Mona Lisa, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, between 1503-16
Then in August 1911, a crisis occurred – France’s beloved Mona Lisa was stolen from the Louvre. Guards who noticed that the painting was missing assumed it had been removed to be photographed. Once museum officials realised the truth, the Louvre was shut down. Dozens of police arrived to question the staff, re-enact the crime and dust for finger prints. All employees, past and present, were interrogated and finger printed, including the eventual thief. But they were all cleared.
The French border was sealed, and departing ships and trains searched. By the time the museum re-opened nine days later, the theft was front-page news around the world. What could have happened? Jennifer Rosenberg noted that some Frenchmen blamed the Germans, believing the theft a ploy to demoralise their country. And some Germans thought it was a ploy by the French to distract French citizens from international concerns.
Richard Lacayo noted that the newspaper Paris-Journal was offering a reward for information about the crime. A petty thief said he had previously worked as secretary for Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet who was Picasso's constant supporter in the public skirmishes over modern art in the French press. Before long, the thief had implicated Apollinaire. When police arrested Apollinaire, he admitted under pressure that the thief 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 police then questioned Picasso. Picasso was Spanish citizen and any serious criminal problem could get him deported. And he had reason to be worried, since he almost certainly had dealt with the thief in the past. However there was no evidence against Picasso.
Presumbly it was thought that that modernist enemies of traditional art might have taken the Mona Lisa. But why - to destroy it? to make an art historical-political point?
Vincenzo Peruggia, police documentation, 1913
Peruggia travelled to Florence by train the following month, taking the Mona Lisa in a trunk with a false bottom. Eventually in Florence he took the painting to an art gallery where the owner, Alfredo Geri, persuaded him to leave it for expert examination. In 1913, the Italian police could finally arrest the thief.
According to Richard Cavendish, Peruggia apparently believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon. The thief never planned to damage or destroy the painting; he believed that he was only doing his patriotic duty, by returning the painting to its true home in Italy. In fact Peruggia's patriotic rationale really DID make him a hero in the Italian press. And many Italians really did joyously welcome the masterpiece home at the Uffizi and the Borghese Galleries, Villa Medici, Farnese Palace and the Brera Museum. But we need to remember that Mona Lisa had never been part of Napoleon’s art collection, so I wonder why Peruggia’s gaol sentence was relatively minor.
modern security for Mona Lisa, the Louvre
After the painting’s triumphal tour of Italy, the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre and has mostly remained there, in its rightful spot, ever since. Security these days is, needless to say, rather tight.
p.s 100 years later the Mona Lisa is again making the news. See Art Blog By Bob for the arguments about why you shouldn’t believe the “Earlier Mona Lisa” hype.