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Preserving the Mona Lisa

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The Mona Lisa is an oil painting on a poplar wood panel by Leonardo da Vinci. Believed to be a half-length portrait of Lisa del Giocondo (maiden name Gherardini) – the little-known wife of a Florentine cloth and silk merchant – it’s considered the most famous painting on Earth, with millions viewing it every year at the Louvre museum in Paris, France.

As the Mona Lisa is over 500 years old, an intensive conservation effort is ongoing to preserve it. This conservation is split into two main areas: frame rectification and painting restoration. The frame is the most altered part of the Mona Lisa to date, with the original poplar frame warping to the extent that by the start of the 20th century, a crack had developed. This crack was secured by installing two butterfly-shaped walnut braces into the poplar panel and then later a flexible oak frame and pair of cross braces. Today this physical manipulation is partnered with a closely monitored environment, with the Mona Lisa kept in a clear container with controlled humidity, temperature and light levels.

Restoration of the painting itself has gone on for centuries, having first received a wash and new coat of varnish back in 1809. This involved the painting being cleaned with spirits, having specific colours touched up and then being revarnished. Following its theft and return in the early-20th century, the painting was worked on once more, with a number of scratches filled in with watercolour.

Finally, following an attack on the painting by vandals in 1956 which caused damage to the left elbow of the figure, this was also repainted with watercolours. Today, work continues on the Mona Lisa to restore much of the colour to the enigmatic portrait, with the wash carried out in 1809 now believed to have removed the top layer of paint.