The Theft That Made Mona Lisa Super-Famous
When the Italian government made their official announcement that they’d recovered the Mona Lisa—missing for two years—it was December 13, 1913. The French authorities, however, cautiously bordered on optimistic at that time.
They’d chased plenty of leads on the missing painting, but with little results. They’d even investigated the actual man who was actually guilty of stealing the painting, Vincenzo Peruggia, but they let him go.
The French authorities came closer to arresting Pablo Picasso (no joke) than catching the real thief.
Vincenzo Peruggia, the thief, was a contractor hired to replace security glass in Paris’ massive Louvre museum. Two years earlier, he’d walked out the front door of the Louvre with Mona Lisa—La Joconde, as the French know her—as if it were his.
He didn’t plan to keep it. Peruggia was on a mission to return the painting to what he believed, albeit under misguided pretenses, was the rightful home: The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.
Leonardo Da Vinci was no small shakes in 1913, and the Mona Lisa was recognizable enough in art circles to fetch more money than any other painting in the Louvre when removed her from her wall mounts. But, the theft catapulted her into the international spotlight.
If the Mona Lisa were a pop star, before the heist she would have been Michael Jackson pre-Pepsi commercial, the one where his hair caught on fire. After the theft, the press coverage thrust Mona Lisa, and consequently the Louvre, into stratospheric popularity.
When Lisa Gherardini was in her mid-twenties, she sat for a portrait with Leonardo da Vinci. That was in 1503.
Da Vinci was already a notable artist of his day, but the painting that came from that portrait incorporated a unique brush technique and varnish. What fascinated fans most about La Joconde was the wry grin on her face.
She initially traveled to France with da Vinci when he moved there, invited by King Francis I. She lived for a time at Versailles, but by 1797 she was hanging in the former royal palace, which the French had converted into the Louvre art museum.
Other than the short period of time Napoleon thought she looked better on his bedroom wall, that’s been where she’s stayed since the 18th century.
The day she disappeared, the maintenance director, Picquet, remarked to another employee on the value of the painting being around 1.5-million francs. Neither he nor any of the other staff could imagine Peruggia would pull her off the wall later that day.
Getting into the Louvre was easy, especially for Peruggia since he was there on contract to complete some glass work.
Later, at his trial, he would claim that he picked the Mona Lisa for her size, which is doubtful, especially considering da Vinci painted her on slabs of wood instead of canvass.
She weighed almost 20 pounds, a lot for such a small painting, but nothing compared to her 150-pound glass case.
To get to her, Peruggia hid in one of the Louvre’s closets overnight August 20, 1911, to avoid drawing attention upon entering the next day. There are reportedly hundreds of closets.
When the Louvre opened on the 21st, he was already inside wearing an artist’s smock that scanned like he either worked for the museum or like he was a nascent artist.
Nobody would question him as he removed the case and took it out of site. Sometimes staff pulled pieces off the wall to repair mounts or clean.
He absconded into a staircase, where he removed the painting from the case and its mounting frame. What he had at the end was the inch-and-a-half wood surface on which rested Mona’s face.
He shoved the wood slab into his smock and made his way out of the museum. Other than a wonky doorknob, he walked out the front door without a hitch.
Authorities would chase fruitless leads for two years trying to figure out who took the painting. They even grilled Pablo Picasso, who was obviously driven by blind-jealousy, but Picasso was clean.
The story of what happened to the Mona Lisa after that varies depending on what version one prefers to believe. Peruggia confessed to the authorities with a couple versions of his story, and another in front of the judge.
One fact remained the same: He took the painting.
He may have had help. He may have tried to sell the painting in England, but he swears he intended to return her to the Uffizi the whole time.
It was an Italian art dealer, Alfredo Geri, with whom Peruggia first made contact. Peruggia went by “Leonard” in his correspondence with Geri.
Suspicious of this Leonard character and his claim, Geri reached out the curator of the Uffizi, Giovanni Poggi. It was Poggi who eventually authenticated the painting.
Peruggia asked for a reward amounting to roughly $100,000 in today’s money, for which Geri and Poggi agreed under the auspices that the deal was all above board. It obviously wasn’t.
Once the painting was safely in the Uffizi, they had the authorities arrest Peruggia. He was genuinely surprised when the two constables knocked on his hotel door.
For a short tour, the Mona Lisa stayed in Italy, but she would return to fill the empty spot on the Louvre where she belonged. That space in the Louvre had drawn more visitors than the original in the two years hence.
Her return didn’t stem the flow of visitors either. Mona was officially a deity amongst paintings. For all his fame, Michael Jackson would never be able to amass a fan base as large as hers. She’s been at the game so much longer.