The normativities of Mona Lisa and Leonardo da Vinci: ‘participatory imitatio’ on /r/Place

7 minutes to read
Inge Beekmans

The Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous portrait painting in the world. Popular culture products and snacks have been named after it, clothing, phone covers and crockery sets are coated with its image, and posters, paintings and memes incorporate and customize its features. One cannot help but wonder how its creator — Renaissance 'polymath' Leonardo da Vinci — would interpret the diverse and prolific utilization of his work.

In his Le vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori e architettori, Italian Renaissance painter Giorgio Vasari describes two types of ‘imitatio’ an artist might use: “the copying of both nature and older masters” (Clements, 1946, p. 90). Though both types are considered ‘imitatio’, they are not held in the same high regard by everyone. According to da Vinci, “art must imitate, even mirror nature”, but ‘older masters’ should not be copied, “lest they then be called grandchildren rather than children of nature” (ibid, p. 91). Little did da Vinci know that his work would be copied over and over again, as it became endlessly transformed, commodified and memefied on a wide range of online platforms. Inspired by this observation, this article assesses the collaborative practices of Reddit’s ‘Mona Lisa Clan’ on /r/Place in 2022 by analyzing the online community's pixelated copy of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in relation to Vasari’s and da Vinci’s ideas about ‘imitatio’.

Figure 1: On the left: the last screenshot that was posted on r/MonaLisaClan “20-40min before the whiteout happened”. On the right: a picture of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa as “the best-known painting in the entire world”

The Mona Lisa was probably painted in 1503 and is the most popular painting hanging in the Louvre. Many people visit the Paris-based museum solely for the purpose of seeing it, ignoring other famous artworks that are on display, like the Venus de Milo and La Liberté guidant le people (Sassoon, 2001). Various researchers have attempted to explain “what it is about the Mona Lisa that ‘holds us in thrall’” (ibid, p. 4), presumably making it “the best-known painting in the entire world” (ibid, p. 3). With his Mona Lisa, da Vinci may have captured the very essence of the woman he portrayed, consequently creating a captivating painting that is universal and timeless, allowing the Mona Lisa to speak to generation upon generation.

Already in the sixteenth-century, the relatively small painting caught the attention of its beholders. Vasari wrote about the work around 1547, paying particular attention to its use of ‘imitatio’: “Looking at this face, anyone who wanted to know how far nature can be imitated by art would understand immediately, for here even tiny details were reproduced with artistic subtlety. The eyes were sparkling and moist as they always are in real life.” (Sassoon, 2001, p. 18) Vasari continues to describe how the painting looks ‘natural’, and how the lips seem of “real flesh and not paint” (ibid, p. 18-19). Clearly, this is what the right type of ‘imitatio’ ought to look like. In the eyes of Vasari, da Vinci has stayed true to his vision that art must ‘mirror nature’.

Digital practices of the ‘Mona Lisa Clan’ on /r/Place

Just like the artistic excellence and universal sublimity of the Mona Lisa might explain why ten million people come to admire the painting ‘in real life’ every year (Google Arts & Culture, n.d.), it might also explain the high regard for the work in the digital realm. One example of the renaissance painting’s digital adoration can be found in the ‘Mona Lisa Clan’ — or ‘/r/MonaLisaClan’ —, a subreddit — which can be understood as a type of subforum — on the social networking platform Reddit.

According to its own description, the Mona Lisa Clan’s objective was to “make the Mona Lisa on /r/Place”. /r/Place is a subreddit unlike any other. It is not a subforum that accommodates the interactions of a niched online community, but an “online collaborative sandbox” (Rappaz et al., 2018, p. 261) that takes the form of a digital canvas with a fixed number of pixels and permitted colors. In 2022, its users were only allowed to change one pixel every few minutes during a limited period of three and a half days. As the final canvas contained four million pixels and allowed 32 different colors, redditors were forced to collaborate to allow comprehensive shapes to emerge from the otherwise chaotic, meaningless mass of pixels. They did this by “either directly interacting with the canvas or by coordinating their actions from the discussion platform” (ibid, p. 263). The working method of /r/MonaLisaClan is an example of the latter, as its members used their subreddit, a Discord server and an ‘overlay design’ (see figure 2) to organize their efforts.

Figure 2: On the left: the overlay image the Mona Lisa Clan used to create their version of the Mona Lisa on /r/Place. On the right: two Reddit posts that attempt to engage redditors in the Clan’s efforts.

The art of ‘imitatio’ and the constraints of online affordances

The post-digital reality of ‘the Clan’ could probably not be further from da Vinci’s world. While da Vinci perceived the mirroring of nature to be the highest good, the Mona Lisa Clan’s ultimate goal was to create something that resembled the original Mona Lisa as much as possible. ‘Copying an old master’, and thus creating a ‘grandchild’, we might call it. However, looking at the overlay image that was created by the group to organize their collaboration (see figure 2), it becomes evident that imitating the Mona Lisa on /r/Place was never an actual option. Due to the limited affordances of /r/Place, the Clan’s Mona Lisa could never become a copy or a replica of the painting in a manner that might be comparable to the replicas that are held by the Prado in Madrid or the Art Gallery in Liverpool (Zöllner, 2018). Instead of employing ‘imitatio’, the Mona Lisa Clan is performing an act of translation, as its members attempt to capture and transform the painting’s essential, material characteristics to fit the mold of their virtual, pixelated computer screens. While da Vinci often worked with muted colors, and is thought to be the inventor of the “three-dimensional concept of colour” (Briggs, 2019), the Mona Lisa Clan had barely any muted colors they could use. This might explain why the Clan’s version of the Mona Lisa appears relatively dark, and seems to incorporate less reds than the original. It’s needless to say that her virtual lips don’t look like real flesh. They look like pixels.

On /r/Place, everyone is of equal skill, knowledge and agency. Like in any participatory art project, the spectators and the artists are one and the same.

Other similarities and differences merely loom in the interactive background. Though da Vinci also commonly worked with others, the anonymous non-hierarchical approach of Reddit is very different from his sixteenth century practices. On /r/Place, everyone is of equal skill, knowledge and agency. Like in any participatory art project (Tate, n.d.), the spectators and the artists are one and the same. Whereas the Louvre attempts to permanently stabilize the condition of the Mona Lisa and keep the audience at bay, /r/Place invites everyone to engage and change all of the artworks in its sandbox until time runs out, including its pixelated Mona Lisa. While, in the eyes of his audience, da Vinci managed to perfect his Mona Lisa — despite the fact that it was ultimately unfinished (McMahon, 2018) —, the Mona Lisa Clan had to accept that another group of redditors decided that their lady would share her virtual frame with BoJack Horseman (see figure 1).

To conclude: ‘participatory imitatio’ as a norm

As it’s presumably the most famous painting in the world, we should not be shocked that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was imitated over and over again, despite da Vinci’s personal conviction that this type of ‘imitatio’ is the wrong type of imitation. The online imitators simply don’t seem to care. For them, it is not da Vinci that prescribes the norms. It is the Mona Lisa herself that serves as an overlay and normative structure for their digital practices. However, forced by the constraints of the virtual realm, the Mona Lisa Clan deviates from Vasari’s classical understanding of ‘imitatio’ towards a type of ‘participatory imitatio’ and translation — in which various perspectives and participatory acts fight each other, thus complicating the potential for unambiguous imitation. Eventually, the fixed rules and limitations of the internet enforce creativity and dynamism, resulting in a pixelated, participatory artwork that appears novel and distinctive, despite its embedded wish to resemble its ‘master’ — or should we say 'madonna'? — and source of inspiration.


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Clements, R. J. (1946). Michelangelo and the Doctrine of Imitation. Italica, 23(2), 90.

Google Arts & Culture. (n.d.). 6 of the World’s Most Visited Paintings - Google Arts & Culture.

McMahon, B. (2018, March 4). Da Vinci “paralysis left Mona Lisa unfinished.” The Guardian.

Rappaz, J., Catasta, M., West, R., & Aberer, K. (2018). Latent Structure in Collaboration: The Case of Reddit r/place. Proceedings of the Twelfth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media.

Sassoon, D. (2001). Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon. Houghton Mifflin.

Tate. (n.d.). Participatory art | Tate.

Zöllner, F. (2018). Leonardo da Vinci: 1452-1519: alle schilderijen.