The Mona Lisa Will Not Be Going on Tour After All, the Louvre Says

The 515-year-old painting is far too fragile to travel.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503–1517). Courtesy of the Louvre.

Dashing the hopes of non-Paris-dwellers everywhere, it appears that the Louvre will not be sending the Mona Lisa on tour. The museum’s director has politely declined the French culture minister Françoise Nyssen’s proposal to include the world’s most famous painting in a traveling exhibition of France’s masterpieces.

Nyssen first floated the idea in January and later told a French radio program in March that she was “seriously considering” showing the Mona Lisa outside of Paris in an effort to “work against cultural segregation.”

But the Louvre’s director Jean-Luc Martinez informed the minister in a meeting earlier this month that moving the 515-year-old artwork “could cause irreversible damage,” according to the The Art Newspaper, which first reported the news.

In fact, the Mona Lisa is so fragile that she cannot even be moved to another floor in the Louvre. The painting will not be included in the museum’s planned Leonardo exhibition next year (though the show will reportedly feature Leonardo’s $450 million Salvator Mundi).

Since 2005, the Mona Lisa has been kept in a tightly controlled environment: It hangs on a concrete wall inside a temperature-controlled box and behind bullet-proof glass. Replicating this setup on the road would be almost impossible—and the consequences for getting it wrong are major.

A technical analysis in 2006 revealed a crack in the painting’s wood panel nearly reaching the subject’s hair, TAN reports. Temperature changes during travel could degrade the surface even further, potentially leading to the loss of paint on Mona Lisa‘s face.

Once a year, the prize painting is removed from its box and the Louvre’s director, conservators, and select scholars gather to examine it up close. “Every year, we notice that the crack is widening slightly before going back to normal when the panel is put back in its box,” the Louvre’s former head of painting Vincent Pomarède told TAN. “So traveling is really out of the question.”

Representatives for the Louvre and the French Culture Ministry did not immediately respond to artnet News’s request for comment. But the ministry told TAN that the idea is “still under consideration.”

The Mona Lisa hasn’t left the Louvre in 44 years. The last time it was shown outside of Paris was in 1974, when it went on view in Tokyo and Moscow. Prior to that, Leonardo’s masterpiece traveled to Washington, DC, and New York in 1963.

But even that journey had its problems. One evening, the sprinkler system at the Metropolitan Museum of Art malfunctioned, splashing water on the painting’s surface for hours. The canvas was protected by thick glass, and, miraculously, managed to survive unscathed. In his memoir, former Met director Thomas Hoving wrote: “The rainstorm was never mentioned to the outside world.”

One can’t blame the Louvre for being gun-shy.

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