My name is Mona Lisa.
I reside in Paris, the revered Lady of the Palais du Louvre.
By day, crowds flock to look upon my face. By night, lasers and bodyguards keep vigil over me.
I have conquered countless hearts – more than any woman who ever lived.
My reign has lasted over 500 years – longer than any queen in history.
My face is known across the face of the earth.
The seasons come and go. The crowds come and go. Their fashions change. Only I remain.
My name is a byword for immortal beauty.
But it was not always thus. My fame has grown, a vast oak tree from a tiny acorn.
Come closer, and I will whisper in your ear the secrets of my fame. Should you wish to plant your own tree, my words may help it flourish.
Listen carefully, but do not presume to rival me – to dream of that, you should have planted your acorn a long, long time ago…
1. Consort with Genius
Ah, Leonardo. The stories I could tell … But why break the veil of history? Why tamper with an image that has served me well? Why not let the man enjoy the mantle of Divine Genius? Should I kill the goose that has laid so many golden eggs?
All my life, the name of Leonardo da Vinci has opened doors for me. Those three words, like a magical charm, have assured my success. Before they even saw my face, his name prepared men for my beauty.
A few spiteful souls have tried to separate us, claiming Leonardo’s hand never touched me. But their malice came to nothing. My fellow Florentine, Dante Alighieri, would have known how to describe their fate.
My advice to you: If you are ever fortunate enough to be associated with the image of Divine Genius – in yourself or another – you may notice many things up close that are invisible to the vulgar crowd in the distance. Things that may bring you to question the world’s image. Ignore such trifles. And never breathe a word of them. When onlookers marvel at the stately progress of a swan, it profits no-one if you point out the toiling legs beneath the surface.
2. Choose Your Home Wisely
In the arts as well as in affairs of state there are greater and lesser kingdoms, principalities and courts. Certain places have an aura of power, attracting those who wield it. If Paris is the capital of the Empire of Art, the Louvre – my home – is its Palace.
My poor sister Cecilia did not understand this. For a while, in our youth, our beauties were spoken of in the same breath. But she made an unfortunate match. She found herself in Krakow, Poland – a pretty place, I doubt not, yet far from us in Paris. Little wonder the critics overlooked her, even less that I overshadowed her.
After all, had I not chosen Paris for my home, I should never have met Monsieur Gautier…
My advice to you: Even in this disembodied age, it makes a difference where you live. Where are the centres of influence for your art or trade? Make sure you can be found there, when it matters. And in the virtual world, build yourself a fitting mansion, well signposted from all the major thoroughfares.
3. Cultivate Mystery
Any woman knows men are slow to notice telling details. My famous smile, for instance. Did you know it took men over 400 years to comment on its mystery? That 16th century peasant Vasari said I was smiling at clowns, brought to entertain me while Leonardo painted. Vasari was the clown! It took a really cultivated man, Monsieur Theophile Gautier, to first notice the mystery of my smile and tell the world.
A respected man of letters, Monsieur Gautier was the foremost art critic of 19th century Paris. When he spoke, artists, critics and the public listened. Once, a single article of his in praise of Monsieur Ingres’ paintings caused three thousand visitors to descend on the artist’s studio. So you can well imagine the effect produced when he praised my ‘sinuous, serpentine mouth, turned up at the corners in a violent penumbra’:
this sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously in Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, and he seems to pose a yet unresolved riddle to the admiring centuries … her gaze intimating unknown pleasures, her gaze so divinely ironic. We feel perturbed in her presence by her aura of superiority.
Because he was a gentleman, Monsieur Gautier made sure the credit was mine. He made it clear that he added nothing to my image – he merely pointed out what had always been there, but men had failed to see. He removed the scales from their eyes. The beauty and the enigma were mine alone.
Even today, there are fools who dismiss my smile as common – they say there were many smiles painted in the Renaissance, so many that a sad face would have been more remarkable. They point to other smiles painted by Leonardo himself. Superficially, I grant you, there may be resemblances to these other smiles. But for to the discerning connoisseur it will be obvious that those smiles contain not a thousandth part of the mystery of my own. And you are among the truly discerning – are you not?
My advice to you: Do not tell all, do not show all. Find some point of ambiguity or conjecture in who you are or what you do. Highlight it – or better yet, find someone else to bring it to the world’s attention. Whatever you do, never resolve the mystery – allow speculations to revolve around you, like the stars around the sun.
4. Make Influential Friends
Monsieur Gautier was a true gentleman. Another such was Mister Walter Pater, the British prince among critics. He was educated, refined in his manners, attuned to the spirit of his Victorian age – and connected to all the best people.
There was a time when British visitors to the Louvre would be informed by their guidebooks that Leonardo was not as great as Raphael or Michelangelo because they painted more than him!
Mister Pater changed all that.
I cannot pretend that his words – known by heart to generations of critics and admirers – do not touch me:
she is older than the rocks among which she sits; like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps the falling day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as St Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and changed the eyelids and hands.
Once he had praised my beauty thus, and educated the world in my mystery, I never lacked for attention or respect. My position was assured.
My advice to you: In every society there are those who rule opinion as a Prince rules his subjects. Seek out these influencers. Woo them. Guide them. Reward them. But do not let them rise above their station. If they attempt this, replace them.
5. Star in a Drama
It is said we never value a thing at its true worth until we lose it. So it proved with me.
On the morning of 21 August, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia, a common painter and decorator working in the Louvre, had the insolence to lift me from the wall, slide me under his coat, and walk out of the building into the Parisian sunshine.
Yet my misfortune was my fortune: by this time, the machinery of the popular press was in full swing, carrying my story and my plea for help across the globe. My face was front-page news. My name was on the lips of people speaking a thousand tongues. All the old stories were told and retold; conjecture piled upon conjecture. Songs were written, films were made. Day after day, the people wept for me, prayed for me.
And you can imagine the celebrations that greeted my rescue! Italy’s shame at giving birth to the thief became her pride and joy when I was recovered, in a Florentine hotel (in a scene fit for the many thrillers it inspired). Before my triumphant return to Paris, I made a stately progress through Florence, Rome, Milan. Once more, the people wept and prayed. Once more I was the star of the front page. Once more, conjecture vied with conjecture, as to the true story of my ordeal and rescue.
My advice to you: I would not counsel you to seek out danger or controversy… yet, should you find yourself attacked, abused or in some other difficulty, do not lightly let the issue slide. Tell the world your story. Make sure your role – the hero perhaps, or the victim – is clear for all to see. Yet leave some space in your tapestry for others to embroider – let them guess and gossip, swelling your story with their own invention.
6. Let the People See You
There are those who think their essence so precious it should be shielded from the gaze of the vulgar crowd. Fools! To be seen or heard is not to be owned. There may be many copies, but only one original.
My likeness has been copied countless times, appeared in countless places. I hang on the walls of the rich and poor alike. I gaze at them from posters, postcards, comic strips, stamps, bath-towels and coasters. Was I diminished with each copy? No! I was magnified, a millionfold. The more familiar my face became, the more visitors flocked to see me in person.
I am the darling of the advertising industry. Since 1980, it has been conservatively estimated, I have graced at least one new advertisement every week. I have promoted everything from airlines and computers to champagne and laxatives; every single advert has promoted me.
My advice to you: Be promiscuous. Allow your work to be copied, commented, circulated. The more you give away, the more you will be recognised, the more visitors you will receive. But be sure to keep something back for their visit. In my case, they are willing to pay just to stand in my presence, to experience the true original. What can you offer them to justify their journey and their money?
7. Make the World Your Oyster
On 14 December 1962 I set sail for America. My chamber, of course, was purpose-built for comfort and security. It was waterproofed to ensure my survival even if the entire ship and her crew should perish. I was greeted in Washington by President Kennedy and his wife. The crowds broke all records. Mister Warhol paid homage. I conquered the New World as I had the Old.
In 1974 I flew to Tokyo, then Moscow, feted and mobbed in equal measure. After that, the peoples of the world came to me. For these ‘tourists’ I am essential – no trip to Paris is complete without a pilgrimage to my bulletproof shrine.
In 1990 I was the symbol of the football World Cup, clasping a ball between my hands. It could have been the world.
In 1998 I became a Windows screensaver.
Today, I hold court in a Parisian throne room donated by the Japanese network Nippon Television (NTV).
Each new technology, every fad and fashion, fans my global fame.
My advice to you: For me it was a superhuman effort to spread my image and my influence across the globe. Fortunately, I was equal to the task. Yet now, even a mere mortal like yourself can reach the furthest corners of the earth. The portals of the world are opened wide for you. Take full advantage. Why beg for custom in your local marketplace? Surely this great globe holds finer, fitter patrons for your wares? Seek them out.
For more marketing secrets of the Mona Lisa, read Donald Sassoon’s fascinating book Mona Lisa: The History of the World’s Most Famous Painting.
Over to You
What do you make of Mona Lisa’s advice?
Do you think she needed all this marketing for her artistic merits to be recognised?
Does knowing her marketing secrets change the way you look at her?
About the Author: Mark McGuinness is a poet and creative coach.