In his massive two-pound, 600-plus page biography of Leonardo da Vinci, author Walter Isaacson dedicates an entire chapter to the Mona Lisa, its still-mysterious subject, and the intermittent work of “adding tiny strokes and light layers” that stretched across the last 16 years of da Vinci’s life. “What began as a portrait of a silk merchant’s young wife became a quest to portray the complexities of human emotion, made memorable through the mysteries of a hinted smile, and to connect our nature to that of our universe,” Isaacson wrote. “The landscape of her soul and of nature’s soul are intertwined.”
But in a Maryland musician’s Change.org petition, the world’s most famous artwork is relegated to the first predicate of a single compound sentence. “Nobody has eaten the Mona Lisa and we feel Jeff Bezos needs to take a stand and make this happen,” he wrote.
While da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him as he moved from Florence to Milan to Rome to France, Kane Powell’s online masterpiece was created in an Applebee’s in eastern Maryland. “From what I remember, some friends and I were all at Applebee’s, kind of when COVID had just started,” he told VICE. “Amazon was in the headlines again, and we started talking about how Jeff Bezos should buy the Mona Lisa, just because he has the money to do it, because that would make a huge statement.”
OK, fair enough… but why did Powell recommend that Bezos should eat the painting after buying it? “I honestly don't know,” he admitted. “I mean, me and my fiancée were dipping into the dollar drink menu.” Regardless of the intent, the 22-year-old’s petition has seen a significant increase in attention in the past few days; although he launched it a year ago, it has picked up several thousand signatures this week.
“At the time, we thought ‘It would be funny if this went viral,’ and then we kind of forgot about it,” he said. “We shared it on our personal profiles, but nothing ever came of it. I never had the biggest social media following. I don’t even know what to think about what’s happening right now.”
Let’s consider the first half of that premise for a second, though. Could Jeff Bezos afford to buy the Mona Lisa? Although it was once named the “world’s most disappointing tourist attraction,” the instantly recognizable artwork is invaluable to the Louvre, due to the staggering number of people who visit the Parisian museum just to see it.
In 2018, France’s Ministry of Culture calculated what it would cost the Louvre if it were to send the Mona Lisa on a proposed “grand tour” of smaller regional museums, and the agency suggested that even if the painting were pulled out of its protective Plexiglas case for three months, it would erase €35M ($42M) from the museum’s bank account. Of that eight-figure sum, the government estimated that the Louvre would lose €13M ($16M) in admission fees and €7.M ($9M) in gift shop and restaurant spending, because a jaw-dropping nine out of 10 of the museum’s guests are there for nothing but the Mona Lisa.
It’s difficult to put an actual dollar value on the painting. Last year, French tech CEO Stephane Distinguin tried, suggesting that his home country should sell it to cover the cost of its pandemic-related financial losses. “A painting is easy to move and therefore to hand over. And we have a lot of paintings,” he said, according to The Independent.
“The price has to be insane for the operation to make sense,” he continued. “I estimate that it would take no less than €50 billion ($60.6 billion) to acquire the Mona Lisa. I was told that my estimate was very overvalued, even far-fetched, but each time without real arguments.”
That honestly might be too insane. An analysis by ArtNet suggested that there’s no way the Mona Lisa—or, indeed, any piece of art—could be sold for $60 billion-with-a-b dollars, and not just because that’s literally 111 times (!!!) more than the staggering $450.3 million auction price of da Vinci’s Salvador Mundi, which remains the most expensive artwork ever sold.
If France did decide to, like, host the world’s most extravagant yard sale, Bezos could theoretically afford to buy the painting, even if the Ministry of Culture put a $60 billion price tag on it. According to Forbes’ Real Time Billionaires list, Bezos’ net worth as of this writing is $192.5 billion—just behind LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton CEO Bernard Arnault and his family. (Hey Bernie, how do you feel about chewing your way through a 16th-century masterpiece?)
Honestly, the eating-the-painting part could be more difficult than the buying-the-painting part. For starters, it’s painted on a “thin-grained plank cut from the center of a trunk of poplar,” according to Isaacson. On top of that wooden ‘canvas,’ da Vinci layered a thick coat of lead white primer and, just as the name suggests, the oil paint was made with very real, very poisonous lead.
“Lead white’s outstanding handling characteristics come with a cost,” The Society of Figurative Arts explained. “It has poisoned artists, factory workers, women looking for beauty fixes, and children who were attracted to the strange sweet taste.” Some historians have even suggested that Michelangelo, that single-named High Renaissance superstar, may have suffered from paint-induced lead poisoning.
The other pigments that were used to color da Vinci’s palettes were also made from things you shouldn’t put in your mouth, including silica, iron oxide, tin oxide, bone dust, cinnabar (mercury sulfide), assorted ground minerals and stones, crushed beetle shells, and more lead.
If Bezos wants to buy a painting just so he can eat it, one centuries-old sliver at a time, he could always place a bid on the Hekking Mona Lisa. That piece, which got half of its name from its longtime owner, the late Raymond Hekking, is a by-all-accounts exquisite 17th century copy of the original.
Hekking, who bought his version from an antique shop for £3, dedicated several decades of his life to trying to convince the Louvre that its Mona Lisa was the fake, while his was the real deal. The actual Mona Lisa was stolen from the museum in 1911, and Hekking insisted that the painting that was ultimately returned to the Louvre was a replica. In the early 1960s, Hekking even had a film made that showed his Mona Lisa being examined by experts in an attempt to support his completely bonkers claim.
“Hekking’s Mona Lisa [...] is the perfect illustration of the fascination the Mona Lisa has always inspired and which she exerts more and more,” Pierre Etienne, the International Director of Old Master Paintings at Christie’s auction house, said in a statement. “She is the dream of a man with a passion for art. She is his Ideal. She will be his Muse, he will be her Poet.”
And, if Jeff Bezos wants to fuck around and find out, she could be his dinner. Weirdly enough, Christie’s is currently accepting bids on the Hekking Mona Lisa until Friday, June 18; it is expected to sell for somewhere between €200,000-300,000 ($242,000-$363,000), which is roughly what Jeffy makes every two-and-a-half minutes.
“Stand before the Mona Lisa, and the historical discussions about how it was commissioned fade into oblivion,” Isaacson wrote. “As Leonardo worked on it for most of the last sixteen years of his life, it became more than a portrait of an individual. It became universal, a distillation of his accumulated wisdom about the outward manifestations of our inner lives and about the connections between ourselves and our world.”
Or maybe it’s just a lead-topped poplar plank for a bald multi-billionaire to cronch through. “Gobble da lisa,” one person who signed Powell’s petition wrote.
Do it, Jeff. Gobble da goddamn Lisa.