PARIS • Mona Lisa's lingering smile remains the same, but she is getting a first-of-its-kind virtual makeover from the Louvre Museum, which has struggled this year with the popularity of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece and the throngs of selfie-snapping tourists.
With a blockbuster da Vinci exhibition fast approaching, the Louvre and its production partners are fine-tuning a virtual-reality tour with three-dimensional views of the portrait that look beyond the crowds, shatterproof glass case and layers of varnish from restorations.
The real oil on wood Mona Lisa was returned last week to the skylit Salle des Etats, to coincide with the Oct 24 opening of an exhibition marking the quincentennial of the death in 1519 of da Vinci, master of the Italian Renaissance.
During the summer, while the Salle des Etats was being renovated, the portrait was moved to the Galerie Medicis, which resulted in severe overcrowding because of limited access.
Disappointed tourists complained about fleeting glimpses and barriers that kept them about 4.6m from the 0.76m-tall painting.
The virtual-reality tour will be a more intimate encounter. Designed to solve the problem of crowds and distance, it will be in a small gallery room near the main da Vinci exhibition and apart from the Mona Lisa.
The gallery, equipped with 15 headset stations, will offer seven-minute virtual tours. They lead through a gallery of paintings to the portrait of Mona Lisa, wife of an Italian silk merchant.
"She is seated and spectators will be facing her like a conversation, face to face," said the Louvre's director of mediation and cultural programming Dominique de Font-Reaulx.
In this virtual land of da Vinci, spectators fly over a valley and jagged hills aboard a wing-flapping glider he sketched (and which appears in the traditional exhibition).
Ms de Font-Reaulx said the two curators of the main exhibition have researched all the historical information for the virtual tour narration, including visual details of Mona Lisa and her surroundings - from the gentle wave of her hair to her velvet dress.
The digital experiment is part of an ongoing effort to broaden the Louvre's appeal, with France laying new plans to promote its art treasures with virtual-reality tours and some lower-tech alternatives.
Not everyone is thrilled with this campaign to make virtual reality a more fundamental part of the museum experience. "I would prefer the Louvre to be involved with reality," said art critic Didier Rykner.
But other major museums are already experimenting with virtual reality and pushing forward based on the results.
Earlier this year, the Musee de l'Orangerie in Paris tried out a virtual reality tour inspired by Monet's Water Lily series that plunged spectators into the artist's virtual pond in his Giverny garden through animated snowfall and summer days.
The visitors' reactions impressed Louvre officials. "Not only young people were using it. There were also older people, including my father, who is 83," said Ms de Font-Reaulx.
"It's very interesting, but it will not replace the works. The content is first. That's very important to the Louvre."