As I read French news this morning, a note popped up at the bottom of the page,
1911 – The Mona Lisa stolen by a Louvre employee
If you’ve been to visit the lady with the most famous smile, you probably have formed your own opinion about this quintessential artwork. Surprisingly small, from behind the bullet-proof glass she quietly smiles on the swamps of visitors dying to get closer to her. That allusive smile still follows you as the guard waves you along, should you linger for more than a minute or two.
The cult of Mona Lisa is definitely a twentieth century concept. This instantly recognisable work, known to every person on the planet is associated with conspiracy theories, and known just about to every person on the planet. From postcards and handbags to documentaries about the mystery smile of Mona Lisa, this lady has featured in books, films and fashion.
So why the Mona Lisa? Museum visitors often refer to her as a bit of a disappointment. She is not particularly beautiful, her modest size is usually surprising to her visitors, and the short minute in front of her always seems too quick after waiting in line to approach the mysterious lady. Well, the Mona Lisa was not that special until August 21st, in 1911, when a Louvre employee literally made her a sensation overnight.
Leonardo Da Vinci took Mona Lisa, known as La Gioconda, with him to Paris when he left Italy in 1516. Having been invited to join the court of François I, and the King bought Mona Lisa in 1518. When the Revolution happened, the painting was placed in the Louvre, although Napoleon borrowed it to hang it in his bedroom for a while. (He obviously thought it was worth looking at every morning and evening!) But in 1911, the painting disappeared from the museum, creating an instant sensation, with people lining up to see the empty spot where Mona Lisa used to hang! (You can see the photo of the empty spot, once occupied by Mona Lisa in Vanity Fair magazine HERE.)
Suspects included Guillaume Apollinaire and even Pablo Picasso, as it was first thought that the painting was taken by someone in the avant-garde movement as a mark of rebellion against the classical style. With no evidence against the suspects the matter was let go, and it took 2 years before the thief was discovered. Vincenzo Perugia, who arrived in Paris in 1908 and was working in the Louvre, stayed in the museum after it closed and hid himself in the cupboard on Sunday, the museum’s busiest day. Next morning, the museum was closed to visitors but full of maintenance workers, cleaning staff and curators. When Perugia stepped out of the cupboard where he had spent the night, it was only minutes after the museum’s director pointed Mona Lisa out to his companion, stating that it is the most valuable painting in the museum. As the workers were beginning their day, no-one paid attention to someone dressed in the robe commonly worn by the staff. Perugia walked out with Mona Lisa under his arm without attracting any attention onto himself. In fact, he had a couple of lucky breaks (such as a plumber that opened a locked door for him, or a missing guard at the front entrance) enabling Perugia to simple walk out the front door with the Louvre’s most valuable painting under his arm!
The hassle with stealing something very famous is the amount of publicity it generates. Perugia kept Mona Lisa in his Paris apartment for two years before trying his luck on the market. In 1913 he travelled to Italy and offered it to an art dealer in Florence, Alfredo Geri. Geri persuaded Perugia (who was acting under the name Leonardo Vincenzo) to leave the painting with him for expert examination, and Perugia was arrested shortly afterwards. Believing that he is returning the masterpiece to its rightful home (he was hailed as a hero among some Italians), Perugia served a short prison sentence, and Mona Lisa was briefly displayed at the Uffizi Gallery before its safe return to the Louvre. Since then the painting has been the jewel of the collection, with crowds of visitors patiently waiting for a brief encounter with the world’s most enigmatic smile.
I love this story because it shows us the power of art persisting over centuries, and the perseverance of the cultural institution to mutually maintain their often overlapping heritage. Mona Lisa may have been a famous painting already, but its heist only heightened its allure. I mean, who lines up to see an empty space once occupied by a painting? By some accounts, Perugia chose Mona Lisa for its size, as the other works by Italian masters were much more difficult to remove from the museum. In any case, his actions ensured not only a glorified spot for the Da Vinci masterpiece, but global obsession with the work and the infiltration of the mysterious smile into western popular culture over the past 100 years.