The Mona Lisa: let's leave it in the Louvre!

Asking for a return of the Mona Lisa to Italy is according to Federico completely illogical. Here are explained the reasons hoping that the operation will not go through.

They are back on the attack: as all the newspapers have headlined, on the strength of no less than one hundred and fifty thousand signatures collected, Silvano Vinceti and his “team” have returned in recent days to call, with renewed insistence, for the return of Leonardo da Vinci ’s Mona Lisa to Italy1, perhaps for an exhibition that could bring it to Florence and Rome2 (cities, moreover, notoriously in need of tourism and image revitalization.... !).

I will not get lost in useless preamble, I will just remind those who missed something (because from what we read on social networks, forums and blogs there are many who do not know how the events went) that the Mona Lisa does not belong to us: Leonardo took it with him at the time of his move to France in 1516, and then the painting was sold to King Francis I. It is since then that the Mona Lisa has become, so to speak, “French.” So to assert, as some do, that the Mona Lisa "by right would belong to our country, considering Leonardo da Vinci’s birthplace,"3 is completely illogical from both a legal and art-historical perspective. Otherwise, if some law has changed in the meantime and no one has notified me, I will tell my parents that they will have to return their azulejos to Portugal, for example.

Thus, the request for even a temporary return of the Mona Lisa to Italy does not make sense for several reasons:

  1. The claim has no scientific or philological premise (and even fewer historical reasons). Vinceti himself has not advanced any plausible reasons, other than that the return of the painting would be an event "of high historical value, both symbolic and moral."4 But then if this applies to all art every day we should send hundreds of loan requests, since the Mona Lisa is not really the only painting that has “high historical, both symbolic and moral value.” Recall, by the way, that Vinceti, besides being the main promoter of this operation, is also known to be the “hunter” of Caravaggio’s bones and of the Mona Lisa Gherardini herself. But leave her alone a bit, no? Besides, if even the Uffizi refused a possible hosting of the painting5 asking, indeed, to leave it at the Louvre, there must be a reason.

  2. According to Vincent Pomarede, director of the Louvre’s Department of Paintings, the Mona Lisa is an "extremely fragile painting and a trip could put it at risk by causing irreversible damage."6 Why is the opinion of technicians not listened to for once? Valuing a painting also means avoiding endangering it, even more so if unnecessarily as in this case: after all, we have already seen how there are no valid reasons for transporting the Mona Lisa to Italy, so restitution would also be contrary to common sense and the love of art itself (who would risk destroying something they love?).

  3. An exhibition of the Mona Lisa in Italy would not only be detrimental on a technical level because of the risks the painting might suffer, but it would also be detrimental in another respect: the Mona Lisa would risk being passed off as a mere fetish at the center of a commercial operation, a marketing operation that is not felt to be needed at all. And the first to warn against this risk was Antonio Natali himself, director of the Uffizi, according to whom "the Mona Lisa in Florence is something that only commercial TV, commercial newspapers are interested in: to get it here is to cede the field to aims that have nothing to do with education and knowledge of art."7 Italy does not need to leverage those five or six masterpieces that even stones know in order to valorize its art; on the contrary: valorization must go in the opposite direction. We need to lead the public to discover the vast cultural heritage we have in our country that is still unknown to many. As Natali always says, "My task is to make known not the Mona Lisa, which is already known, but the rest."8

The public is not made up of crude individuals who are to be astonished “with special effects”: to consider art history as a circus that serves to amuse most is a profound lack of respect for the public itself, and operations such as the possible (and hopefully never actual) return of the Mona Lisa to Italy go precisely in that direction. We already have a huge cultural and artistic heritage of our own; we do not need to ask for “masterpieces” from other countries. Rather, let’s think about enhancing what we already have (something we don’t do so well at given the latest news reports). The one hundred and fifty thousand signatures could be used for more sensible battles: the latest in chronological order for example is the one led by Giulio Burresi to prevent a very important museum complex, that of Santa Maria della Scala in Siena, from having to close its doors. Let us take care to know, to appreciate, to value what we have and above all let us avoid letting the reasons of culture and art yield to those of commercial operations. What I am surprised about, however, is that this was already being discussed a year ago, and even then reasons were advanced to prevent such an operation. Yet a year has passed and we are still here talking about it....


1. Mona Lisa, 150,000 signatures collected for return to Italy in 2013, ADN Kronos, Sept. 7, 2012

2. Mona Lisa: committee, 150,000 signatures reached return to Italy, ANSA, Sept. 7, 2012

3. Mona Lisa in Italy, petition kicks off, Donna 10, Sept. 8, 2012

4. Elysa Fazzino, Give us back the Mona Lisa! Italian activists demand that France return the painting to Florence, Il Sole 24 Ore, Sept. 11, 2012

5. Daniele Abbiati, Collecting signatures for the Mona Lisa in Italy. The Uffizi: not here, Il Giornale, June 24, 2011

6. "Too Dangerous. No Mona Lisa on loan from Louvre to Uffizi in Florence, ADN Kronos, June 24, 2011

7. Uffizi to Vinceti: "Leave the Mona Lisa with the Louvre," Il Tempo, Oct. 18, 2011

8. Ibid.

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