1911, an Italian worker felt the same thing so strongly that he stole the Mona Lisa and took her to Florence. Her return to Paris, two years later, was a French triumph. “We start seeing photographs of crowds in front of the painting from that point on,” says Vincent Pomarède, deputy administrator of the Louvre and the author of Jocondomania.
The Mona Lisa also features prominently in Apeshit. The six-minute music video shot in the Louvre by US pop stars Beyoncé and Jay-Z has been viewed nearly 182 million times. “The video has had an enormous effect,” says a source at the Louvre. “Kids from all over the world mimic their dance steps in front of the art.”
I spoke to American, Chinese, French and Spanish admirers of the painting, as well as Italian. Most said they wanted to see her “because she is famous”.
Only one, Gonzalo Barranco (34), a university administrator from Ecuador, was irreverent. “She doesn’t do it for me,” he said. “But I’m travelling with 18 people, and she was the only thing they wanted to see.”
Barranco’s group had just arrived from Rome, and was going on to the Prado in Madrid. “I prefer the ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman collections,” he said. “You can look at them in peace, without anyone telling you to hurry up.”
The UN says 1.3 billion people took holidays in a foreign country in 2017. Demonstrators in Barcelona, Majorca and Venice recently brandished placards saying “Tourists go home!”
Barranco spoke of being “saturated”. Mass tourism has made culture accessible to everyone, which is good. But you have to wonder how enriching are a few seconds and a selfie with Mona Lisa’s mysterious smile.