Hot on the heels of the Mona Lisa

Since July 17, the Mona Lisa has been installed in a protective case on a temporary wall in the Louvre Museum and the only way into the gallery is up three escalators and through a single doorway.
Since July 17, the Mona Lisa has been installed in a protective case on a temporary wall in the Louvre Museum and the only way into the gallery is up three escalators and through a single doorway. PHOTO: NYTIMES

That the da Vinci work now hangs in a less accessible temporary location at the Louvre is not stopping the hordes of tourists queueing to see it or take pictures of it

PARIS •The Mona Lisa gets around.

In 1516, she was lugged out of Italy on the back of a mule by Leonardo da Vinci and ended up in France, where she became royal property.

She lived for a time at the Palace of Versailles, then moved permanently to the Louvre Museum.

That stay was interrupted in 1911, when a thief snatched her off the walls and kept her for two years in his Paris apartment before he was caught trying to sell her in Florence, Italy.

Now, the Mona Lisa is on the move again. And while it is only a temporary relocation - from one wing of the Louvre to another - it is causing commotion in Paris.

The Salle des Etats, where the painting has hung since 2005, is being renovated in time for the October opening of an exhibition commemorating the 500th anniversary of da Vinci's death.

So, since July 17, the portrait has been installed in a protective case on a temporary wall in another gallery.

The difference is that there is only one way in - up three escalators and through a single doorway - and 30,000 visitors a day to accommodate.

The museum has spread the word that it is "exceptionally busy" and that only pre-booked tickets guarantee entry.

Once they get past metal detectors, ticket holders are herded like sheep in a long, coiling line.

They shuffle up escalators until they reach the Mona Lisa's skylit new digs: the Medici Gallery, named after a striking series of wall-to-wall paintings by Rubens also on display there.

Not that anybody notices the Rubens works. As if in an airport check-in area, dozens of visitors rowdily wait their turn in another snaking line.

Armed with smartphones, selfie sticks and cameras, they then rush into the final stretch - the Mona Lisa viewing pen. They have roughly one minute there before the guards shoo them away.

"I need more time to watch the Mona Lisa," said Mr Lee Jong-chan, a Korean mechanical engineer who had just seen the masterpiece for the first time.

"There are so many people in there. So the guards are pushing us to go, go, go. That's not really good."

The distance between the public and the painting is another gripe.

Visitors are held back around 4.6m from the 0.76m-tall painting.

Ms Jane Teitelbaum, a retired educator from the United States who had seen the Mona Lisa multiple times "in the flesh" and wanted to share the joy with her daughter and granddaughter, said she "wasn't pleased" with the experience because "we were so far away".

"The thing about the Mona Lisa is, supposedly, her eyes follow you," she added. "I could hardly see her eyes."

Until the 20th century, there was little fanfare around the Mona Lisa.

She was just another painting in the Louvre. Her theft in 1911 and a high-profile trip to the Met in New York and the National Gallery in Washington in 1962 to 1963 made her a global media sensation.

Today, she tops the bucket list of many tourists.

The problem is that there are so many more tourists now.

Not surprisingly, the Mona Lisa is swarmed. People do not just want to see the painting. They also want the picture for social media to prove it.

Many do not look at her at all; they focus on their smartphone screens.

Some even turn their backs, beam their finest Mona Lisa smile and take a selfie, as she grins right back.

Ms Alia Al Jabr, an engineering student from Kuwait, looked dazzled by her first encounter with the Mona Lisa.

"We love art, we love seeing art," she said, as her younger sister and brother nodded approvingly.

But what about the rushed conditions? "I don't mind because I took a beautiful picture. I actually took a video," she said, noting that she had already posted on both Snapchat and Twitter.

What if she did not get a photo? "I would be sad," she said. "It's like a memory. We have to take a picture - to remember our first time here."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 14, 2019, with the headline 'Hot on the heels of the Mona Lisa'. Print Edition | Subscribe