Mona Lisa’s smile may grace deprived areas of France on her ‘grand tour’

Tourists throng to the Louvre in Paris to see the Mona Lisa, but she may soon be taken on a “grand tour’ of France to allow people in deprived areas to view her enigmatic smile.

Françoise Nyssen, the culture minister, said on Thursday that she was “seriously considering” sending the world’s best known painting to Lens, a former mining town in northern France where the Louvre has an outpost. 

She dismissed art experts’ warnings that Leonardo Da Vinci’s 16th century masterpiece is too fragile to be transported.

“We had the same reaction when we proposed to take the Bayeux tapestry out of its museum,” she said. Emmanuel Macron has offered to lend Britain the 11th century embroidery depicting the Norman conquest.

Sylvain Robert, the mayor of Lens, is leading a campaign for the Mona Lisa, known as ‘La Joconde’ in French, to be exhibited temporarily at the Louvre-Lens, overlooked by slag heaps beside red-brick terraced houses and a chip shop.

Supporters of the local football club held up a huge banner with a picture of the Mona Lisa at a match last month, with a slogan reading: “Mona Lisa, the hearts of the people of Lens are beating for you.”

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Many townspeople hope that struggling local businesses will benefit from visitors who come to see the Mona Lisa.

The mayor pitched the idea in a letter to President Macron, who asked Ms Nyssen to look into it.

Ms Nyssen said: “I am spearheading efforts as culture minister to combat cultural segregation, and one of the pillars of that is a grand plan to take works of art on tour. Cultural offerings exist: why would they be confined to certain places and not accessible everywhere for all to enjoy?”

Ms Nyssen told Europe 1 radio she would discuss the project with the head of the Louvre in Paris and care would be taken to preserve the prize exhibit.

Didier Rykner, an art historian, said it would be “irresponsible and extremely dangerous” to subject it to further travel. “It is extremely fragile. The wood panel it is painted on is extremely thin and there is a crack, which if it widened would damage it irreversibly.”

In the 1960s the Mona Lisa was shipped across the Atlantic and displayed in New York and Washington.

It has not been taken outside the Louvre since 1974, when it was displayed at Tokyo’s National Museum and a woman tried to spray it with red paint. It escaped damage thanks to its bulletproof enclosure. 

In 1911 it was stolen from the Louvre by a museum employee, Vincenzo Peruggia, who believed its rightful place was in an Italian museum.

It was recovered when he attempted to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence two years later.