For the first time in history, International Women’s Day is celebrated. Edward VII is on the throne as King of England and the race for the South Pole is well underway. The year is 1911, the same year in which Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece, the Mona Lisa was stolen.
On the 21st August 1911, the Mona Lisa is stolen from the walls of the Louvre Museum. Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous work is gone, and a media frenzy ensues. Who stole it? Where has it gone? For two years, the theft will remain a mystery…
The Mona Lisa Mystery: A History of La Gioconda
Also known as ‘La Gioconda’ in Italian, the Mona Lisa is easily recognisable from her faint smile and Italian Renaissance style. Each year, million of visitors from around the world flock to Paris to see her in pride of place at the Louvre museum.
Although many critics say that the Mona Lisa isn’t Leonardo’s finest piece, her rich history and the questions she raises have ensured that she has become one of the most- if not the most- famous paintings in the world. The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci at some point in the early 1500s (the exact date remains unknown).
Much like the date of the painting is unknown, no one is quite sure of who the portrait is of. One of the most popular theories is that it’s of Lisa del Giocondo, a mother of five children and wife to a cloth and silk merchant who was much older than her. Other theories suggest that the Mona Lisa is a self-portrait of Leonardo da Vinci himself. In other words: no one is quite sure of who the Mona Lisa is meant to portray.
Although no one is quite sure (believe me, when it comes to mysteries and the Mona Lisa, the uncertainty comes thick and fast), it’s thought that Leonardo brought the Mona Lisa with him when he was invited to Amboise by the King of France of the time, Francis I in 1516. It’s thought that the King may well have purchased the painting from Da Vinci.
During this time, Leonardo Da Vinci is also thought to have designed much of Château de Chambord in the Loire Valley. From the time of the French Revolution onwards, the painting hung in the Louvre. Asides from the when the Mona Lisa was stolen, and a brief stint when Napoleon hung the portrait in his bedroom, the Mona Lisa has remained in the Louvre ever since.
The Theft of a Generation: The Mona Lisa was Stolen
The reason why the Mona Lisa is so famous today (besides the fact that she was painted by a genius, is a beautiful example of a 16th Century renaissance painting and no one knows who she is- all of this is true of a number of paintings which survive to this day), is that once upon a time, the Mona Lisa was stolen.
The media coverage and journalistic storm that ensued following her theft ensured that the image of the Mona Lisa, and her faint smile, would remain imprinted in the public’s mind for eternity. On 21st August 1911, the Mona Lisa was stolen from the Salon Carré in the Louvre.
The theft was discovered the following day when a painter wandered into the Louvre to admire the Mona Lisa, and instead discovered four metal pegs! He promptly alerted security, who in turn alerted the media. However, even with worldwide searches, every lead came to a dead end. Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire were both prime suspects (at one point, even Apollinaire was arrested and questioned!)
The spot where the Mona Lisa should be, the Louvre, 1911, Via Wikipedia
The Mona Lisa is found once more
For two years, the painting remained missing. With no leads and no security cameras (this was a time well before our every move was watched!), no one had a clue where the Mona Lisa could be. However, in November 1913, an art dealer in Florence was offered an undeniable request.
A man by the name of Leonardo Vincenzo (this would later turn out to be Vincenzo Peruggia) wrote to art dealer Alfredo Geri and offered him the Mona Lisa (for the eye-watering sum of 500,000 lire). Geri accepted the offer and Vincenzo travelled by train to Florence, with the Mona Lisa casually stuffed in his bag…
When he arrived in Florence, he booked into a hotel (which has since capitalized on this fact and changed its name to ‘Hotel La Gioconda’), and took the painting to Geri. The art dealer persuaded him to leave the Mona Lisa overnight and quickly alerted the police. The Mona Lisa had been found once more.
Mona Lisa in Italy, 1913
How did Vincenzo Steal the Mona Lisa?
It turns out, Vincenzo’s Peruggia’s simple plan was rather effective. Peruggia worked at the Louvre making protective cases for some of the museum’s most famous works. One day, he simply hid in a broom cupboard to avoid being thrown out at closing time.
During the night, Peruggia simply rolled up the masterpiece and hid her under his working smock. The next day, during daylight hours, he simply walked out of the museum with the masterpiece, seemingly undetected. In fact, as you’ve already read, no one even noticed until a visitor alerted the security team!
When the Italian was finally caught, he claimed that he had stolen the Mona Lisa in a bid to bring her back to her place of origin, Italy. He had mistakenly assumed that La Gioconda was stolen by the French and he was simply trying to return her to Italy.
When he was finally arrested, he was given a rather lenient six-month jail sentence. Many Italians thought of him a hero and when the painting was briefly on display at the Ufizzi Gallery in Florence (before its return to the Louvre), thousands flocked to see it.
Following Vincenzo Perguggia’s release from jail, he went on to serve in the Italian army during the First World War. After, he married and had a daughter. Later in life, he moved back to France in order to work as a painter and decorator (only this time, under his birth name, Pietro Peruggia). Peruggia died at just age 44, having made the Mona Lisa the most famous painting in the world.
Vincenzo Peruggia, via Wikipedia
Is the real Mona Lisa even in the Louvre in Paris?
How can we be sure that the Mona Lisa you can see today (albeit behind inches thick, bulletproof glass) is even the real deal? The portrait that was painted by Leonardo Da Vinci? Well, carbon dating suggests that the Mona Lisa in the Louvre does, indeed date back to the 16th Century.
However, another earlier painting of the Mona Lisa exists, which is also thought to have been painted by Leonardo Da Vinci. Many now believe that Leonardo painted both copies of the Mona Lisa (the one in the Louvre being a later edition). Perhaps Vincenzo Peruggia never stole the original Mona Lisa after all. And, then again, perhaps we’ll never know…
How to visit the Mona Lisa in Paris today
You should know before you go that the Mona Lisa is not the only painting in the Louvre. Instead, in an adjacent room to La Jaconde, other Da Vinci works on display include The Virgin and Child with St. Anne and the Annunciation. For more insider tips on visiting the Louvre, check out my Paris museum guide.
Of course, if you want to make the most of your time in Paris, then you’ll want to book your Louvre entrance tickets well in advance. For example, this Louvre timed entrance ticket grants access to a skip-the-line and oh so much shorter queue, allowing for more exploration time and the chance to save on some of your precious time in Paris.
Alternatively, If you’re looking for a more guided experience of the museum, then you might consider booking this Louvre Museum Skip-the-Queue Guided Tour. Finally, the Louvre is the largest museum in the world and so even if you’re only planning to see the Mona Lisa, you’re sure to find something else of interest. After all, between Roman pottery and medieval crumbling foundations, the Louvre certainly has no shortage of things to see!
Cover image: Via Wikimedia
A note on the Salvator Mundi, Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘other’ controversial masterpiece
Since 2017, the Mona Lisa being stolen hasn’t been the only controversial event to have befallen a(n alleged) Da Vinci work. You see, the Salvator Mundi, which is widely contentious in the art world as many experts don’t believe it to be a genuine Da Vinci, resurfaced after decades outside of the public eye.
The high-priced deception or ‘rediscovery of a masterpiece’ (depending on who you believe) was believed to have been created for King Louis XII and his consort Queen Anne. Having disappeared between 1763 and 1900, the oil painting was largely thought to have been destroyed or simply lost to the ages.
All this changed in 1900 when the painting was purchased by an English collector (Sir Charles Robinson) who believed the painting to have been the creation of a follower of Leonardo, Bernardino Luini. Once more, the painting was sold through auction at Sotheby’s in 1958 before re-emerging into the public conscience in 2005.
In 2017, the Salvator Mundi was once again sold at auction, this time as a work quite literally attributed to Leonardo da Vinci. Sold at Christie’s in New York, the piece fetched a staggering sum of $450,312,500, the highest ever record for an artwork. The buyer remains anonymous and the painting has not been seen since. Though there were rumours that the artwork would appear at the 500th anniversary exhibition at the Louvre, it never surfaced, thus increasing the mystery surrounding the ‘Salvator Mundi’.