The Theft That Made The Mona Lisa Famous

By Jeff Dillon | May 3, 2024 | All Posts
File:Mona Lisa detail eyes.jpg
The close up detail of Mona Lisa eyes. Image via Wikimedia Commons

What has catapulted Leonardo da Vinci‘s “Mona Lisa” to the apex of global art recognition? Is it the subject’s enigmatic smile, the enduring mysteries surrounding her identity, or perhaps the grandeur of Leonardo da Vinci, a luminary of the Renaissance? These factors undoubtedly amplify the allure of this iconic 16th-century masterpiece. Yet, it was a daring theft just over a century ago that launched this understated portrait into the realm of unparalleled fame.

The Woman Behind the Painting

The portrait of Lisa Gherardini, famously known as the “Mona Lisa,” is not only renowned for its enigmatic smile but also for its rich, tumultuous history, including its infamous theft from the Louvre Museum. Painted by Leonardo da Vinci during the Italian Renaissance, it depicts Lisa del Giocondo, a noblewoman from the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany. While little is known about her life, recent discoveries from a convent indicate that Lisa Gherardini was born on June 15, 1479 in Florence and likely died on July 15, 1542, at the age of 63, although some experts suggest she may have lived until 1551, reaching 71 years. This iconic painting, commissioned by her husband, a Florentine silk merchant, not only immortalizes her likeness but also serves as a window into the era that shaped her existence and the art world’s ongoing fascination with her story.

Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa current aged colours (right) and with original colours approximation (Left). Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Day the ‘Mona Lisa’ Disappeared

On August 21, 1911, a routine visit to the Louvre turned into a historic event when painter Louis Béroud arrived to find the “Mona Lisa” missing. Béroud, who had planned to sketch the famous painting, was stunned to see an empty space on the wall. He immediately notified the museum guards. The museum, not taking any chances, was closed to the public, and a rigorous search began. The entire facility was scrutinized, from hallways to hidden nooks, while authorities meticulously interviewed staff and recent visitors. The abrupt disappearance made headlines worldwide, jolting the art community and thrusting the Louvre into a frantic investigation to retrieve the stolen masterpiece.

The title of the newspaper in the image translates to English as: “The famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci ‘La Joconde’ has disappeared from the Louvre Museum.” “La Joconde is Found” (Mona Lisa Found), Le Petit Parisien, Issue 13559, December 13, 1913. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Unraveling the Mystery: A Trail of Suspects

The initial phase of the investigation focused on Géry Piéret, known for his previous thefts from the Louvre. Piéret had a history of stealing various minor artifacts from the museum, which brought him immediately to the attention of the police. However, as he remained out of reach, investigators expanded their scrutiny to include Piéret’s associates, notably his employer, the famous poet Guillaume Apollinaire, and even Pablo Picasso. Both had previously acquired stolen items from Piéret, which implicated them in the ongoing investigation. After intense interrogations and a public scandal, both Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were eventually exonerated, redirecting the focus of the investigation back to finding other potential leads.

Portrait photograph of Pablo Picasso (right) and Guillaume Apollinaire (Left), 1908. Images via Wikimedia Commons.

Identifying the Real Culprit

As the investigation continued without a clear suspect, the breakthrough came when Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian handyman and former Louvre employee, was apprehended. Peruggia had devised a simple yet bold plan: he hid inside the museum until after hours, removed the “Mona Lisa” from its frame, and then concealed it under his workman’s smock. Attempting to exit, he found himself locked inside, but his luck held when a workman unwittingly opened the door for him the next morning. Peruggia’s motives were partly patriotic—he believed the painting should be returned to Italy—and partly opportunistic, hoping that the disappearance would increase the value of forgeries he was involved with.

January 21, 1909 Mug shot of Vincenzo Perugia, the Italian man who stole the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre Museum in Paris. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The Conspiracy Behind the Theft

In 1932, a sensational twist was added to the story by the Saturday Evening Post. The magazine published an article claiming that Eduardo de Valfierno had masterminded the theft. According to the report, Valfierno had hired Peruggia to steal the painting as part of a grander scheme that involved the art forger Yves Chaudron. Chaudron was alleged to have created six copies of the “Mona Lisa,” which Valfierno then sold to unsuspecting collectors as the original, exploiting the chaos surrounding the painting’s disappearance.

Eduardo de Valfierno May have masterminded the theft of The Mona Lisa.

The Iconic Return

After more than two years, the “Mona Lisa” was recovered in 1913 in Florence, Italy, where Peruggia had kept it hidden in his apartment. He eventually attempted to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery, claiming his desire to repatriate the artwork to Italy. However, his efforts were thwarted when the gallery’s director sensed the deception and contacted the police. The painting was returned to the Louvre, and Peruggia was arrested. The incident not only reinstated the “Mona Lisa” to its rightful place but also elevated its status from a revered painting to a legendary icon, forever changing how it was perceived by the public and safeguarded by museums worldwide.

The Mona Lisa exhibited at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (on the right) examines the painting. December 1913. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Beyond the Theft: Delving into the ‘Mona Lisa’s’ Lesser-Known Aspects

  • Identity: The name “Mona Lisa” aptly reflects the identity of Lisa Gherardini, the woman portrayed, whose husband commissioned the renowned painting.
  • Celebrity Adoration: The painting once decorated Napoleon’s bedroom, where it influenced his romantic sentiments.
  • Physical Dimensions and Mysteries: Despite its fame, the “Mona Lisa” is surprisingly modest in size, measuring just 30 inches by 21 inches. The issue of its faded eyebrows has sparked significant debate, yet they were originally present, only to diminish over time.
  • Unique Correspondence: The “Mona Lisa” is distinguished as the only piece in the Louvre that has a dedicated mailbox, accommodating the numerous love letters it receives.
  • Fashion Influence: The enigma of the “Mona Lisa” has also permeated fashion, inspiring women to mimic her revered appearance and mysterious smile.
  • Durability: Since its acquisition by France in 1797, the “Mona Lisa” has faced numerous attacks, including having spray paint and a teacup hurled at it in the early 20th century. More recently, in 2022, it was smeared with cake, and in 2024, it was splattered with soup. In 1956, it was targeted twice in one year, once with a razor blade and once with a rock. The latest incident involved two female protesters wearing “food counterattack” T-shirts throwing soup at the painting, now housed at the Louvre in central Paris. Fortunately, thanks to its protective glass shield, the painting remained undamaged.
  • Protection: Since 1804, the “Mona Lisa” has been exhibited in the Louvre Museum in Paris, securely encased behind bulletproof glass. Before joining the museum’s collection, the painting was a part of the royal collection and transitioned to the possession of the French public during the Revolution (1787–99).
The installation of Mona Lisa in the Louvre Museum, without the crowd in front of it. Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The “Mona Lisa” transcends its artistic mastery to become a global phenomenon, largely due to its dramatic theft in 1911. This event, coupled with its mysterious allure and Leonardo da Vinci’s craftsmanship, catapulted the painting into the limelight, transforming it from a revered artwork to a legendary icon. The intense media coverage and the intriguing recovery story have embedded it deeply in cultural consciousness, making it not just an artwork, but a symbol of art’s enduring power to captivate and provoke imagination. This saga reminds us of the irreplaceable value of art and its profound impact on our cultural heritage, ensuring the “Mona Lisa’s” legacy continues to intrigue and inspire.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci – Portrait de Mona Lisa (dite La Joconde) – Louvre 779 – Detail (smile). Image sourced from Wikimedia Commons.
Next Post