Mona Lisa or La Gioconda, by far is “the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world”. Period.
The half-length portrait of Lisa Gherardini, done by the Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, also comes with a rich history of casualties. The most notorious one happened on 21 August 1911, when the painting was stolen.
It was the French painter, Louis Béroud who had come to The Louvre the following day and saw that the painting was strangely missing. As he needed to sketch his Mona Lisa au Louvre, he had asked the guards for the painting, but they supposed that it was being photographed for some advertising of the museum.
Louis returned to the Mona Lisa section a couple of hours later, only to find that the famous piece was still missing from the four iron pegs where it was meant to stand. Mona Lisa was indeed stolen. The Louvre closed down for a whole week, and an investigation was opened at once.
Mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia.
The police first thought of an artist named Géry Piéret who had a history of stealing from the Louvre. The investigators could not find Piéret in town, and so they went to his employer, Guillaume Apollinaire. The French poet and forefather of Surrealism was made a suspect because of previous repeated public statements that the Louvre should be burnt down.
He was arrested and imprisoned, and his friend Picasso was made an unlucky victim of guilt by association. The Spanish painter was under suspicion as, in the past, he was unfortunate enough to purchase some Iberian stone heads from Piéret, completely unaware that Piéret had previously stolen the items from the museum.
Both Picasso and Apollinaire were clear of all charges later on.
Stolen “Mona Lisa” recovered in Florence
Two years after it was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Mona Lisa is recovered inside Italian waiter Vincenzo Peruggia’s hotel room in Florence. Peruggia had previously worked at the Louvre and had participated in the heist with a group of accomplices dressed as Louvre janitors on the morning of August 21, 1911.
Leonardo da Vinci, one of the great Italian Renaissance painters, completed The Mona Lisa, a portrait of the wife of wealthy Florentine citizen Francesco del Gioconda, in 1504. The painting, also known as La Gioconda, depicts the figure of a woman with an enigmatic facial expression that is both aloof and alluring, seated before a visionary landscape.
After the recovery of The Mona Lisa, Peruggia was convicted in Italy of the robbery and spent just 14 months in jail. The Mona Lisa was eventually returned to the Louvre, where it remains today, exhibited behind bulletproof glass. It is arguably the most famous painting in the world and is seen by millions of visitors every year.
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Mona Lisa: The theft that created a legend
- The Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world. But why?
- Theft over 100 years ago helped catapult artwork to international stardom
- Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece now attracts millions of visitors to Louvre
Why is the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world?
Her enigmatic smile? The mystery surrounding her identity? The fact she was painted by Renaissance pin-up boy Leonardo da Vinci?
- Sure, all of these things helped boost the popularity of the 16th century masterpiece.
- But what really catapulted the small, unassuming portrait to international stardom was a daring burglary over 100 years ago.
- When Italian handyman Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911, he never could have guessed her absence would be the very thing that made her the most recognizable painting on the planet.
Suddenly images of the artwork were splashed across international newspapers, as the two-year police hunt hit dead-end after dead-end.
It wasn't until December 1913 — exactly 100 years ago next month — that Peruggia was finally caught and the Mona Lisa recovered, becoming the best known painting in a time before we shared images on TV, internet, and phones.
Today, she is the jewel in the Louvre's crown, helping attract over 9.7 million visitors to the Paris museum last year, and immortalized in everything from Andy Warhol's pop art to Dan Brown's bestselling novel, “The Da Vinci Code.”
But had Peruggia instead slipped another artwork under his cloak that fateful day, it could have been a very different story.
“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,” said Noah Charney, professor of art history and author of “The Thefts of the Mona Lisa.”
“There was nothing that really distinguished it per se, other than it was a very good work by a very famous artist — that's until it was stolen,” he added. “The theft is what really skyrocketed its appeal and made it a household name.”
So how did Peruggia pull off one of the greatest art heists of all time? With mind-boggling ease, it seems.
- The handyman had been hired by the Louvre to make protective glass cases for some its famous works — including the Mona Lisa.
The Mona Lisa is stolen from the Louvre
Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, is the most famous painting in the world.
Quantities of effort and ink have been spent over the years on identifying who she was and deciding what her enigmatic smile signifies, what she says about femininity, if anything, and why she has no eyebrows.
Leonardo took the painting with him when he was invited to France by Francis I in 1516. The king bought it and at the French Revolution it was placed in the Louvre. Napoleon took it away to hang in his bedroom, but it was returned to the Louvre afterwards.
The theft of this fabulous object in 1911 created a media sensation. The police were as baffled as everyone else.
It was thought that modernist enemies of traditional art must be involved and the avant-garde poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested in September and questioned for a week before being released.
Pablo Picasso was the next prominent suspect, but there was no evidence against him either.
Two years went by before the true culprit was discovered, an Italian petty criminal called Vincenzo Perugia who had moved to Paris in 1908 and worked at the Louvre for a time.
He went to the gallery in the white smock that all the employees there wore and hid until it closed for the night when he removed the Mona Lisa from its frame.
When the gallery reopened he walked unobtrusively out with the painting under his smock, attracting no attention, and took it to his lodgings in Paris.
It was not until November 1913, calling himself Leonardo Vincenzo, that Perugia wrote to an art dealer in Florence named Alfredo Geri offering to bring the painting to Italy for a reward of 500,000 lire.
He travelled to Florence by train the following month, taking the Mona Lisa in a trunk, hidden beneath a false bottom. After booking into a hotel, which subsequently shrewdly changed its name to the Hotel La Gioconda, he took the painting to Geri’s gallery.
Geri persuaded him to leave it for expert examination and the police arrested Perugia later that day.
Perugia apparently believed, entirely mistakenly, that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon and that he deserved a reward for doing his patriotic duty and returning it to its true home in Italy. That was what he said, at least.
Many Italians welcomed the masterpiece home; people flocked to see it for a time at the Uffizi Gallery, some of them weeping with joy, and Perugia served only a brief prison sentence.
The great painting was duly returned to the Louvre and has hung there safely and enigmatically ever since.
When Pablo Picasso Was Suspected of Stealing the Mona Lisa
On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from Paris's Louvre Museum. It was a Monday—the museum was closed and security was minimal—and the thief had reportedly spent the weekend plotting the heist while hiding in one of the museum's closets.
At the time, security at the Louvre was abysmal. There were less than 150 security personnel in charge of guarding 250,000 artifacts, and none of the paintings were bolted to the walls.
(The Mona Lisa, for example, hung from four measly hooks.
) According to Ian Shank at Artsy, “Months before the heist, one French reporter had spent the night in a Louvre sarcophagus to expose the museum's paltry surveillance.”
After the painting's disappearance, France's borders were effectively closed, with officials examining every vehicle crossing the country's eastern border.
Media coverage of the heist spread across the globe, turning the little-known painting into a household name. The Paris-Journal offered 50,000 francs for the painting's return.
Soon, a tip from an art thief would cause police to turn their attention toward one of the country's most promising young artists: Pablo Picasso.
Picasso, who had moved to Paris a decade earlier, lived with a gaggle of Bohemians dubbed la bande de Picasso.
Among this crew was the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire, whose former secretary was Honore-Joseph Géry Pieret, a Belgian man of questionable morals.
Shortly after the Mona Lisa was stolen, Pieret—lured by the possibility of a cash reward—stepped into the Paris-Journal's office and claimed that he had lifted art from the Louvre before and had given the works to “friends.”
Pieret was telling the truth. In 1907, he had stolen at least two Iberian sculptures made in the 3rd or 4th century BCE and sold them to Picasso, who paid him 50 francs per piece.
(Picasso used these artifacts to inspire his work Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. [PDF]) That wasn't all.
According to Nick Mafi at The Daily Beast, Pieret also stole a similar piece from the Louvre in 1911 and placed it on Apollinaire's mantel.
The police read about Pieret's exploits with great interest. They believed that the people who were in possession of these sculptures might also have the Mona Lisa. And they didn't have much trouble piecing together who, exactly, the thief's friends were.
Realizing that they were in deep trouble, Picasso and Apollinaire packed the Iberian sculptures into a suitcase and ran off in the middle of the night with plans of throwing the artworks into the river Seine.
But when the two artists reached the water, they could not will themselves to dump the statues. Instead, Apollinaire visited the Paris-Journal the next morning, deposited the statues, and demanded that the newspaper give him anonymity.
The newspaper agreed … until the authorities stepped in.
Within days of Apollinaire's visit to the newspaper, the police had detained him. In early September, Picasso was ordered to appear before a magistrate. When asked if he knew Apollinaire, the terrified painter lied. “I have never seen this man,” he replied.
Recalling the events, Picasso said, “I saw Guillaume's expression changed. The blood ebbed from his face. I am still ashamed.” As the proceedings continued, Picasso wept.
Although both men were indeed in possession of stolen art, the judge determined that the situation had nothing to do with the Mona Lisa's disappearance and decided to throw the case out.
Two years later, both men would be cleared of any possible connection to the crime when police discovered the painting had been stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist who had been working at the Louvre.
Did you know that Pablo Picasso's full name is 23 words long? It's actually Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz y Picasso. Find out more interesting facts about Pablo Picasso.
Archive, 23 August 1911: Mona Lisa stolen from Louvre
One of the most precious treasures of the Louvre, Reuter’s Paris correspondent says, has disappeared. The discovery was made at midday yesterday, and the picture gallery was immediately closed, while the Minister of Fine Arts was advised by telegraph.
The picture is the portrait by Leonardo da Vinci of Mona Lisa, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a citizen of Florence. According to Vasari, Leonardo de Vinci devoted four years to the portrait.
It is styled “La Joconde,” and was purchased about the year 1500 by Francis I.
There was the greatest consternation when the picture was missed. An energetic search is being made in all directions, but it has so far been fruitless. The frame and glass were left on a staircase of the Louvre. It appears that the picture was missed on Monday night, but it was supposed it had been taken to be photographed.
The Louvre is closed on Mondays, and one suggested clue is a remark made by a working masson to a comrade, as they were passing through the gallery yesterday, to the effect that the Mona Lisa was the finest picture in the Louvre. Another suggestion is that the picture was removed by a practical joker.
In any case, it will be impossible to dispose of it, if really stolen, as it is so well known.
The missing picture
The Minister of Fine Arts (Reuter’s Paris correspondent states) yesterday communicated to the Council of Ministers the results of the inquiry into the theft of La Gioconda. The inquiry, it is said, has already yielded serious results as to the responsibility for the picture’s disappearance.
Several newspapers state that a merchant has informed the police he visited the Louvre last Saturday, and then noticed the absence of the picture.
The numerous supposed clues have so far led to no result. The investigations continue, and the Louvre remains closed.
An English tourist anxious to visit the galleries yesterday offered to deposit a roll of banknotes as a security, but the offer was rejected. The theft remains the predominant topic of conversation.
Every print shop has engravings of the masterpiece displayed in the windows, and the street hawkers are selling picture postcards of it.
The police have recovered from a ditch near the building the handle of an inside door of the which is supposed to have been broken off by the thief.
As the result of a statement made by an official, which corroborates the evidence of another person who on Monday saw an individual hastily joining the Bordeaux express and carrying a badly wrapped-up frame, close investigations are being made along the line.
The police yesterday searched the mail boat Cordillere before it started from Bordeaux for South America, and orders have been received there to keep a watch for two Germans travelling from Paris to Bordeaux on foot who are suspected of being implicated.
Stealing Mona Lisa
Photograph by Lewandowski/LeMage/Gattelet/Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource, N.Y.
Acquired through conquest, wealth, good taste, and plunder, those holdings were splendid and vast—so much so that the Louvre could lay claim to being the greatest repository of art in the world.
With some 50 acres of gallery space, the collection was too immense for visitors to view in a day or even, some thought, in a lifetime.
In the Salon Carré—the “square room”—alone could be seen two paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, three by Titian, two by Raphael, two by Correggio, one by Giorgione, three by Veronese, one by Tintoretto, and—representing non-Italians—one each by Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velázquez.
But even in that collection of masterpieces, one painting stood out from the rest.
As the Louvre’s maintenance director, a man named Picquet, passed through the Salon Carré during his rounds on the morning of August 21, 1911, he pointed out Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, telling a co-worker that it was the most valuable object in the museum. “They say it is worth a million and a half,” Picquet remarked, glancing at his watch as he left the room. The time was 7:20 a.m.
Shortly after Picquet departed the Salon Carré, a door to a storage closet opened and at least one man—for it would never be proved whether the thief worked alone—emerged.
He had been in there since the previous day—Sunday, the museum’s busiest.
Just before closing time, the thief had slipped inside the little closet so that he could emerge in the morning without the need to identify himself to a guard at the entrance.
There were many such small rooms and hidden alcoves within the ancient building; museum officials later confessed that no one knew how many.
This particular room was normally used for storing easels, canvases, and art supplies for students who were engaged in copying the works of the old masters.
The only firm anti-forgery requirement the museum imposed was that the reproductions could not be the same size as the original.
The Day the Mona Lisa Was Stolen
On August 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, today one of the most famous paintings in the world, was stolen right off the wall of the Louvre. It was such an inconceivable crime, that the Mona Lisa wasn't even noticed missing until the following day.
Who would steal such a famous painting? Why did they do it? Was the Mona Lisa lost forever?
Everyone had been talking about the glass panes that museum officials at the Louvre had put in front of several of their most important paintings in October 1910. Museum officials said it was to help protect the paintings, especially because of recent acts of vandalism.
The public and the press thought the glass was too reflective and detracted from the images. Some Parisians quipped that perhaps art such as the real Mona Lisa had been stolen, and copies were being passed off to the public.
Museum director Théophile Homolle retorted “you might as well pretend that one could steal the towers of the cathedral of Notre Dame.”
Louis Béroud, a painter, decided to join in the debate by painting a young French girl fixing her hair in the reflection from the pane of glass in front of the Mona Lisa.
On Tuesday, August 22, 1911, Béroud walked into the Louvre and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years. But on the wall where the Mona Lisa used to hang, in between Correggio's Mystical Marriage and Titian's Allegory of Alfonso d'Avalos, sat only four iron pegs.
Béroud contacted the section head of the guards, who thought the painting must be at the photographers'. A few hours later, Béroud checked back with the section head. It was then discovered the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers. The section chief and other guards did a quick search of the museum—no Mona Lisa.
Since museum director Homolle was on vacation, the curator of Egyptian antiquities was contacted. He, in turn, called the Paris police. About 60 investigators were sent over to the Louvre shortly after noon. They closed the museum and slowly let out the visitors. They then continued the search.
It was finally determined that it was true—the Mona Lisa had been stolen.
The Louvre was closed for an entire week to aid the investigation. When it was reopened, a line of people had come to solemnly stare at the empty space on the wall, where the Mona Lisa had once hung. An anonymous visitor left a bouquet of flowers. Museum director Homolle lost his job.
Later reports would show that the painting was stolen for 26 hours before anyone noticed it.
In retrospect, that's not all that shocking. The Louvre Museum is the largest in the world, covering an area of about 15 acres. Security was weak; reports are that there were only about 150 guards, and incidents of art stolen or damaged inside the museum had happened a few years earlier.
In addition, at the time, the Mona Lisa was not all that famous. Although known to be an early 16th-century work of Leonardo da Vinci, only a small but growing circle of art critics and aficionados were aware that it was special. The theft of the painting would change that forever.
Unfortunately, there wasn't much evidence to go on. The most important discovery was found on the first day of the investigation. About an hour after the 60 investigators began searching the Louvre, they found the controversial plate of glass and Mona Lisa's frame lying in a staircase.
The frame, an ancient one donated by Countess de Béarn two years prior, had not been damaged. Investigators and others speculated that the thief grabbed the painting off the wall, entered the stairwell, removed the painting from its frame, then somehow left the museum unnoticed.
But when did all this take place?
Investigators began to interview guards and workers to determine when the Mona Lisa went missing. One worker remembered having seen the painting around 7 o'clock on Monday morning (a day before it was discovered missing) but noticed it gone when he walked by the Salon Carré an hour later. He had assumed a museum official had moved it.
Further research discovered that the usual guard in the Salon Carré was home (one of his children had the measles) and his replacement admitted leaving his post for a few minutes around 8 o'clock to smoke a cigarette. All of this evidence pointed to the theft occurring somewhere between 7:00 and 8:30 on Monday morning.
But on Mondays, the Louvre was closed for cleaning. So, was this an inside job? Approximately 800 people had access to the Salon Carré on Monday morning.
Wandering throughout the museum were museum officials, guards, workmen, cleaners, and photographers. Interviews with these people brought out very little.
One person thought they had seen a stranger hanging out, but he was unable to match the stranger's face with photos at the police station.
The investigators brought in Alphonse Bertillon, a famous fingerprint expert. He found a thumbprint on the Mona Lisa's frame, but he was unable to match it with any in his files.
There was a scaffold against one side of the museum that was there to aid the installation of an elevator. This could have given access to a would-be thief to the museum.
Besides believing that the thief had to have at least some internal knowledge of the museum, there really wasn't much evidence. So, whodunnit?