Three polished young women stood ahead of us in line. One opened her purse and pulled out her lipstick. Using her phone as a mirror, she touched up her lips. Each took her turn primping before making it to the front of the line. A sign reminded us that Mona Lisa has many admirers and implored us to keep our time with her short.
An estimated 30,000 people per day visit Mona Lisa. Each is allowed about 50 seconds with her. “They’ve clocked the average amount a visitor spends looking at the Mona Lisa. It’s roughly about 15 seconds,” said art historian Francesca Borgo in PBS’s Decoding da Vinci. “You are more focused on getting a good picture for your Instagram feed than looking, actually, at the painting.”
Twenty-two years before I stood in line to see the Mona Lisa, I worked as a cocktail waitress at Shenanigans. Two of my regulars used to say to me, “You are like the Mona Lisa. You smile, but you do not smile.” They visited whenever King Hussein of Jordan stayed at Mayo Clinic. When he left Rochester, they left. A few months later, the two were back. “We told our friends about you. We said we met the Mona Lisa in America. She smiles, but she does not smile.”
Being internationally known at 18 made my lips smile.
When Chris and I added Paris to our honeymoon itinerary, I had one uncompromising must on my list: to get a picture of myself with the Mona Lisa. My looks have changed a lot in twenty-two years. I now bleach the long, brown, natural curls I’d had back when I waitressed blonde and blow comb them straight weekly.
We went to the Louvre on our fourth day in Paris – a Monday. We arrived before the doors opened. There were two long lines. One for ticket holders, which we were. One for non-ticket holders.
Chris and I didn’t know a lot about Mona Lisa. Her small stature surprised me, but not Chris. Neither of us knew that Italians often call her La Gioconda. The painting is believed to be a portrait of Madam Lisa Gioconda, the wife of a successful cloth and silk merchant. Gioconda means joyous.
We had never heard of sfumato, a painting technique that blurs lines and creates imperceptible transitions. The Mona Lisa is one of the most famous examples of this technique in action, especially around her smile.
Almost everyone in line ahead of us took a picture with Mona Lisa. Some gave open smiles while phone cameras snapped. The three young women in front of us took turns taking selfies. One by one each held a cell phone aloft at an angle, lowered her shoulders, and extended her head away from her neck while seeming to find her light with total ease and alacrity.
I did not look like a woman ready for her close-up with Mona Lisa. Instead, I resembled a woman who had been through a whirlwind. Chris and I had stayed in a graffitied Airbnb, walked through crowds loud enough to match Times Square’s decibel level (if everyone in NYC spoke through megaphones), and we’d moved to the Maison Astor hotel for a more peaceful stay — only to be greeted on the hotel’s street by two officers carrying assault rifles. We walked and shopped the Champs-Elysees, explored the Conciergerie, bought chocolates in the Latin Quarter, ate cotton candy falling from the sky outside of the Petit Palais, and lost two umbrellas in brasseries.
There I stood, whirlwind me, in line to see the Mona Lisa, un-coiffed, unable to remedy my appearance in any way. My husband, enjoying the magic of being a man, looked unaffected by our weekend. As it is with many men, as his hair becomes saltier and the lines on his face deepen, he looks more distinguished.
During our turn to spend 50 seconds with Mona Lisa, Chris took a picture of me. He didn’t want a picture of himself with her. Instead, he made it my moment. I married well.
We took in what we could of her. When security told us to move on, we stepped off to the side, trying to steal extra seconds. Security told us to move on again.
As we continued through the Louvre, I kept noticing selfie-takers. Like me, maybe they were with works they’d dreamt of seeing. Yet, it seemed excessive. Maybe my less than Insta-worthy photo influenced my thinking. My mind’s not above such trespasses.
Or, perhaps they caught my attention because my husband and I are Gen-Xers. He’s my Christian Slater, with brooding tendencies. Born just three years before the Millennial Age, I’m forever a poser. We are prone to shrugging discontentedness. It has taken us time to become comfortable taking selfies. Between lapses of total awkwardness and moments that our respective children call cringey, we’re improving.
When we paused in our Louvre explorations, I took out my pocket journal and wrote, “The challenge of finding joy, because we do not give attention to others, even in a place like this.” When I wrote those words, I did not know that the Mona Lisa is considered to be Leonardo’s attempt to create a portrait that is the embodiment of happiness. La Gioconda.
More than a year before our honeymoon, Chris and I attended a fundraiser for Project Legacy, held at Bleu Duck Kitchen in Rochester, Minnesota. Dr. Amit Sood, one of the world’s leading experts on resilience and wellbeing, spoke at the event. During his presentation, he talked about the importance of escaping from the brain’s prison by looking outward. “Cultivating curiosity is important for your success. The party is not happening inside your head.”
As we continued through the Louvre, I caught myself thinking about Dr. Sood. How curious about the world around us can we be if we are always turning the camera toward ourselves? When we travel, our time in any given place is limited. Spending time and paying attention ought to be done with intention.
I pushed my attention from thinking to seeing. Chris and I stood in front of The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese, giving its 22 foot tall and more than 32 foot wide canvas, depicting the party Jesus turns the water into wine at, our full attention. Jesus sits in stillness at its center while about 100 others are shown busy looking, talking, serving, and playing instruments. Later on, we saw Guiseppe Arcimboldo’s famous Four Seasons. I took a picture of the 19th century mansplaining depicted in Guillaume Larrue’s Egyptian Room of Louvre and Great Sphinx.
We stood as close as we could to The Great Sphinx of Tanis. We admired sculptures. I took a picture of The Winged Victory of Samothrace and a picture of a shoe worn by the Cicero orator statue. Chris is shoe obsessed. I thought of him as I snapped the picture — looking outward, beyond myself.
Selfies blur the line between being present and not present. They can prove our location and provide evidence of who and what we’ve been in the presence of. Yet, they can take us out of the experience. Selfies can capture a moment while making our memories blur. Sfumato.