The title of Mona Lisa: The People and the Painting is slightly misleading. You might assume that the ‘People’ refers to the people standing in front of the painting – dumbfounded, smartphones aloft, blocking your way – and that this would be a book produced for a popular audience, written in the manner of Louis Theroux, about the global mass Mona Lisa cult. It’s not quite that, even if there is a chapter entitled ‘The Rise to Fame’. But there are an awful lot of people crowding the pages, as well as two authors, and collectively they do often get in the way of the painting. For sure, this book is state-of-the-art informative and will be mightily useful for students, but it must be the most overpopulated book ever written about a portrait of a single person.
It aims to be a myth-busting antidote to the romantic and conspiratorial readings of the picture that have mushroomed over the last century or so: ‘we have concentrated on real people doing real things in real places at real times … what has been obvious for centuries remains obvious.’ There