“Yo, Mona Lisa, could I get a date on Friday?” sang Wyclef Jean on the Fugees’ debut album, in 1994. Around half a century earlier, Nat King Cole had crooned about Mona Lisa as the lady with the mystic smile in an Oscar-winning song. Fast-forward to 2018, when power couple Beyoncé and Jay-Z punctuated their music video filmed in the Louvre with views of the pair standing before the famous portrait that perpetually—as per the song’s title—sees crowds going “Apeshit.”
From the Italian Renaissance to the contemporary music scene and beyond, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of a Florentine woman set against a mountainous landscape has struck a chord with people worldwide. Such is her popularity that some have tried vandalizing her to draw attention to themselves and their causes. And her image has been appropriated by everyone from Marcel Duchamp to Virgil Abloh.
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What’s so special about the Mona Lisa, and why do we care so much? History professor and recent Leonardo biographer Walter Isaacson argues that she’s famous because viewers can emotionally engage with her. Others claim that her mystery has helped make her notorious.
Here’s a look at some of the likely reasons for our global obsession with this sepia-toned lady.