Each year, more than 9 million people visit the Louvre Museum in Paris, France specifically for a glimpse of the most famous and most valuable painting in the world, the Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) by Leonardo da Vinci, worth $782 million. Ironically, were it not for a brazen theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, the Mona Lisa would not be the most famous painting in the world. Noah Charney, art history professor and author of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, notes: “There was nothing that really distinguished [the Mona Lisa] per se, other than it was a very good work by a very famous artist — that’s until it was stolen. The theft is what really skyrocketed its appeal and made it a household name. If a different one of Leonardo’s works had been stolen, then that would have been the most famous work in the world — not the Mona Lisa.” In short, the story of the theft of the Mona Lisa validates the age-old adage that “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
Many art historians believe the Mona Lisa, with her peaceful demeanor and enigmatic smile, is a portrait of Lisa Gherardini that Leonardo painted between 1503 and 1506; but he kept refining the work all the way through 1516 and considered it an unfinished work. After his death, the painting was inherited by Salai, his assistant and pupil, who eventually sold it to King Francois I for 4,000 gold crowns. Over the next two centuries, the Mona Lisa found several temporary homes: the Place of Fontainebleau, the Palace of Versailles, even Napoleon’s bedroom in the Tuileries Palace, before finding her permanent home at the Louvre in 1797.
The Mona Lisa was not always protected by bullet-proof glass and the most sophisticated security systems. Astonishingly to a modern art lover, the Mona Lisa was hung inconspicuously on a large wall of the Salon Carre in the Louvre surrounded by many other paintings. The painting hung on four iron hooks anchored to the wall, about three feet off the floor. To remove it, all you had to do was to grab the frame and lift it off the hooks (the painting is relatively light since it is not very large, measuring 53 x 77 cm) — a real temptation to any art thief. In the early 1900s security at the Louvre was rather lax, compared to today’s standards. During the day, here were about 200 guards to patrol more than 400 rooms in the Louvre; at night there were considerably less.
Enter Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia, a 30-year-old house painter and glazier from Dumenz, Varese, Italy, was hired by the Louvre to make protective glass cases for its famous paintings. On August 21, 1911, a day the museum was closed, Peruggia wearing a white worker’s smock, entered through the door of the museum, blending in with other similarly dressed workers. He went to the Salon Carre, and when no workers were presented, he walked up to the wall and simply lifted the Mona Lisa off the pegs and headed for a service staircase. There, he quickly but carefully removed the glass box and its frame and wrapped it in the smock that he had been wearing, tucked it under his arm, and nonchalantly walked out the same door he had entered without anyone noticing him. He got on the wrong bus, and then took a taxi to his small one-room apartment, where he hid the painting in a trunk. Over the next two years, he would take it out and place it on his kitchen table, where he admired her and “[Fell] in love with her.”
The following day, the theft of the Mona Lisa was discovered. It quickly became worldwide headline news. Charney elaborates: “The theft launched [the Mona Lisa] into becoming a household name for people who had never been to Europe and had no interest in art.” The citizens of France were outraged; moreover, the bold theft caused some embarrassment for the museum staff, the officials of the government, and the police. Paris was mocked in the press: “Will the Eiffel Tower be next?” After the theft, the Louvre closed for a week. Interestingly, when the museum reopened, there were long lines of people, which the museum staff had never been seen before, waiting patiently to see the empty space where the painting once hung!
The theft launched an extensive investigation by the French police, that felt the crush of the international pressure to recover Leonardo’s painting. The police, led by the world famous detective Alphonse Bertillon (known as the French Sherlock Holmes) questioned every person connected to the art world, including — art dealers, artists (even Pablo Picasso, then a budding artist), poets, patron of the arts, wealthy art collectors, as well as suspected art thiefs. Even Peruggia was questioned twice and investigators believed his alibi — that he was working elsewhere that day. Two years later, after pursuing thousands of leads, the trail ran completely dry; Bertillon retired without ever solving the most famous case of his tenure.
In 1913, the news stories had died down, and Peruggia contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of an Italian art gallery. Geri agreed to meet with Peruggia, who used the pseudonym of “Leonardo” in his notes, and brought Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery to authenticate the painting. They met with Perugia at Geri small shop in Florence, Italy. He introduced himself as Leonardo and then escorted the two men to the Tripoli-Italia hotel, a run-down hotel. He methodically emptied a battered suitcase with a false bottom and reached down to reveal a painting wrapped in cloth. The cloth was removed, and there staring at them was the beautiful Mona Lisa. Upon closer inspection, Poggi realized this was Leonardo’s work and not a clever forgery. Geri and Poggi asked Leonardo if they could keep the painting overnight to do some tests to authenticate the painting. They left and immediately contacted the Italian police, who quickly stormed the hotel and arrested Peruggia. Like the theft, the safe return of the Mona Lisa launched a media frenzy around the world. Donald Sassoon, author of Becoming Mona Lisa, adds, “A painting had been turned, anthropomorphically, into a person, a celebrity.” Soon after returning to the Louvre, the Mona Lisa went on a short exhibition throughout Italy. (Since then, the Mona Lisa has left the Louvre three times: a short exhibition in New York City and Washington, D.C. (1963), Tokyo, and Moscow.
Peruggia explained that his motivation for stealing the painting was patriotic — he simply wanted the famous painting to return to Italy, its proper home; he mistakenly believed that Napoleon had stolen the painting. Consequently, Peruggia was hailed by many as a great patriot for trying to bring the Mona Lisa to her rightful home. “I am an Italian and I do not want the picture given back to the Louvre,” he explained. He was put on trial, convicted, but given a lenient sentence: a prison term of one year and 15 days. Peruggia served only seven months in jail and was released. He served in the Italian army in WWI. After the war he lived a quiet life — he married, had a daughter, and opened up a paint shop in France. He died of lead-poisoning at the age of 44 on October 8, 1925, without the world taking much notice.
Although the world forgot about Vincente Peruggia, it has never forgotten about the greatest art theft of the 20th century that changed the art world forever — making the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world. The brazen theft also dramatically increased the security of all major works of arts in museums throughout the world. Although billions of people have seen her, there was only one man who cherished two years alone with one of the most enchanting and enigmatic women in art — one of the most beautiful memories Peruggia took to his grave.
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For further reading: The Thefts of the Mona Lisa by Noah Charney (2011)
Becoming Mona Lisa: The Making of a Global Icon by Donald Sassoon (2001)
“The Mona Lisa is Missing” (2012) directed by Joe Medeiros