The most famous painting in the world, the Mona Lisa, narrowly missed a catastrophe in 1963 when it was on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic portrait of a smiling woman, widely believed to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, had left the Louvre in Paris for its first trip to the US.
All possible precautions were taken for the painting’s safekeeping. It was transported across the Atlantic aboard the SS France in a waterproof crate designed to float if the luxury liner sank.
When it arrived in New York, the Mona Lisa was escorted by the police and secret service agents to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where President Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline attended the unveiling of the painting.
On 7 February, the portrait went on show at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, flanked by armed US Marines. It would eventually be seen by more than 1 million visitors in just a few weeks.
It was at the Metropolitan that the painting narrowly escaped severe damage one night when a sprinkler malfunctioned, splashing water on the Mona Lisa for several hours.
The incident is recounted in the memoir of Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum, which is being serialised on the Artnet website (www.artnet.com).
In 1963, Dr Hoving was a curator in the Metropolitan Museum’s medieval department. When he arrived at the museum before it opened one morning, he rushed to the secure storeroom where the painting was locked up at night, in order to check on an English 12th-century ivory cross he had recently purchased for the institution.
“I dashed to the [storeroom] to study my gorgeous acquisition, only to find that Murray Pease, the head of the conservation studio, and his assistant Kate Lefferts, [and] the officials from the Louvre in charge of the Leonardo portrait were rushing around with towels,” writes Dr Hoving.
“No one ever discovered why, but some time during the night one of the fire sprinklers in the ceiling broke its glass ampoule and the masterpiece of painting and the masterwork of ivory carving had both been…rained upon,” he adds.
Guards monitoring the Mona Lisa on a black-and-white monitor outside the storeroom could not see the water on their grainy screen.
“The Mona Lisa, according to the Louvre official, was okay…He told me that the thick glass covering it had acted like an effective…raincoat. The rainstorm was never mentioned to the outside world.” The Metropolitan Museum declined to comment on the incident.
Henry Gentle, a London based private picture restorer, said damage to the painting could have been serious if it had not been protected by glass. “The paint could have swelled off [the panel] and become unstable. It really would have depended on the painting itself, whether it was protected by a strong varnish or not, and how long the water was dribbling on the surface.”
Dr Hoving is philosophical about the incident. “These things happen in museums,” he says.
The episode is the latest chapter to emerge in the painting’s eventful history. Painted in Florence, the Mona Lisa was taken to France by Leonardo himself in 1516 and sold to King François I. In 1911, the portrait was stolen from the Louvre by a museum employee, Vincenzo Peruggia. It was recovered two years later when Peruggia tried to sell it to an antiques dealer in Florence.