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North Korea’s “Largest” Export Product

We are all too aware of the existence of North Korea, reigned by the infamous Kim dynasty. The communist dictatorship has been closed off from most of the world since the 1960s, leading to its nickname the “Hermit Kingdom.” After North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in October 2006, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1718. It imposed economic sanctions on the country, explicitly imposing a ban on “the exportation of large-scale arms-related goods, technology, services and luxury goods.” It also banned the export of North Korean heavy arms. 

Already before these sanctions, North Korea’s direct neighbours China and South Korea accounted for over half of the country’s trade. It is generally assumed that the UN’s sanctions impacted their specific area and increased the risk premium on all forms of economic engagement with the hermit kingdom. There already were many barriers in place regarding trade with the country and the sanctions probably prevented trade that would otherwise have developed. 

Even though the sanctions against the Hermit Kingdom continue and its two largest trade partners are its direct neighbours, there is one curious product that isn’t just exported worldwide but is its “largest” export product. Statues.

North Korean Statues

Exporting statues sculpted in the North Korean socialist-realism fashion is a surprising way the country has accumulated foreign currency. One of the most significant examples of this export is Le Monument de la Renaissance Africaine or the African Renaissance Monument in English. It is a colossal bronze sculpture completed in April 2010, reaching 52 meters in height, towering over the suburbs of Dakar, Senegal. The monument shows a family: a man carrying his child on his arm and holding his wife by the waist. All three are facing the sky, representing “an Africa emerging towards the light.”

The statue was constructed by Mansudae Overseas Projects, a North Korean company. It reportedly cost 27 million dollars. But Senegal didn’t pay in cash. Instead, it is said they gave the North Koreans land. They in turn immediately sold that land. 

In September 2016, North Korea conducted another illegal nuclear test, the second one that year. As a result, in December, statues unexpectedly popped up on the tightened list of trade sanctions. Banning the export of statues was a symbolic measure because in total it earned North Korea around 15 million dollars annually. On that same list were significant cutbacks in coal and minerals. North Korea’s coal exports earned the country several billion dollars annually, so a considerably more significant portion than statues. 

But still, symbolic politics or not, it was a significant blow to North Korea’s pride and visibility around the world. Mansudae Art Studio has been operating since 1959 and with its size of 22 football fields is one of the largest centres of art production around the entire globe. As of today, the studio built over 38.000 statues to be placed all around the country. Not too surprising, considering there’s quite a strong domestic cult of personality. 

The studio sculpted and built the enormous bronze statues of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. You know, those famous giant statues greeting tourists that are allowed into the country on rare occasions.

Many of the studio’s artists are talents recruited from the prestigious Pyongyang University. In total, they employ approximately 4000 artists. Their Overseas Projects branch has constructed statues (and a few museums) in 18 African and Asian countries, netting them a total revenue of around 160 million USD. 

Depending on which sources you read, the firm has been exporting art since the 1970s or 1980s. Initially, it wasn’t necessarily a solid business model to the North Koreans though. It began as a way to offer diplomatic gifts to socialist or non-aligned countries. Until 2000, the Kim-regime generally gifted the statues for free, but slowly, a market began developing around them. Countries mainly made use of the services because of the incredibly low prices.

The North Korean socialist-realism style appeared to be rather fitting to the symbols of progress and advancement most African nations had been looking for. For example, in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo, a giant statue of its first president, Samora Machel, watches over the cities ‘Independence Square.’ 

For his 90th birthday, Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe ordered two massive bronze sculptures which cost approximately 5 million USD. After the 2017 coup ousting him from power, I highly doubt those statues will ever see the light of day. They are probably locked away somewhere in storage. 

Another example is Heroes’ Acre. It is a war memorial located in the uninhabited Namibian hills. Besides the symmetric polygon, there is also an 11-meter tall bronze statue of the Unknown Soldier, built by the North Korean studio. The soldier overlooks the hills and vast lands and is only bested in size by the giant obelisk towering over him. The memorial commemorates the country’s fight for independence. 

Heroes’ Acre

UN observers criticised the Overseas Projects branch. They claimed that the studio used the guise of an art factory but instead aided military projects within the country. In July Namibia officially terminated all contracts and cooperation with the studio. Other issues arose as well. The Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade commissioned the African Rennaisance Monument, but during its construction, he complained the statues appeared to be too Asian. He ordered them to be remodelled. Machel’s statue in Maputo too isn’t considered a realistic portrait by some, and Laurent Kabila’s statue in Kinshasha, Congo, is often critiqued because it appears the statue wears a traditionally North Korean outfit often worn by the Kim dynasty. 

Mansudae Art Studio

Even though there is an official export ban on statues, that doesn’t mean North Korea necessarily doesn’t export art anymore. On Mansudae’s website, hosted by an Italian firm, it was still possible to order oil paintings, hand-painted propaganda posters and small sculptures when I created this video. According to its service policy, all works of art should be delivered to your home address within two weeks. The official Mansudae website has been taken offline but it has relocated under a different address. The website states art is shipped within 7 days of payment, from Italy. 

After a bit of digging, it appears Pier Luigi Cecioni runs the website. The Italian is the sole representative of Mansudae to the outside world. Cecioni quite literally is North Korea’s art dealer, which he became by chance due to travelling through the country with his classical music orchestra and simply asking to look at some art. Nobody in the west had heard of Mansudae Art Studio, but as we’ve seen, it’s a top contender for the largest art studio in the world. Besides selling art from the studio, he also organises exhibitions in art gallery’s and even has North Korean artists visiting him in Italy. 

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The Largest Self-Built Castles in the World

The Bory Castle

In August 2019, so before the entire Covid-pandemic kind of ruined any plans for travel throughout Europe, I visited the Hungarian city of Székesfehérvár. This city, beautiful as it was, really sprung out to me because of a castle that was hidden quite a bit outside the city centre. Anyway, that castle was built by a man and his wife over the course of decades which got me thinking: what are some of the most incredible self-built castles in the world, and how did they come to be?

The castle I visited is the Bory Castle. It was built by Jenö Bory, a Hungarian architect and sculptor. Together with his wife, over the course of 41 years, he built the castle up from the ground. And that isn’t a figure of speech: he literally built it up from more or less nothing. Back in 1912 Bory bought about 2.5 acres of land in Máriavölgy, Székesfehérvár. At the time there was just a small holiday-home with wine cellar between rows of grapes growing there. During the initial years, Bory expanded the initial modest house with a studio on the second floor. The Bory’s visited it during their summer holidays, living elsewhere. 

Jenő Bory and his family

The castle I visited is the Bory Castle. It was built by Jenö Bory, a Hungarian architect and sculptor. Together with his wife, over the course of 41 years, he built the castle up from the ground. And that isn’t a figure of speech: he literally built it up from more or less nothing. Back in 1912 Bory bought about 2.5 acres of land in Máriavölgy, Székesfehérvár. At the time there was just a small holiday-home with wine cellar between rows of grapes growing there. During the initial years, Bory expanded the initial modest house with a studio on the second floor. The Bory’s visited it during their summer holidays, living elsewhere. 

Now, in 1914 the First World War broke out. Bory served in the Austro-Hungarian army, and he was involved in planning and constructing the memorial of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and Archduchess Sophia. They were shot in Sarajevo, marking the beginning of the war. Although the memorial was finished, authorities removed it in 1919 due to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the war. Bory required a new challenge, and amidst the remnants of the old empire and the chaos and turmoil within Hungary, he managed to land a job at the Technical University. With this new job he was finally earning enough to realise the dreams properly, he had for his summer house building, albeit incrementally. Around 1922 Bory slowly began dedicating more time to the plot of land and its constructions. 

Yet Bory never wrote down a fully structured plan to build the castle. He simply went along as he saw fit, incrementally expanding his house with small buildings, gardens, rosebeds, a tower and shed here and there. It’s amusing that when I went there, I realised it was in the middle of a residential neighbourhood. Honestly, the entire building seemed very out of place. Over the years it became an oversized mansion and eventually a castle, with multiple towers, a courtyard and with lots of special attention to Hungarian symbolical architecture. 

Within the castle are lots of statues of prominent Hungarian figures. The walls are decorated with paintings by his wife. There is mosaic art both in- and outside and the garden is filled with fountains, flowers and steps leading to different parts of the castle. In total, the castle has seven towers and thirty rooms. There are many round anticlockwise stairs and little hidden tower rooms. On top of the castle, you have a view that spans over the entire residential neighbourhood. The castle shows a mix of architectural styles, from Scottish to Gothic to Roman. 

During the Second World War, Bory lived in the castle and near the end of the war, the front came to his doorstep, more or less. The castle was bombed multiple times and the entire structure was badly damaged. The next fourteen years Bory spent rebuilding the castle, until he passed away in December 1959 at the age of 80. His wife continued living there for another 15 years. 

And, well, the Bory Castle has earned its place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest building someone constructed on his own. It truly is a magnificent piece of architecture, and all the more imposing once you realise a man spent decades building it with his own hands. Yet Bory’s castle isn’t the only castle that started as a project and was built from the ground up. There are surprisingly many, located all over the world.

Bishop Castle, Colorado

By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Over in the United States, there’s another fascinating ‘one-man project’. It’s the Bishop Castle, named after Jim Bishop who built it. The castle is far from finished, but it’s a massive structure already. Its main tower is over 49 metres tall, it has three large cathedral windows and on top of the front building, there’s even an iron fire-breathing dragon. The castle accepts visitors that can climb its ladders and staircases to get around and look at the mountainside from the arched windows. The castle has a rather fairytale-like atmosphere around it, with the stones it is built out of adding to that. 

By Hustvedt – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Bishop bought a plot of land for 450 dollars in 1959, near San Isabel National Forest in southern Colorado. He initially wanted to hunt and live on the land. He married his wife, Phoebe, in 1967 and two years later he started the construction of what was meant to become a family cottage on the property. However, he kept expanding the building and incrementally the cottage grew into what it is now, nearly 50 years later. Together with his family, the house was developed into a manor, until it eventually could be described as a mini-castle. 

The story isn’t entirely over roses though. Bishop has had a lot of trouble with the local government. Among issues was the way he gathered the rocks he used to build his castle. He gathered them from the nearby National Forest, which caused anger among bureaucrats that considered him to be stealing from state property. He caused another dispute when he put up his own makeshift roadsigns to guide visitors to his property, something the local government eventually solved by putting up officially issued roadsigns. All in all several reviews and articles describe Bishop as having a bit of an aversion against the government, something that is hardly a surprise if you imagine he’s the type of person that decides to build a castle on a whim. 

Guédelon Castle, France

Back in Europe, in the middle of France near the small commune of Treigny, the Guédelon castle stands. Now, construction of this castle began most recently from the other castles discussed. As a matter of fact, where the Bishop castle still required a bit of construction, the Guédelon castle is a real work-in-progress. And technically the castle isn’t built by one man, but by a team of 70 enthusiastic members, both full-time employees, interns and volunteers. I still think the story behind the castle is so fascinating and inspiring that I chose to include it in the list.

By Stéphane D – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0,

Back in 1997, the building of Guédelon Castle started as a project by Michel Guyot. Guyot wasn’t a stranger to reconstructing and revitalising old castles. Twenty years earlier he bought the ruins of the Chateau de Saint Fargeau. Originally a hunting residence, it was destroyed and rebuilt in the 15th century and improved over the next couple of centuries. When in 1996 Guyot received the results of an archaeological study of his Chateau, it became clear the 900-year-old remains of another castle lay beneath the surface and within the red-brick walls. This study gave Guyot the idea to replicate a castle such as that one using the original, medieval methods. That means no bulldozers, electricity-powered tools or any other type of modern techniques. In addition, Guyot decided to use materials, primarily stone and wood, from the local area. 

Yet the idea to replicate Saint Fargeau was quickly abandoned, as Guyot and his enthusiastic team decided it would be much more adventurous to build a new castle, inspired by the architecture of fortresses and castles in the region. They decided to build their castle in the style of the first half of the 13th-century. Initially, the team raised funds from the European Union and French government and commercial entities.

Nearby the forest of Guédelon, to which the castle thanks its name, this massive construction project started in June 1997. The location was ideal with timber, sandstone, clay and water closeby. The next year the construction site was opened to the public. According to its website, they have over 300.000 visitors each season, which in turn, combined with gifts and sales, finances the entire construction of the castle. 

Guédelon is valuable and fascinating because it shows exactly how those giant medieval castles were erected using technologies from that time, where resources and materials were gathered, how they were transported and what tools and lifting gears were used. Art historians, archaeologists and castellologists support the team that’s building the castle. 

As for the castle itself, there’s a chapel tower which once finished will be 23 metres in height. On the ground floor, there’s a cistern with a 6-metre depth. It took two stonemasons several months to mine the rim of the cistern out of a 1.6-tonne brick. The ground floor is decorated with pointed arches made of limestone. There’s a so-called Tour Maîtresse, a tower that once finished should be the tallest, standing at 28.5 metres in height. Inside is a spiral staircase, and to adhere to realism there’s even an opening in the ceiling that allows for the dropping of projectiles on potential intruders. On the first floor are the living chambers of the feudal lord. The living space is 18 by 6.8 metres. It’s built on the inner side of the northern wall, with a kitchen, fireplace and oven on the ground floor. 

By Benoît Prieur / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

I’ve already touched upon the fact all materials are gathered from the nearby area. Closeby is a quarry where masons gather their sandstone from, which once transported to the construction site are bonded together with a mixture of limestone, sand and water. Oak logs are cut from the nearby forest for crucial beams, but they create their own hoisting equipment and work floors from pine trees. The primary hoisting tool used is a so-called Tredmill, a medieval tool. Some centuries-old etchings survive of this instrument, forming the basis. Even the roof tiles are made in true 13th-century fashion. Roof-tilers craft both roof tiles and floor tiles. They use clay from nearby the site, press it into wooden moulds, dry it for several weeks and then bake it in an oven on-site. The fact Guyon and his team literally revive 13th-century castle-building methods is incredibly fascinating and makes the story worth telling all the more. 

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The Swingjugend: Pacifistic Youth Resistance in Nazi Germany

There were several youth movements that resisted the ever-increasing totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. One of the most significant groups were the so-called Edelweiss Pirates. These working-class youths had no distinctive political ideology. Still, they simply opposed the dogmas and lack of freedom in Nazi Germany and especially the Hitlerjugend, the official youth organisation of the Nazi Party. They dabbled in crime and as the Second World War progressed, individual branches of the gangs began showing more dangerous subversive behaviour. Some began sabotaging railway lines and weapon depots, hiding crashed Allied pilots and occasionally even killing Nazis. 

Another nonconformist youth group didn’t engage in sabotage or subversive activities. These teenagers banded together over their mutual love for banned music, British and American culture and in protest against the totalitarian nature of Nazi Germany. Yet these teenagers certainly suffered the brunt of the iron fist of the Nazi regime. 

Swingjugend, as they were called, were groups of young jazz- and swing lovers during the 1930s in Germany. They mainly existed in large cities such as Hamburg, Stuttgart, Kiel, Dresden and Berlin and consisted of teenagers and people in their early 20s. In contrast to the Edelweiss pirates, members of the Swingjugend came from affluent upper-middle-class families.

Their name refers to their longing to a British or American lifestyle, listening to banned jazz- and swing music. Illegal dance parties were organised where they played music from big bands such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra and American jazz by Louis Armstrong. These parties attracted large crowds. One group referred to as the Flottbeck Group, mentioned in a 1944 report by the Reich Ministry of Justice, organised an illegal party attended by 6000 teenagers. Gestapo reports described the dancing of the teenagers attending as ‘an uninhibited indulgence in swing.’

As benign as it sounds, organising and attending these parties was incredibly dangerous. In the words of Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, anyone that listened to banned jazz music should “be beaten, given the severest exercise, and then put to hard labour.”

Besides their love for American and British music, Swingjugend distinguished themselves by way of clothing as well. They often grew long hair, in contrast to the neatly cut hair that was customary. They wore hats and carried umbrellas with them. They used slang, using many anglicisms as an addition to their German. A Gestapo officer describes them as ‘having long hair, down to the collar, engaging in an energetic dance known as the jitterbug.’ Thanks to their middle-class families Swingjugend generally were able to buy fancy clothing, gramophones to play their music, and actually afford the illegal jazz music smuggled into Germany. 

Although the Swingjugend was considered to be apolitical, a stern opposition against the Nazi party and its customs and organisations were prevalent. The Nazi party, Hitlerjugend and their cultures were mocked and ridiculed. For example, Swing youths greeted each other with “Swing Heil!” instead of “Sieg Heil”. In another instance, sources mention that the entrance of an illegal swing clubs used an official Nazi sign that said: “Swing Verboten”, meaning Swing is prohibited, but they changed the wording to “Swing Erbitten” meaning as much as Swing requested. 

Just like the Edelweiss Pirates, Swingjugend opposed the ever-increasing militarism of Nazi Germany and the Hitlerjugend. Once Hitler came into power, German teenagers were encouraged to join the Hitlerjugend, where a strict separation between boys and girls (the girls had their own youth wing, the Bund Deutscher Mädel) and German folk music, dancing and culture was promoted. There was no place for, in the words of Himmler, “degenerate” music from America. 

Membership of the Hitlerjugend became compulsory by December 1936. When the Jugenddienstpflicht or Youth Service Duty was issued in March 1939, all German youths were conscripted in the Hitlerjugend. Yet illegal swing parties continued to be promoted. Swingjugend opened illegal jazz clubs and formed their own jazz bands. One Gestapo report mentions the closing down of the so-called Harlem Club in Frankfurt, where illegal parties were hosted attended by hundreds of teenagers. There’s near astonishment in descriptions about the hedonistic pleasure of the Swingjugend, who drank heavily, danced energetically and didn’t adhere to the strict expectations of contact between boys and girls. 

From 1939 onwards, after the start of the Second World War, the suppression of the Swingjugend increased dramatically. In response, the organisers moved meetings and festivals to secret locations such as basements and living rooms away from the street. There’s a grim twist to the story as well. On August 18 1941, 300 Swingjugend were arrested. Most were released and put under strict observation by the Gestapo, Germany’s secret police. But its leaders were sent off to various concentration camps, where several met their end.

Yet the Swingjugend never had any coherent political ideology. Not even after the Gestapo started actively hunting them. After the war, one of the Swingjugend’s members gave an interview in which he mentioned: “We were not against the Nazis, they were against us.” And that sums up their struggle quite nicely. They simply wanted to have a good time and explore boundaries, as we all wanted when we were teenagers. Yet when you put teenage curiosity and wantonness into a totalitarian regime such as Nazi Germany, well, only bad things can come from that really. As historian McDonough mentions, the Nazis interpreted the Swingjugend’s love for British and American culture as subversive, dangerous for the morale and as indicating a lack of love for the nation. But instead, the Swingjugend simply appreciated a certain degree of cultural freedom, which was completely absent in Nazi Germany. 

Even in popular culture, the Swingjugend makes an occasional appearance. In 1993 a film by Thomas Carter was released: Swing Kids. The story, set in pre-war Germany, is about two teenage boys that participate in the Hitlerjugend during the day but visit Swingjugend parties at night. Although it is a work of fiction, it indeed represents a moral dilemma’s many people faced under the iron fist of the totalitarian Nazi rule.

McDonough, F. (2001). Opposition and resistance in Nazi Germany (p. 5). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
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Has anyone seen the Mona Lisa?

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. 

Mona Lisa

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.

The thief  

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. 

The empty wall

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. 

The clues

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

Vincenzo Peruggia (1881-1925)

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.

Mona Lisa is returned to the Louvre

 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. 

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The Origins of Santa Claus: A Christmas Special

When you think of Christmas, most think of Santa Claus. Although the legendary character Santa is part of Christmas, it hasn’t always been like that. In fact, Santa Claus is the product of the merging of European folklore, Christian, and pagan traditions. And even nowadays there is discussion whether he lives in Finland, Greenland, or somewhere on the Northpole. Yet to find out about the origins of Santa Claus, we must go much farther south, and much further back in time. 

So when, and how, did Santa become integral to the Christmas celebrations? And how is he portrayed in different cultures?

History of Santa Claus

Although Santa Claus originated in the United States during the late 18th century, he didn’t suddenly appear. In fact, the jolly white-bearded old man that we have come to know Santa as was inspired by several European folklore characters that were sometimes centuries older. 

One of these legendary characters is Sinterklaas and the eponymous celebration that is still ingrained in Dutch culture to this day. With the colonisation of the American continent, many Dutchmen reached the New World to build up a new life. These Dutchmen took with them their traditions, and one of the most iconic traditions in the Netherlands is Sinterklaas. That doesn’t mean Dutch people don’t celebrate Christmas, in fact, they celebrate both during December. It makes for a quite cosy, but expensive month. 


So what are the origin stories of Sinterklaas, and how did he become the inspiration for Santa Claus? Well, Sinterklaas originated in Medieval Northern Europe. The celebrations were based on Saint Nicholas, a Greek Bishop of Myra, present-day Turkey, that mainly lived during the 4th century. The name day of Saint Nicholas was on December 6, with annual celebrations occurring on the evening of December 5, with family get-togethers and exchanges of gifts. Saint Nicholas was known for his, often anonymous, charity, such as giving money to the poor. Over time this changed to parents giving gifts to children that “had behaved well” throughout the year. After centuries of celebrating this tradition, many things changed and were added. Saint Nicholas now owns a horse, Amerigo, with whom he walks over roofs. Another is his arrival from Spain, instead of the actual place Saint Nicholas lived, namely Turkey. Yet the way he dressed and appeared remained mostly the same: to this day he still wears a red mitre, bishops robes and sports a long, white beard. So we can already distil some aspects which inspired modern-day Santa Claus.

Saint Nicholas of Myra (270-343)

Yet there was one problem with Saint Nicholas if you look at the trajectory of European history: he was a Catholic saint. During the reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, Catholic celebrations were banned from large parts of northern Europe that embraced the reformation, including the Dutch Republic. Although Sinterklaas was, in theory, prohibited, private celebrations continued. A perfect example is Jan Steen’s late 17th-century painting ‘The Feast of Saint Nicholas’, clearly indicating at that time it was still celebrated in household circles. Yet sources also suggest that in Calvinist territories of the Holy Roman Empire, the celebrations were simply moved to Christmas Eve instead of December 5. As such, these celebrations slowly started to merge with Christmas celebrations already.

Jan Steen’s ‘the Feast of Saint Nicholas’

Subsequently, during the 17th century in England, the mythical figure of Father Christmas came to be. Just like Sinterklaas, Father Christmas was an old man with a long white beard, handing out presents to children that had behaved well. Yet in contrast to Sinterklaas, he resided on the North Pole, and wasn’t a stern old man but a jolly one. The next couple of decades this character spread to France as Père Noël and Spain as Papá Noel. 

Having looked at the traditions of Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, it is relatively easy to see how Santa Claus came to be in the United States. When the migration of British and Dutch colonists gained traction to the New World, both traditions started to mix over centuries. The first official record of Santa Claus, which is the Americanization of Sinterklaas, was in December 1773 in the Rivington’s Gazette. This Santa Claus too delivered presents via chimneys, yet his outward appearance, a jolly old man in a red snowsuit, was based on Father Christmas. 

And as time progressed, Santa Claus developed his own traditions. 1821 was the first time Santa Claus was described as having reindeer, in the anonymous poem “Old Santeclaus with Much Delight”. The anonymous publication of “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, better known as “The Night Before Christmas” two years later did not just reiterate Santa having reindeer, but became the primary source of how Santa has been portrayed from then on up until today. Yet Rudolph, the most famous reindeer of Santa Claus, has only existed since 1939. Robert L. May wrote the story featuring Rudolph and his bright red nose. The 1949 song Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer hit number 1 on the Billboard pop singles chart that same year. Until the 1980s it remained the best-selling record of all time. 

Thomas Nast’s 1881 illustration

It is theorised Santa’s eight flying reindeer were inspired by Norse mythology. Specifically, by Odin’s eight-legged horse, Sleipnir. This too is a similarity with Sinterklaas and his horse, travelling over roofs from chimney to chimney. As for Odin himself, he is often portrayed with a long white beard, broad hat and red cloak. 

Funnily enough it was the 1930s Coca Cola campaign that popularised Santa Claus even more. Up until then, Santa was still occasionally depicted as a normal-built man like Saint Nicholas. In 1863 the cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed him as a heavier man for the first time, in his drawing “A Christmas Furlough”. It resembled the English Father Christmas’s usual depiction, and it became rather popular. Yet Nast’s most famous drawing was his ‘Merry Old Santa Claus’ from Harper Weekly’s January 1881 edition. To this day this drawing resembles Santa Claus as we know him.

So, over time Santa was increasingly portrayed as a “chubby and plump” man, until the 1930s Coca Cola campaign cemented the image of a jolly, bearded, red-suit wearing older man. This drawing by Haddon Sundblom of 1931 was the first of many, and ever since Coca Cola and Santa Claus have been inextricably connected. Then again, Santa Claus is a very welcome icon for advertising. I honestly was very surprised to find out that Santa is a chain-smoker and there are more vintage advertising posters of Santa smoking a cigarette than I can even sum up. And I have to emphasise, just in case, these vintage posters are shown in a historical context and not as an advertisement. 

Ded Moroz

Now, although I’ve mainly focused on Sinterklaas and Father Christmas, Santa Claus is similar to its Russian counterpart as well. Ded Moroz, as he’s called, is the Slavic Pagan version of Santa Claus and Father Christmas. His name translates to as much as Grandfather Frost. Instead of Christmas Eve of December 5, Ded Moroz brings presents to children on New Year’s Eve. Instead of a carriage with flying reindeer, Ded Moroz rides a troika, a traditional Russian sleigh with three horses. When he’s out delivering presents he’s accompanied by his granddaughter, Snegurochka, or The Snow Maiden. In Denmark, Santa’s equivalent is the Julemand or Yule-man. He too has a large sack of presents and travels in a sleigh pulled by reindeer. His little helpers, Julenisser, are akin to elves that work in a workshop, crafting and packaging presents for children.

Finland has the claim that Santa lives in Finnish Lapland. According to newspaper articles from 1925, Santa’s reindeer couldn’t graze on the Northpole, so he moved to Lapland. Yet his name isn’t Santa Claus but Joulupukki. This name, just like his Danish equivalent, refers to the old Germanic Yulefest, a tradition that has slowly been overtaken by Christmas. 

Italy must have one of the more curious traditions. Over there La Befana hands out presents to children on January 5. And, well, La Befana isn’t a jolly old man but a kind of benign witch. According to legend, she didn’t want to accompany the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus, as she was cleaning her house. She changed her mind too late, and to this day she hands out candy to children in an attempt to find the baby.