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Arts & Culture

Mapping The Journey Of Classic Works Of Art


When we look at a painting, we usually know the artist and when they painted it. But how did it end up on this wall in this museum or in a city plaza? A new open-source website offers a way to map out that journey. Jodi Cranston developed a site called Mapping Paintings. She's a professor of art history at Boston University and joins us now. Professor Cranston, thanks so much for being with us.


SIMON: The "Mona Lisa" - everybody knows that painting, and they know Leonardo da Vinci painted it. So what's the provenance, as they say in the art world?

CRANSTON: Well, the provenance is extremely interesting for the "Mona Lisa" because it doesn't actually start in France. It begins in the area of Florence where Leonardo first paints it. And ultimately, the painting is given to Francis the First, who keeps it in his palace. And it remains in French possession until around the time of the French Revolution, when Napoleon takes it and hangs it on his bedroom wall. And then it is back in the Louvre until it is stolen by a very irate Italian, who takes the object after the museum closes, takes it under his coat and keeps it in his Paris apartment for two years.

SIMON: He just strolled out of the Louvre with the "Mona Lisa" under his jacket?

CRANSTON: Yeah. He hid in the broom closet. And when it closed, he left with it under his coat. And a number of different French artists came immediately under suspicion, including Picasso. They were exonerated. And the painting showed up in 1914 at the Uffizi, where it was exhibited for two weeks before French authorities asked for it to be returned.

SIMON: That - forgive me, that's a movie.

CRANSTON: Well, exactly. And I think for us, we wonder...

SIMON: I'm trying to imagine the interrogation of Picasso. He probably sits there making those little origami animals for the cops.

CRANSTON: Exactly. Well, and of all people, Picasso, who really loved Italian Renaissance arts.

SIMON: But it's a wonderful story that in a way just enhances your knowledge.

CRANSTON: Exactly. And that's really one of the goals of this site is to take what is sometimes just a list of text and sometimes will be a history that's not actually available to the public either on a website for a museum or on a museum label and really help to visualize that. To me, it really brings these layers of history to life.

SIMON: Jodi Cranston at Boston University. Thanks so much for being with us.

CRANSTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.