Mona Lisa could be moved to underground chamber to end ‘public disappointment’

The Mona Lisa and hordes of people - Mona Lisa should be moved to improve 'worst viewing experience', Louvre proposes
With viewers getting an average of 50 seconds to admire the the Mona Lisa, tourists dubbed it the world's most disappointing masterpiece - AFP/Loic Venance

The Mona Lisa painting may be moved to an underground chamber in an effort by the Louvre museum to improve the “world’s most disappointing” viewing experience for its star attraction.

Leonardo da Vinci’s famed portrait of an enigmatically almost-smiling woman is the main attraction of the Louvre, helping it to be the most-visited museum in the world.

But a recent survey showed tourists did not enjoy the experience, with comments ranging from ”never been so disappointed” to “torture”.

The 1503 portrait is exhibited behind bullet-proof glass in the centre of the Salle des Etats, with the temperature and humidity inside its casing tightly controlled to ensure the painting does not degrade.

The protective covering was upgraded with anti-reflective technology in 2019 in order to improve visitors’ viewing experience.

‘Looks like a postage stamp’

Laurence des Cars, the Louvre’s director, has suggested moving the masterpiece to a dedicated room dug into the basement.

“We don’t welcome visitors very well in this room, so we feel we’re not doing our job properly,” she told staff and supervisors. “Moving the Mona Lisa to a separate room could put an end to public disappointment.”

Vincent Delieuvin, chief curator of 16th-century Italian painting at the Louvre, agrees. “We’ve been thinking about it for a long time, but this time everyone is in agreement,” he told Le Figaro.

“It’s a large room, and the Mona Lisa is at the back, behind its security glass, so at first glance it looks like a postage stamp,” he said.

That flew in the face of the artist’s original intention, he added: “Leonardo da Vinci wanted to establish a face-to-face relationship between the painting and the person contemplating it.”

According to museum officials, the painting is the main draw for 80 per cent of its nine million annual visitors. On some days, 25,000 people queue to catch a fleeting glimpse of it.

But with viewers getting an average of 50 seconds to admire the piece, tourists recently dubbed it “the world’s most disappointing masterpiece”.

‘Is it worth paying a €22 entrance fee?’

Based on collated comments from visitors, the Mona Lisa was branded the most underwhelming work among 100 top masterpieces on display around the planet, receiving 37 per cent “negative mentions”, according to a poll for CouponBirds published in Le Parisien last month.

“At only 30 inches by 20, this painted panel of wood has a large hold over the public’s imagination – and five centuries later, noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo may be the oldest woman to have her own mailbox for love letters and flowers,” it wrote.

“But is it worth paying a €22 entrance fee – and jostling with a crowd of strangers – to catch a fleeting glimpse?” it asked.

Various attempts have been made to improve the painting’s viewing experience, most recently in 2019 when the Salle des Etats’ walls were repainted from eggshell yellow to midnight blue and the queuing system streamlined.

But more is required given that “the celebrity of the Mona Lisa, which began after it was stolen in 1911, is exponential, driven by mass tourism and social networks”, said Mr Delieuvin.

“In this day and age, you have to have seen something that everyone is talking about at least once in your life, and the Mona Lisa is clearly one of those ‘must sees’,” he said.

Worries about the possible cost

The new chamber would be part of a major overhaul of the museum dubbed Grand Louvre that would open a new entrance at the colonnade opposite the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois.

The idea would grant up to six million visitors almost direct access to two new rooms under the Louvre’s Cour Carréé, one for temporary exhibitions and the other for the Mona Lisa.

“The mood in the museum is now ripe,” said Ms des Cars. “We have to embrace the painting’s status as a global icon, which is beyond our control.”

The freed-up Salle des États would give coherence back to the collection of Venetian works, notably Veronese’s The Marriage at Cana, which hangs next to the Mona Lisa and is often obscured by selfie poles, she argued.

However, there remains the not-so-small question of funding. According to Le Figaro, the budget for the overhaul is estimated at €500 million and comes at a time when President Emmanuel Macron’s government is desperately seeking to rein in state spending following worse-than-expected debt and deficit forecasts.

Bruno Le Maire, the finance minister, has already said he hopes to claw back €25 billion in savings for the 2025 budget and has urged the cultural sector to do its fair share.

In January, environmental activists hurled pumpkin soup at the Mona Lisa, calling for the right to “healthy and sustainable food” as they splattered the painting.

Rachida Dati, France’s newly appointed culture minister, denounced the stunt as an attack on French heritage that “belongs to future generations”.