The Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo Da Vinci, could easily be the most famous painting ever. Nowadays, almost everyone knows the famous smile of the mysterious women dressed in her day’s Florentine fashion. Enormous quantities of ink and effort have been spent over the decades to unravel the mysteries behind this painting. The painting’s history is a little obscure, but it is believed that Leonardo painted it in his residence in Florence between 1503 and 1506. When in 1516 Leonardo was invited at court in France by King Francis I, he brought the, still unfinished, painting with him. When he died in 1519, his assistant inherited his precious painting.
In 1530 the assistant sold the painting to the king for 4000 gold coins, which would roughly be around the sum of 100.000 dollars in today’s money—an enormous amount. The painting went on display in his palace of Fontainebleau, where it stayed until Louis XIV moved it to his grand palace of Versailles. It remained there until Louis XVI’s execution. Afterwards, the Mona Lisa left the possession of the Kings of France forever. It became the property of France’s people, and it was decided that it would be displayed at the newly appointed museum of the Louvre.
But when the Louvre opened in August 1793 with an exhibition of more than 500 paintings, the Mona Lisa was not among them. When Napoleon saw the Mona Lisa in 1800, he became enchanted by her, describing her as the “Sphinx of the Occident” and politely referred to her as “Madame Lisa”. It was love at first sight, and for the next few years, she hung in his bedroom. After this love affair, she returned to the Louvre to lead a calm and uneventful life for nearly a century until that fateful Monday morning in the summer of 1911.
Although the Mona Lisa already had many famous owners, she was not as renowned as she is now. It wasn’t until 1911 when the world really got to know her. In was an early morning on the 21st of August and the Louvre was closed, like it always was on Monday. Nevertheless, more than 800 people were in the massive 49-acre building, which housed half a million artworks.
Sometime between 7.00 and 8.30 in the morning, someone walked into the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa was hanging at the time. He subsequently and took her off the wall and walked out of the building, only to disappear, just like that. It took an hour before someone noticed that the painting was missing. Yet, it was assumed it had been taken away to be photographed. More hours passed, and the question “has anyone seen the Mona Lisa?” trumpeted through the Louvre.
Curiosity turned into anxiousness. It turned out the Mona Lisa wasn’t being photographed. There were no plans to reframe it, or to hang into another room. There was no reason for the painting not to be there. The lady simply vanished. Between Correggio’s Mystical Marriage and Titian’s Allegory of Alfonso d’Avaolos sat only four iron pegs. The next day sixty police officers were dispatched. Visitors coming out of the Louvre were searched and railway stations were patrolled. But it was too late. It had taken too long before those responsible realised the Mona Lisa had been stolen. The thief was long gone. In later reports it became clear that it had taken 26 hours from the point of theft, before the theft was officially reported.
In retrospect, this was not at all surprising the theft wasn’t immediately noticed. The museum was enormous. There were 400 rooms and only around 150 guards. Security at the Louvre was lax – as in many museums at the time -, objects disappeared with such a frequency that it can be said that it was surprising there was any art left at all. Illegal art was a profitable market.
So… Where did she go? Who took her? It didn’t take long for the press to be on top of the sensational story. Both the story of the theft and the image of the Mona Lisa travelled the world. It was as if it was a case of an abduction or kidnapping rather than a robbery. It didn’t take long for rumours to float about.
The only evidence that was found was the frame and the protective glass lying in a staircase. And the one clue they had was that it must have been an inside job since it had to be done quickly and the portrait had been mounted on the wall with four iron pegs. If you knew how to do it, the painting could come off in seconds. But if you had no experience and did not know the trick, it could take a while. Thus, it made sense to interview those who had access and expertise. Police subsequently began questioning guards and workers and even the Director and chief attendant. But without any results.
The painting must have been stolen to blackmail the government. Perhaps it was a gang that had stolen it. Or, it were the modernists – the enemies of traditional art wishing to overthrow the established order. It didn’t take long for the avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire to appear on the police’s radar. It was because of his outspoken idea that all museums should be destroyed, making room for a new way of imagining. It didn’t take long for the police to raid his flat. His friend, the famous painter Pablo Picasso held similar views. Earlier he had bought statuettes that had been stolen from the Louvre. Knowing what the police had done at his friend’s flat, he feared the statues were incriminating and he decided he should get rid of them.
That night Picasso went to the Seine, making sure he wasn’t followed, to get rid of the damning evidence. But he couldn’t bring himself to destroy the works and returned home. 19 days later he was interviewed by the police in his flat and summoned by the court on the charge of owning stolen goods from the Louvre. But the police didn’t bother to investigate his house and he was released due to lack of evidence. He could return home but was banned from leaving Paris. His friend Apollinaire spent two days in jail before he was released. He was at that point the only person in France ever arrested for the Mona Lisa’s theft. While La Bande à Picasso or the Wild Men of Paris as they were known, were perfect suspects, they were not the thieves and the Mona Lisa remained lost.
Some blamed the Germans. Others thought it was a cover-up for the museum saying the painting accidentally got destroyed. And some believed the whole thing was a joke and that the painting would find its way home shortly. Though detectives kept searching for the precious painting, the Mona Lisa did not turn up. It was a dead end. The Paris police chief even retired, following the leads going cold. Then, after two years, the thief made contact.
The criminal mastermind
It was November 29th, 1913 when the well-known Italian art dealer from Florence named Alfredo Geri received a letter signed as “Leonardo” after placing an ad in several Italian newspapers. In these ads, he stated that he was “looking to buy art objects of every sort for a good price”. In the letter, the writer offered the stolen Mona Lisa for sale for 100.000 francs. He suggested Geri should come to Paris to have a viewing of the painting. The mysterious writer that referred to himself as Leonard was the Italian Vincenzo Peruggia. Employed as a picture framer, he was responsible for the Mona Lisa’s re-hanging a few years earlier.
Funnily enough, Peruggia had been interviewed. Twice. But since everyone thought the thief must have been a criminal mastermind, they didn’t bother taking fingerprints. The police never considered him as a serious suspect. He walked into the gallery, dismounted the painting, removed the frame, hid it under the white smock every museum staff wore, and walked out of the museum. Easy as that. He claimed he had taken the painting as a patriotic act: he finally returned the Mona Lisa to her Italian home, after being taken by Napoleon.
Art dealers often received obscure letters from people trying to sell their art. And most of the time they would throw it away. But this time Geri wasn’t sure if ‘Leonardo’ was a fraud. He trust his gut – after all, at that point, the painting was still missing – and wrote back that he would come to check the painting out.
He brought the renowned Uffizi art gallery director – Giovanni Poggi – who would check the painting’s authenticity. On Wednesday November 17th, they went to “Leonardo’s” hotel room to meet the Italian. Once inside, Peruggia retrieved an old trunk from under his bed. Both men were waiting anxiously. Would it really be the lost Mona Lisa? Peruggia took out an object wrapped in red silk from the false bottom of the trunk. There it was, intact and well preserved: the divine Mona Lisa. There was no doubt about its authenticity. The painting still bore the identifying seal from the Louvre. It was apparent: they found the Mona Lisa.
Upon this realisation, they told Peruggia to leave the artwork with them. They would smuggle it back to Italy and make sure that he’d receive his money in a timely fashion. Peruggia returned home, awaiting his reward. Yet instead of cash, the police stood on his doorstep a few hours later. Poggi and Geri informed Paris police as soon as Peruggia left the building.
A hero was born
Caught red-handed, there was no denying Peruggia was the culprit. Yet even at the trial that followed, he continued claiming his innocence. He reasoned he simply attempted to return the Mona Lisa home. He acted on altruistic and patriotic motives. Nothing more, nothing less.
The 100.000 francs were only to cover his expensive, according to himself. Obviously the judge disagreed with his reasoning. He was sentenced to seven months in jail. But perhaps those seven months were a reasonable price to pay for the Italian public’s reception. Their response to Peruggia’s motives was enthusiastic. He was truly seen as a hero!
He received so many gifts during his sentence, such as chocolates, cheques, flowers, food and coffee, that he had to be placed in a bigger jail.
Following the theft, the Mona Lisa became world-famous. Her face became the most recognizable face in the world. When she returned to the Louvre, people travelled from afar in the hopes of catching a glimpse of the lady herself.
According to the Uffizi Gallery director, the Mona Lisa had never been stolen, nor kidnapped. She had eloped, trying to come home. As she has always been a devious lady: surely that mysterious smile tells you that. In one of his many contradictory accounts Peruggia had claimed that he didn’t plan the heist. Instead, when he passed her he was seduced by her smile. As if she was asking him to take her. In any case: after this incident the smile of the Mona Lisa will never be forgotten.