When Mona Lisa vanished from the Louvre Museum in 1911, she became a worldwide obsession. In reality, it is just another instance of art theft. This remains a common crime, though it has never again shaken the world like it did with Leonardo’s masterpiece.
Every year, more than 50,000 art pieces are stolen around the world. The annual black market value for art theft stands between 6 and 8 billion.
After months of frantic search, the world lost hope that she would be found. Bigger tragedies took place: the ‘unsinkable’ Titanic went down on her maiden voyage, giving reporters something new to focus on.
Fifteen months after her disappearance, France formally abandoned hope of La Gioconda returning. The case was closed, and life in Paris resumed its fast pace.
Letter From ‘Leonardo’
It was Winter in the year 1913. Florence art dealer Alfredo Geri was anticipating a busy Christmas season. He had placed an ad in many Italian newspapers, offering to pay generously for fine artwork.
Responses poured in; Geri looked over them every morning, sorting out replies that sounded promising. One of them stood out from the others.
It was postmarked Poste Restante, Place de la République, Paris. It was signed “Leonardo.” Geri first suspected it to be a prank, but followed his gut and read on:
The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was Italian. My dream is to give back this masterpiece to the land from which he came and to the country that inspired it.
Geri took the letter to Giovanni Poggi, director of the local Uffizi Gallery. Poggi was skeptical of the letter, thinking it would be at best a well-done copy; nonetheless, he told Geri there was no loss in writing back. They told the thief that they would have to see the painting before they made an offer.
“Leonardo” wrote back quickly. He invited Geri to visit him. Poggi agreed that, when the day was set, he would go with the art dealer to examine the piece and determine whether it was a fake.
On December 10, Geri’s shop had a great deal of customers. One of them stood out from the others; he lurked in the shadows, waiting until everyone else had gone before approaching the art dealer. He introduced himself as the Leonardo from the letters and said that he had brought Mona Lisa home to Florence.
Geri and Poggi followed ‘Leonardo’ to the hotel where he was staying. It was the Albergio Tripoli-Italia, located blocks away from the house where Lisa del Giocondo had posed for the real Leonardo da Vinci in the portrait.
As they walked, Geri mentioned the payment. ‘Leonardo’ admitted that he expected the Italian government to compensate him “for the great service rendered.” He said he hadn’t taken the painting to make money. He had intended to return it to the land from which it had been stolen.
An amount was proposed. Geri would agree to pay only if Poggi could confirm the painting’s legitimacy.
They went upstairs into the room where ‘Leonardo’ had been staying. He opened his medium-sized suitcase, emptied it of its meager contents, and opened a false bottom. Inside waited Mona Lisa, wrapped in silk and marvelously preserved. Poggi studied the painting and confirmed that this was Louvre property.
Geri and Poggi contained their excitement in front of the thief. They fled the hotel with the painting and called the police. ‘Leonardo’ was napping when Florence officers came to take him.
He did not struggle, convinced that the government would recognize him as a hero.
Knight In Shining Armor
‘Leonardo’ cooperated with the police. He identified himself as thirty-two year old Vincenzo Peruggia. He lived in Paris, where he worked painting houses. He had worked at the Louvre as a glazier for two years.
Peruggia described himself as a patriot. He had stolen the Mona Lisa to avenge all the art pieces that had been taken from Italy by Napoleon during his painting plunder. Peruggia did not seem to know that, while Napoleon did steal many pieces of art, Mona Lisa was not one of them. She had been in France delighting kings and aristocrats long before Napoleon was born.
It was arranged that Mona Lisa would be given to the French ambassador. France allowed her to stay in Italy for two weeks. During this visit, thousands of Italians came on pilgrimage to see Leonardo’s most famous painting. Peruggia’s prediction that he would be a hero wasn’t far off: many Italians believed that he had done a great service to their country.
Vincenzo Peruggia was on the list of Louvre workers that French police had investigated when Mona Lisa vanished. How come he was not a suspect from the beginning?
Peruggia had been summoned at the beginning for questioning but never appeared. A detective went to his apartment, searched it, and asked questions. Peruggia said he had been at work the morning when Mona Lisa vanished; if they had checked his alibi, they would learn that he arrived several hours late.
What about fingerprinting? There had been a flaw in Alphonse Bertillon’s profiling. He only classified his criminal records with right thumbprints, and the print on Mona Lisa’s frame had been a left thumbprint. Peruggia was therefore never linked to it.
Peruggia was not brought to trial until June 4, 1914. France did not press for harsh treatment; Italy was not keen to punish the man who had brought Mona Lisa for a brief visit home. He managed to rouse the sympathy of his compatriots, which must have had an influence on his absurdly short prison sentence.
He was given a sentence of one year and fifteen days. On July 19, it was reduced to seven months and nine days. When this brief punishment ended, he went on to start a paint shop.
I have tried to cover the disappearance of Mona Lisa and do justice to the story over the month of August. It’s impossible to give all of the details in a series of little blog posts. If you want to know more about this insane event in history, I encourage you to read Vanished Smile by R.A. Scotti.
Everything about Mona Lisa has a story behind it. I will continue to read about her because few paintings have had such long, unique histories. I am wrapping up my August Mona Lisa Month with this post, but I am not done getting to know the Queen of the Louvre.
I hope my articles have been helpful to you; they were great fun to write!