Without a brazen theft, or if perhaps the thief had chosen a different Leonardo da Vinci painting, the world might have a different image in mind when it comes to the "most famous painting in existence." In our latest #HSTBT, we explore the events and the two year period where the world was enamored with one question: who stole the 'Mona Lisa'?
It's said that the eyes on the Mona Lisa follow a person no matter where they stand while inside the Louvre - tracking, tracing and perhaps judging one if not all of the six-million yearly visitors that she attracts who gawk at her radiance through bulletproof glass. No one would attempt to quantify it as the prettiest, nor as the definitive example of technique, but it's hard to argue that it's not the most famous piece of art in the world. While it would be easy to say that the passage of time helps with the historical appreciation of "masterpieces," perhaps it's what occurred during the two years while the Mona Lisa was stolen that led to its artistic distinction.
To think about stealing the Mona Lisa, first a person needs to understand the mystery surrounding the painting itself. The exact identity of the "sitter" is still shrouded in doubt. Normally, a portrait like the Mona Lisa was commissioned by someone - usually a husband, father, etc. - in order to capture the likeness of someone he/they held near. As the Louvre notes, "Among the aspects which remain unclear are the exact identity of the sitter, who commissioned the portrait, how long Leonardo (da Vinci) worked on the painting, how long he kept it, and how it came to be in the French royal collection." The Louvre continues, "The portrait may have been painted to mark one of two events - either when Francesco del Giocondo and his wife (Lisa Gherardini) bought their own house in 1503, or when their second son, Andrea, was born in December 1502 after the death of a daughter in 1499."
For some unknown reason, da Vinci never gave the painting to del Giocondo. Instead, the painting was purchased by Francis I in 1504 or 1506 - making it property of the French Royal Art Collection. While it may have once hung in Napoleon Bonaparte's bedroom in the Tuileries, the painting eventually found a permanent home on display in the Grand Gallery at the Louvre in 1804.
When many French citizens awoke on the morning August 21, 1911, they were impacted by the effects of booze. This is of course not a generalization or stereotype, but merely a footnote in the theft of the masterpiece by historian James Zug. In speaking with NPR he stated, "Sunday night was a big social night in Paris, so a lot of people were hung over on Monday morning." Whether it was the fatigue associated with alcohol, or the fact that the Mona Lisa was not yet the MONA LISA at this time, it took 28 hours for anyone to notice the empty hooks where da Vinci's painting had hung. If anyone had a clue where it had gone, it was surely the Italian handyman who had spent the night in the art supply closet waiting for his opportunity to strike in the Salon Carré wing - knowing that the museum was closed on Monday and that he could take his time.
Vincezo Peruggia didn't need any Hollywood-esque ploys or devices to get access to the painting. In fact, many believe that there wasn't even an intended target, and that Peruggia was willing to get away with whatever he could manage (the Mona Lisa is only 30 in. x 21 in.). "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," Noah Charney, professor of art history and author of The Thefts of the Mona Lisa told CNN. When the Washington Post ran a story chronicling the theft the morning after, the Mona Lisa was so unknown to the foreign press that they even managed to mistakenly run the wrong photograph.
According to TIME, "To leave (the Louvre), he (Peruggia) simply strolled past an unattended guard station and hid the painting in his apartment. Police questioned Peruggia and accepted his alibi that he was working elsewhere when the painting went missing." The New York Times ran a headline proclaiming, "60 Detectives Seek Stolen 'Mona Lisa' - signifying that a once unknown painting was now practically a countrywide manhunt.
While Peruggia was interviewed by police a second time, he was once again ruled out. Thus, the list of potential suspects grew larger and more grandiose.
As The Daily Beast noted, "At 7 o’clock, on the morning of September 8th, nineteen days after the Mona Lisa was stolen, the police ordered Pablo Picasso to appear before the magistrate as a lead suspect in the theft of highly valuable pieces of art from the Louvre. Trembling with fear, Picasso had trouble dressing himself. To be publicly seen a criminal in custody of the authorities was a moment the sensitive artist would never forget." Picasso was viewed as a chief suspect by police because he had ties to other pilfered items from the Louvre - most notably Iberian sculptures.
As the story goes in A Life of Picasso, the artist had dealings with a Belgian thief, Géry Pieret. When Pieret learned of Picasso's love of the Iberian sculptures which were recent additions to the Louvre, he stole two sculptures in March 1907 and sold them to Picasso for 50 franc a piece. The Daily Beast further asserted, "So inspired was Picasso, that he used the faces of the sculptures in the formation of the first of his many masterpieces, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), a painting many saw as the exact antithesis of the Mona Lisa." Ultimately, Picasso was released from police custody, but not after having his bravado crushed into pleas for forgiveness.
There's a reason why stolen items are referred to as "hot." For Peruggia, his brazen theft and the public's sudden interest in the case had made unloading the painting near impossible. When faced with his options, he opted for placing it in a trunk and forgetting it existed for two years. As time passed, eventually an art dealer in Florence received a letter from a man saying that he had the Mona Lisa. According to CNN, "After setting up a meeting with the dealer and the director of the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Peruggia turned up with the painting which had spent years hidden in a trunk in his apartment. Peruggia, then 32 years old, claimed to have stolen the artwork to return her to her native Italy. He was arrested and eventually sentenced to seven months jail." Following his incarceration, World War I broke out - where Peruggia fought for Italy. In an almost poetic twist of fate, he moved back to France after the war where he ran a paint store until his death.