THE THEFT OF THE MONA LISA

The Mona Lisa is probably the most famous painting in the world.

It was painted by Italian Leonardo da Vinci between the years 1505 and 1519.

Leonardo da Vinci gifted the painting to French King Francois I on his deathbed..

The painting has hung in the Louvre Art Gallery in Paris since 1815.

Except when Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte kept it in his bedroom for a few years.

Then during world war two when it was removed to a secret location.

And for the two years more or less that the painting was missing and believed stolen from 1911 until 1913.

This is the story of that theft.

The man who stole the painting was Italian migrant Vincenzo Perrugia.

He had first come to Paris in 1908 and secured a job as a handyman at the Louvre Art Gallery.

His main task was to make the frames and glass casing to protect the many masterpieces on display and prevent them from being vandalised.

This brought him into contact with the Mona Lisa painting which he mistakenly believed had been stolen by Napoleon as part of the imperial rape of Italian art treasures towards the end of the eighteenth century.

Vincenzo Perrugia may well therefore have come to Paris on a pre-conceived patriotic mission to have the Mona Lisa painting returned to his homeland.

During those first three years in the French capital, he supposedly met at least two men who were interested in stealing the Mona Lisa from the Louvre with a view to creating multiple reproductions and selling them to rich interested buyers.

The opportunity to steal it came on the morning of Monday 21st August 1911.

The Louvre was usually closed to the public on Mondays for maintenance and security was low-key.

The theft was simplicity itself.

While the security guard took a cigarette break, the painting was lifted off the four iron pegs from which it hanged in the Salon Carre.

The protective casing and frame was then removed by the very man who had put it on a year before.

Within the matter of an hour, without arousing any suspicion whatsoever, Vincenzo Perrugia was walking out of the same ‘employees door’ through which he had entered the Louvre that morning with the Mona Lisa tucked under his arm.

The painting, only 21 inches wide and 30 inches tall, was unusually painted on wood rather than canvass but the Italian handyman cleverly used his white work tunic to conceal it.

It was not until more than twenty four hours later that the painting was noticed as missing.

The alarm was raised and a police investigation began.

The young man his French co-workers nicknamed ‘Macaroni’ came under inevitable suspicion in the days that followed but there was no evidence to connect him to the crime.

Prior to the theft, few people had heard of the Mona Lisa painting outside of the art world, let alone be able to recognize it if they ever saw it.

That in itself sparked enormous public curiosity and intrigue about the painting.

People came to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa even though she was not there.  In other words, they came to stare at the blank space on the wall from where she (the painting) was stolen.

Vincenzo Perrugia failed to understand  that the technique used by Leonardo da Vinci in the sixteenth century would be virtually impossible to achieve in reproduction four hundred years later by even the most skilled art forger around.

He became impatient for money and the fortune he expected from stealing the painting.

After two years, he took the painting himself by train to Florence Italy to offer it to the curator of the Effuzi Museum and seek reward.

He was once described as a ‘few pickles short of a sandwich but no dimwit’ and Vincenzo Perrugia must have been aware that such ‘hot property’ would lead to his eventual arrest.

He was given a lenient one year sentence by the Court in Florence and acclaimed as a hero for bringing the Mona Lisa back to Italy.

Such acclamation was, however, short-lived because within a few months, the Mona Lisa painting had been returned to the Louvre Art Gallery in Paris.

It remains a matter of debate why the Mona Lisa painting was stolen.

Vincenzo Perrugia might have fallen in love with the mysterious woman portrayed in the painting and wanted her for himself.

Perhaps patriotism did indeed motivate him to have the painting returned to Italy, whether for financial reward or pure notoriety.

But then why wait two years to do this?

The reproduction theory holds weight in light of a newspaper article published in 1932.  It followed the death of the man who was thought to be the mastermind behind the plan to have the painting reproduced.

Although there are known to be Mona Lisa ‘copies’ in existence such as one kept in a Swiss vault, there is no actual evidence of anyone holding a forged reproduction as a result of the 1911 theft.

Nor is there any evidence that Vincenzo Perrugia profited financially from the theft.

One thing seems for sure..  If the painting had not been stolen, it would probably not have become as famous  as it is today.

The ultimate irony is that the Mona Lisa painting is famous because it was stolen and not because it is a true renaissance masterpiece, painted by Leonardo da Vinci, the supposed portrait of the wife of a rich Italian silk merchant or because of Mona Lisa’s engimatic smile.

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