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It’s a hundred and six years since the man who stole the Mona Lisa was finally caught, two years after vanishing with the masterpiece. Today it’s easily the most famous painting in the world, but it took a theft to cement its status.

The Mona Lisa

Art Crime of The Century

Even at the beginning of the 20th century ? before mass reproductions, package tours to France and The Da Vinci Code ? Mona Lisa was different from other pictures. The woman with the enigmatic smile got so many love letters that her portrait was the only artwork at the Louvre to have its own mailbox. A heartbroken suitor once shot himself to death in front of her.

So is it any surprise that somebody finally eloped with her?

The surface story is simple: Former Louvre employee Peruggia wanted to restore the “Mona Lisa” to her native Italy. He said it was a matter of national pride (though it seems like profit was a pretty good motive, too). So he went into the Louvre, hid, and snuck the painting out underneath his coat after the museum had closed. It took a day for the Louvre to even notice, and for two years Peruggia kept the painting before being caught when trying to unload it on a gallery in Florence.

He made more money as a handyman than as an artist, but Vincenzo Peruggia?s personally responsible for making the Mona Lisa what it is today. Leonardo da Vinci painted Lisa del Giocondo in the early 16th century, but Peruggia made her famous worldwide by walking out of the Louvre with the painting wrapped in his smock on August 21, 1911. With that daring daylight robbery, the Mona Lisa began her ascent into the stratosphere of cultural fame, while Peruggia sank further and further into the hazy mists of vague infamy. How and why did Peruggia do it? More importantly, what would have happened if he hadn?t?

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.

A little more than a week after the robbery, the plot thickened considerably when a mysterious character got in touch with Paris-Journal, a newspaper that was offering a reward for information about the crime. Soon the man showed up at the newspaper’s offices with a small statue, one of several that he claimed to have stolen four years earlier from the Louvre. The anonymous thief turned out to be a bisexual con man named Honor? Joseph G?ry Pieret. He had once served as “secretary,” and perhaps other roles, for Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet and art-world polemicist who was Picasso’s constant supporter in the public skirmishes over modern art in the French press. Before long, Pieret had implicated Apollinaire in the thefts. When police arrested Apollinaire, he admitted under pressure that Pieret had sold the pilfered works to none other than Picasso. Thinking they had found their way into a crime ring that might be behind the Mona Lisa case, the cops then dragged Picasso before a magistrate for questioning.

Picasso, who at 29 had just begun the transition from bohemia to the haute bourgeoisie, was terrified. He was a foreigner in France; any serious trouble with the law could get him deported. And this could have gotten serious, because the accusation was true. Four years earlier, he had bought from Pieret two of the pilfered sculptures, Roman-era Iberian heads whose thick features and wide eyes he would introduce into the great painting he was then just about to embark upon, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. Though he would deny it in court, he almost certainly knew at the time that both heads were lifted from the Louvre. He may even have pushed Pieret to take them in the first place. But prosecutors couldn’t build a case that either Picasso or Apollinaire had stolen the heads, much less the Mona Lisa, and both of them went free.

After that, for years the trail went cold. Mona Lisa was reported to have been shipped to Switzerland or South America. She was in an apartment in the Bronx, a private gallery in St. Petersburg or a secret room in the mansion of J.P. Morgan. In fact, she had never left Paris.

The incident is regarded as the greatest art theft of the 20th century ? The Mona Lisa was missing between 1911 and 1913, when it was returned to its rightful place in the Louvre (and attracting huge newspaper buzz and comment).

So how did such an audacious theft come about? Well, it helped that Peruggia had at one time worked in the Louvre. Not only did his former employment mean that he knew the layout of the gallery, it also meant that he knew the opening and closing times. So, on August 20th 1911 (a Sunday), he hid inside the Louvre because he knew that the gallery would be shut the next day.

Peruggia came to Paris in search of a life in art, even if it was only as a part-time worker in the Louvre. Like many other Italians, Peruggia sought greater opportunities in the City of Lights only to find himself disparaged by the locals as ?sale macaroni,? French for ?dirty macaroni.? Wounded by prejudice and longing for home, Peruggia, as he later claimed, stole back what he mistakenly thought Napoleon had stolen from Italy a century before. In reality, Leonardo sold the painting to Francis I after moving to France to become court painter. But why did Vincenzo really do it?

Peruggia stole the painting for he was a conman who planned to sell six copies to wealthy investors while the real work was missing. When researchers unearthed Peruggia?s letters that the police had taken as evidence, those letters reveal that Peruggia stole the?Mona?for the usual reasons?money and fame.

The police record of Vincenzo Peruggia who attempted to steal Leonardo de Vinci’s painting ‘The Mona Lisa’ in 1911, 25th January 1909. (Photo by Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

August 21, 1911, a black haired man with a big moustache, medium height, strong-sturdy build, dressed in dark work clothes and a straw hat is spoted by a witness carrying a package. That man is Vincenzo Peruggia and he’s carrying the famous Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa or La Gioconda.
Paris and the world are in shock, how could that happen ?

Born in Dumenza, Italy, on October 8, 1881, Peruggia started earning his living since the early age of twelve working as house painter, carpenter and handyman.
Like many others with similiar skills, he emigrated to France to try a better living.
However he didn’t feel welcomed in a country where French called him “mangeur de macaroni” (macaroni eater) and teased him about his accent.
He also held a strong belief that many of the art treasures in the Louvre had been looted by Napoleon from Italy.

During the time that Peruggia lived in Paris, he was involved in minor offences: an attempted robber in 1908, being released twenty four hours later, and a dispute with a prostitute in 1909 where the illegal possession of a knife got him eight days in jail.

Vincenzo Peruggia, who was employed by the Paris firm of carpenters, worked on the Mona Lisa?s wooden shadow box for three weeks, which permited him to familiarize with the Louvre’s layout, entrances and exits, and most importantly with the security guards routines.

The museum was always closed on Mondays for cleaning, repairs and other necessary tasks, and on that day of August 21, 1911, Peruggia went briskly into the premise and reported directly to Salon Carr?, where at least ten men were working nearby.
He snatched the painting off of the wall and carried it to a service stairway, there he took the painting out of its wooden frame and tossed both the frame and protective glass covering.
He found out that the door at the end of the stairs was closed and had the brilliant idea of removing the door’s knob and putting it in his pocket. When a plumber named Sauvet walked by, he addressed to him saying “Look! Some idiot stole the door knob! How can we get out now?”. Sauvet used his key to open the door and the Mona Lisa was now out of the museum.
Once outside, Peruggia tossed the doorknob over a fence and fled.

Leonardo da Vinci?s Mona Lisa, also known as La Gioconda, is the most famous painting in the world.

On Tuesday, August 22, 1911, the French artist named Louis Beroud, who frequently painted the rooms of the Louvre, set up his easel in the Salon Carre’ at the Louvre to paint a picture of the room. On this day the Mona Lisa, which hung between Titian’s Allegory and Corregio’s Betrothal of Saint Catherine, was missing. Annoyed at the paintings absence, he approached a guard named Poupardin and inquired about its return. Poupardin assumed that the painting had been removed for photographing; it was very common for a painting to be moved here and there with very little controls in place. A short time later, after some badgering by Beroud, Poupardin went searching for the masterpiece. By 11 hour, the guard that was entrusted by the populace of France to protect a national treasure, had realized that the painting was missing. Poupardin could only declare “C’est parti!”.

The intervening manhunt and press fervor served as a giant ad campaign for the painting. Suddenly, a notable but not universally known painting was the subject of excited?headlines and ecstatic copy (which often referenced Pater). People couldn?t necessarily see the “Mona Lisa” while it was hiding in Peruggia?s apartment, but they could easily read about how it was the greatest painting ever made.

Art fans and the general public became equally aware of Mona?s missing smile. The New York Times used the painting as a linchpin for a history of all stolen art, it published a 1900s take on fanfiction in which two authors speculated how they would have stolen “Mona Lisa,” and the paper of record even printed conspiracy theories that Mona had never been stolen at all.

Guards and a barrier of benches surround the Mona Lisa at the Museum of the Offices.

When Perugia fled with the painting, he was observed by a witness who gave a description of the art theft and permitted the police to establish a time of the theft, as well as the direction of flight that the suspect took.

The legendary French criminologist, Alphonse Bertillon, who was in charge of the case, lifted a thumbprint from the glass case that was left in the stairway.
However in that era, only the right hands of offenders were printed, and although Bertillon maintained files and fingerprints on over 750,000 criminals, the thumbprint that was lifted from the painting’s glass case was from a left hand.
All employees, past and present, were interrogated and fingerprinted, including Vincenzo Peruggia, interviewed on Nov. 26, 1911, by Inspector Brunet. He was cleared after convincing the inspector that he was an innocent, hardworking man.

Peruggia continued to work in Paris, where he built a trunk with a false bottom and hid the painting in it, wrapped in a red cloth. The carpenter transported the painting in this trunk by train to Florence, where he arrived on December 10, 1913 and stayed at the Hotel-Tripoli-Italia, on Via Panzoni; room 20 on the third floor.

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.

The two met in Geri’s office, along with the director of the Uffizi, Giovanni Poggi. Both Poggi and Geri understood immediately that the painting was the original, but pretended to have doubts. They convinced Peruggia to let them have the painting over night to have expert testing conducted at the Uffizi. Peruggia complied and the two departed with the painting and immediately notified the authorities.

They claimed that Peruggia requested 500,000 Lira for the work (which Peruggia, who still wished to portray himself as the selfless patriot, denied in the trial that followed). Peruggia was arrested on Dec 11, 1913, by Francesco Tarantelli.

The Italian Goverment recused his extradition and he was sentenced to 1 year and 15 days for his crime. On appeal his sentence was reduced to 7 months and 9 days in Florence’s Le Murate prison).

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 Mona Lisa was displayed at the Uffizi, the Borghese Gallery, Villa Medici, Farnese Palace, and the Brera Museum, and was viewed by tens of thousands of Italians. On January 4, 1914, after a well protected train ride back to Paris, the masterpiece was re-hung in the Salon Carr?.

In January 1914, Alfredo Geri was awarded a 25,000 Franc Reward and received the Rosette of France’s Legion d’Honneur.

Vincenzo Peruggia returned to Dumenza a hero. He served honourably in the Italian army during WWI. In 1921, he married an Italian girl, and in spite of his alleged distaste of the French, moved his family to France, where he opened a hardware store outside of Paris. He led a quiet, prosperous life in France and according to his daughter, Celestina, he died at age 44, of a heart attack in Haute-Savoie in 1925.

It’s mentioned that con man Marqu? Eduardo de Valfierno, who partnered with Yves Chaudron, a conservator and master forger, contacted Peruggia to steal the Mona Lisa, so they could sell it for a fortune. Chaudron did not really want to sell the painting, nor did he even care where it ended up.
Valfierno’s plans were for Chaudron to make several copies and sell all of them as the original to foreign collectors.
If the Mona Lisa was ever recovered and returned to the Louvre, he would assure his customers that the Louvre was displaying a fake because it could not admit losing a national treasure of France.

When she did return to the Louvre in 1914 ? after a?brief show in Florence?? Mona had gone from art fan highlight to worldwide heroine. The painting appeared splashed on front pages and became the instant subject of parodies and, of course, more prose. Thanks to Pater?s prolix, but beloved, essay, an art thief with a daring plan, and a media happy to publicize Mona?s unexpected journey, da Vinci?s portrait became something bigger than a piece of art ? it became Art itself for a great number of people.

The Mona Lisa is not painted on canvas, but on three pieces of wood roughly an inch and a half thick.

After 28 months, Vincenzo Perugia was arrested for the theft of the Mona Lisa. Shown here is the transfer of the painting from the Italian Ministry of Public Instruction to France. (Bettmann / Corbis)

?Many writers have chronicled the exciting and infamous story of how Vincenzo Peruggia stole the “Mona Lisa” in 1911.

But why did Peruggia target the “Mona Lisa” in the first place? The answer might lie with a critic named?Walter Pater?(1839?1894).

Pater was an influential English critic and scholar who defined the Renaissance for his Victorian audience, chiefly in the book of the same name (which you can read here). That book had a breakout hit: Pater?s essay on the “Mona Lisa,” which is a gloriously overblown ode to the painting. Here?s the overstuffed paragraph at the center of it (you may want to just skim it; he compares Mona to an eternal vampire):

She is older than the rocks among which she sits like the vampire, she has been dead many times, and learned the secrets of the grave; and has been a diver in deep seas, and keeps their fallen day about her; and trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants: and, as Leda, was the mother of Helen of Troy, and, as Saint Anne, the mother of Mary; and all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes, and lives only in the delicacy with which it has moulded the changing lineaments, and tinged the eyelids and the hands. The fancy of a perpetual life, sweeping together ten thousand experiences, is an old one; and modern thought has conceived the idea of humanity as wrought upon by, and summing up in itself, all modes of thought and life.

This is sickly sweet writing, but people loved it ? Oscar Wilde praised the writing, and generations of writers followed Pater?s lead, including famed French critics like?Hippolyte Taine. But for many English-speaking readers, Pater?s description of “Mona Lisa” became iconic.

His work spread and elevated “Mona Lisa” in the pantheon. References to Pater?s work popped up in?guidebooks to the Louvre?and?reading clubs in Paducah. When Mona was recovered after the robbery, publications like the New York Times?referenced Pater?s essay, and it showed up in Pater?s?1894 obituary.

But while Pater?s essay established “Mona Lisa” as a notable work in the art world, she didn?t immediately become the iconic, memeable, inescapable icon we know today. An?1880 piece?about the Louvre gave more attention to da Vinci?s other masterpiece “The Last Supper,” as did a 1900?guidebook about the Louvre. In 1907, a vandal?targeted a picture by Ingres, not the “Mona Lisa,” and in 1910 another article called her just the Louvre?s second most famous painting.

There?s no doubt that Mona was famous by the 1900s, thanks in large part to Pater. By the late 1800s, speculation about the subject’s enigmatic?smile was common. Even conspiracy theories emerged in the 1900s, when people speculated she?d secretly been?taken to America. That chatter was paired with real precautions ? after the Ingres slashing, Mona was put under glass just in case another vandal went on the offensive.

But despite the occasional riff on Mona?s appearance she didn?t clearly own the title of world?s most famous painting. Pater gave Mona a platform ? and a man named Vincenzo Peruggia took her from it.

The whole episode proved embarrassing for France. Peruggia had escaped the dragnet of French police, despite the fact that he had once worked at the Louvre, knew the exits and escape routes and had even helped build the glass-enclosed frame Mona Lisa was displayed in ? so on the fateful morning he knew how to get her out of it quickly. Then he spirited her back to his shabby apartment and flung her like Patty Hearst into a dark closet, which is where she remained for more than two years.

Though there’s evidence that Peruggia tried repeatedly to sell the picture, he always insisted that his only motive in stealing Mona Lisa was to return it in glory to Italy and to exact revenge for Napoleon’s massive theft of artworks all across Europe. One problem: Mona Lisa had never been part of the Napoleonic plunder. Though Leonardo had begun the painting in Florence in 1503, he took it with him to France 13 years later when he resettled at the court of the French king Fran?ois I. After his death there in 1519, the painting passed through several hands until an eager Fran?ois bought it for the modern equivalent of around $10 million.

The case for the “Mona Lisa?s” ubiquity as a result of overblown criticism, headline-happy newspapers, and theft is one that seems to ignore the virtues of the painting. Today, she feels like?something from a postmodern novel?? a painting that?s famous for being famous. But really, that cynical perspective can work in tandem with a dreamier take on the portrait?s charms.

The things that made Mona so appealing to Pater, Peruggia, and the press are the things that make her appealing to aesthetically minded art fans ? a sense of mystery, an indefinable mood, and a timelessness unbound by da Vinci?s period. And that?s the only way she can live up to the expectations of some people ? by being allowed to embody her full story, on and off the canvas.

The huge publicity surrounding the theft helped to launch Leonardo’s great painting into the stratosphere of fame. Mona Lisa left the Louvre a work of art, She returned an icon.

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