By Annick Benoist
Paris - The lady in the world's most famous portrait, the Mona Lisa, will have plenty to smile about when she moves into her new home on Wednesday, with the re-opening of part of the Louvre museum after four years of work.
The Salle des Etats has been completely renovated since being closed in 2001 in a bid to provide a suitable home for Leonardo Da Vinci's portrait of the woman with the enigmatic smile which has captured people's imaginations through the centuries.
Designed by Peruvian architect Lorenzo Piqueras, the repairs have been virtually all paid for by the private Japanese television Nippon Television Network (NTV).
The renovated Salle des Etats, which covers some 850 square metres, should allow the crowds more room to gaze in comfort on the 500-year-old painting which will be hung alone on a false wall about two-thirds into the room.
The Louvre, the biggest art museum in the world, holds 6 000 paintings, but most of the museum's six million visitors a year make a bee-line straight for the Mona Lisa, better known in France under title of La Joconde.
Before the renovation work, visitors had to crowd around the painting hung behind thick bullet-proof glass on a wall with other period pieces, causing unseemly scenes as tourists often jostled for space.
The most recognisable painting in the world, it is most probably the portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of an obscure Florentine merchant Franceso del Giocondo.
Da Vinci's masterpiece was to set a standard for future portraits - a realistic subject centred in front of a distant, idealised landscape with "sfumato" lighting providing a warm glow on the subject.
It is a work of contrasts appearing both very close and very spiritual at the same time, says Cecile Scaillerez, Louvre curator in charge of 16th century Italian art.
"The painting abolishes the distance between the model and the viewer by getting rid of a foreground, which created a barrier in pictures of the time," she said.
"On the other hand, Lisa Gherardini isn't just looking at us, which wasn't usual in the portraits of the 15th and early 16th centuries in which people were often looking away far into the distance, but she is also smiling."
The legend of the Mona Lisa has spawned many theories as to who she really was, including even one suggestion that it is actually a self-portrait of Da Vinci in drag. It's also given rise to innumerable copies and spoofs, such as by Andy Warhol.
Last year curators at the museum said the Mona Lisa, painted on a thin panel of poplar wood between 1503-1506, was showing worrying signs of warping and would be given an in-depth scientific analysis.
The painting is also smaller than many people imagine measuring just 53cm by 76cm often causing cries of disappointment from visitors expecting something much grander.