Why the Mona Lisa Can’t (Won’t?) Go Home Again

People who can name only one painting in the world usually name the Mona Lisa. For better or worse, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of (probably) Lisa del Giocondo rises above all cultural barriers and transcends taste with a smile. As Donald Sassoon argued in his 2001 book Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon, a large part of that fame came from the infamous theft of the painting in 1911, when Vincenzo Peruggia walked out of the Louvre with the work hidden under his coat and fled to his homeland of Italy, which Peruggia believed to be the painting’s homeland, too. After waiting two years, Peruggia tried to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. After Peruggia’s arrest, the Mona Lisa toured her homeland one last time before heading back to the Louvre. With the 100th anniversary of that theft looming this August, the Uffizi and Italy want La Gioconda (the Italian nickname) back, at least for a while, but the Louvre and France say La Joconde (the French nickname) is going nowhere.


The national battle for Mona Lisa is a centuries’ long one. da Vinci began the painting in 1503 or 1504 in Florence, but only finished it on French soil after moving there in 1516 on the invitation of François I. After Leonardo’s death in 1519, the French king purchased the painting from the family of da Vinci’s assistant, who inherited what his master left behind. Mona Lisa thus entered the French royal collection, where it stayed until the French Revolution, among other things, transformed the royal collection in the Louvre palace into the national collection in the Louvre museum. Since that transformation, fragile little Lisa’s left home only three times—against her will in 1911 and through loans to America in 1963 and to Russia and Japan in 1974. Armed with 100,000 signatures from Italians, Italy’s cultural leaders hope to change that three to a four, but the Louvre says that the fragility of the nearly 500-year-old painting is too great to risk any travel.

Of course, the Louvre’s said that before. As Margaret Leslie Davis recounted in her mesmerizing Mona Lisa in Camelot: How Jacqueline Kennedy and Da Vinci’s Masterpiece Charmed and Captivated a Nation (which I reviewed here), then First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy worked her magic on then French Minister of Culture Andre Malraux to finagle a trip to Washington, D.C., and New York City in 1963. The American diplomat assigned to personally ensure the safety of the painting developed health problems from the stress of protecting the masterpiece from the slightest change in temperature or humidity, but the American tour—a Cold War cultural coup—otherwise was an unqualified success. A little over a decade later, France balanced out the Cold War loans by sending the painting to Russia, where it toured with no incidents, something which couldn’t be said of the final Tokyo leg of the trip. A handicapped woman angered by the Tokyo National Museum’s accessibility policies sprayed red paint at the painting. The Louvre’s faced vandals targeting the Mona Lisa many times over the years, but that overseas scare may have frightened them from loans, even nearly four decades later.

Italy also presents a problem in their pseudo-serious claims to own the painting, at least in terms of heritage. The thief Peruggia received a mere 6 months of jail time—almost a reward for bringing the painting back to Italy. “Plan B” if the scheme to get the painting back in Italy for the anniversary of the theft seems to be a different kind of theft—grave robbing. Italian cultural organizations now believe that they are close to finding the grave of the woman who sat for the Mona Lisa. If you can’t have the “real thing,” it seems, they’ll settle for the real woman, if you subscribe to the idea that Lisa del Giocondo’s the woman with the million(s)-dollar smile. I can’t help but think that the Louvre worries that there could be some kind of legal battle over the painting once it is out of the country, especially in the current climate of art repatriation where even “sure things” aren’t sure anymore. A legal battle for the Mona Lisa would be fascinating to watch, but it would also definitely discontinue the practice of international art loans for a long, long time.

Ownership and conservation are the twin towers of the Louvre and France’s denial of the request, but the real reason is money. The Louvre draws tourism by the ton, and most of those tourists want to see the Mona Lisa. Judging from the throngs racing past the time I visited, many go only to see that painting, even at the cost of racing past millennia of masterpieces to get a good place in line for that moment with Mona. The Louvre simply can’t afford to part with La Joconde.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

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  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
  • A recent study estimates that more than 9,000 people die prematurely in London each year due to air pollution.
  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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Meanwhile, Spaniards are the least likely to say their culture is superior to others.

Image: Pew Research Center
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  • Survey by Pew Research Center shows great variation in chauvinism across Europe.
  • Eight most chauvinist countries are in the east, and include Russia.
  • British much more likely than French (and slightly more likely than Germans) to say their culture is "superior" to others.
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A 'vampire' fungus has killed millions of bats since 2006. Here's why it matters.

White-nose syndrome is nearly as lethal to bats as the Black Plague was for humans.

Photo by Igam Ogam on Unsplash
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  • White-nose syndrome has killed at least 6.7 million bats, though this estimate was made in 2012, and the current figure is almost certainly much higher.
  • Bats serve a crucial role in our ecosystem and economy, and white-nose syndrome is already pushing many species to the brink of extinction.
  • Researchers and scientists are working hard to develop novel methods to cure white-nose syndrome; a few methods have shown promise, but none have yet been deployed in the field.
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