The day “Mona” went missing – 100 years after La Gioconda was stolen from the Musée du Louvre
An icon is created
"Mona Lisa left the Louvre a work of art. She returned an icon." - R.A. Scotti in Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa (Knopf, 2009)
When Parisian artist Louis Béroud went into the famous Musée du Louvre in Paris to work on his painting “Mona Lisa at the Louvre” all he found in the Salon Carré where the famous painting used to hang were the empty pegs which had held it in position. Mona Lisa had taken a walk!
Béroud, an artist who made his living by painting copies of famous works for tourists, reported the absence of the masterpiece to museum authorities who at first thought the painting might have been taken to the museum's new photography studio to be photographed, but when after some hours it was found that it was not there or anywhere in the museum, the alarm was raised.
By lunchtime that day, 22 August 1911, around 60 investigators from the Paris police had closed the Louvre and were letting the visitors out slowly. No trace of the missing art treasure was found.
The Louvre was closed for a full week to assist the investigators, and poet Guillaume Apollinaire and artist Pablo Picasso were both brought in for questioning. Picasso was released quickly, but Apollinaire stayed in gaol for a full week before he too was released. The identity of the thief remained a mystery.
When the Musée du Louvre was reopened people, including writer Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod who were in Paris at the time, queued for hours to see the vacant place on the wall where the now very famous painting had hung. And still there were no firm ideas as to the identity of the thief, though an inside job was becoming the more favoured theory as the theft had occurred the day before it was discovered, a Monday, and the Louvre was always closed on Mondays for cleaning.
The theft was a mystery which only added to the allure of the painting. Various theories circulated about the theft and the identity of the thief, but none made real sense. Only the Paris Prefect of Police came close to the thief's identity, though not his motive, when he stated: “I am certain that the motive was not a political one, but maybe it is a case of 'sabotage,' brought about by discontent among the Louvre employees.”
The case became an international sensation and police received advice from all sorts of people – cranks and well-meaning people alike.
The first breakthrough in the case came two years later when Florentine art and antique dealer Alfredo Geri placed an advertisement in Italian newspapers offering to buy paintings and other artefacts. Geri received a letter from Paris dated 29 November 1913 from a person who signed himself “Leonardo” stating that he, Leonardo, had the Mona Lisa in his possession and offering to sell it: “The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian.”
Geri immediately contacted the Commendatore Giovanni Poggi, museum director of the Uffizi Museum in Florence. They decided to play along and to ask Leonardo to meet them in Milan on 22 December. A letter to that effect was sent to the return address in Paris.
The man with the moustache
On 10 December a moustachioed man calling himself Leonardo Vincenzo walked into Geri's office in Florence saying he had the Mona Lisa and wanted to sell it for 500000 lire. Geri, being somewhat skeptical of the claim, demanded to see the painting. An appointment was made for Geri to go to Vincenzo's hotel the following day to view the painting.
Geri and Poggi went to Vincenzo's room in the Tripoli-Italia Hotel where Vincenzo pulled the precious painting out of a battered suitcase. The three then went to the Uffizi where Poggi said the painting would be authenticated. When Vincenzo returned to his hotel room he found the Florentine police waiting for him and he was arrested.
It turned out that “Vincenzo's” real name was Vincenzo Peruggia, a house painter-cum-glazier who had briefly worked in the Musée du Louvre. In fact it was he who had put the glass shield in front of the Mona Lisa when the museum authorities had decided to enclose their precious painting in glass for protection.
Perrugia, who was known to some of the museum staff, apparently had hidden away in a storage closet in the museum on Sunday evening, knowing that the museum would be very quiet the following day. He had waited until the guard in the Salon Carré went out for a moment, and he then simply lifted the painting off the hooks in the wall, hid it under the painter's smock that all museum staff wore, and carried it out, having dumped the frame and the glass shield in a stairwell.
The painting lay on a table in Perrugia's one-room apartment in the rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis for two years until he made contact with Geri. A detective had in fact visited Perrugia in that time and had not noticed the painting.
Perrugia had no plan of what to do with the painting, though he seems to have had some idea that the painting belonged in Italy. That had not stopped him trying to sell it to a dealer in London. The dealer had merely laughed at Perrugia's claim to have the Mona Lisa.
Perrugia was kept in prison until his trial started on 14 June 1914. Meanwhile the painting had been making a triumphant tour of Italy, with the permission of the Musée du Louvre. It finally returned to its rightful place in the Salon Carré in January 1914.
Perrugia was sentenced to one year and 15 days, reduced a little later to seven months and nine days. Because he had already spent more than that time in gaol he was released immediately. When he went back to his hotel in Florence he found that it had been renamed, inevitably, “La Gioconda”.
Meanwhile the excitement over the theft of the Mona Lisa had been overshadowed by the fact that on 28 July 1914 Gavrillo Princip fired the shots that precipitated the conflagration now known as the “First World War” and the public had much more to concern themselves with than a painting showing what Somerset Maugham called “the insipid smile of that prim and sex-starved young woman”.
Perrugia died at age 44 in October 1925 in France, not in 1947 as is often claimed. There was a Vincenzo Perrugia who died in 1947, but this was a mere coincidence of names.
Leonardo da Vinci began painting a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo around 1503. It is thought that the portrait was commissioned by Giocondo to celebrate the safe delivery of the couple's second son.
In 1516 King François I of France invited Leonardo to work on his mansion Clos Lucé and the artist took the still unfinished portrait with him to France. Leonardo died at Clos Lucé in 1519 and the King bought the portrait from the artist's heirs for 4,000 écus.
Of course “Mona” is not the name of the person in the protrait but is a contraction of the Italian ma donna or “my lady” which as contracted to “monna” and thence “mona” in English.
The other title by which the painting is commonly known, “La Gioconda” is a pun – Gioconda was the feminine form of the subject's married name and also means “happy” or “jovial” and was the lady's nickname because of her disposition.
La Gioconda or the Mona Lisa is perhaps the single best-known work of art in the world.
The “lady with the mystic smile” has been written about, sung about and theorised about for a long time, but she really became a celebrity that day, 100 years ago, when Vincenzo Perrugia, for his own reasons, decided to take her home.