Stealing the Mona Lisa

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The Mona Lisa is unquestionably the most famous painting in the world. Heck, it is probably the most famous work of art in the world. 

Yet the reason why it is so famous is due to an event which happened on the 21st of August 1911. It was wasn’t for the events of that day, the Mona Lisa would probably just be another painting hanging on the walls of the Louver. 

Find out what happened to make the Mona Lisa so famous in this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

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The Mona Lisa is perhaps the greatest painting by the artist Leonardo da Vinci. There are only about 15 paintings by Leonardo which still exist and there are debates as to the authenticity of several of them. 

The Mona Lisa, however, is unquestionably a Leonardo.

The painting is of a noblewoman from Florance named Lisa del Giocondo. 

The term “mona lisa” just means “the lady Lisa” in Italian. It is only known as the Mona Lisa in English. In Italian, it is known as La Gioconda, and in French, it is called La Joconde. 

The painting itself is an oil painting on poplar wood panels. 

Leonardo worked on the painting for years, taking it with him in the last years of his life when he went to work in the court of King Francis I of France. It is estimated that it was painted between 1503 and 1506 but there are estimates that he may have worked on it as long as 1517.

The image is one of the best examples of his sfumato technique, which consists of very small brushstrokes to create very soft transitions between colors and without any harsh lines. 

It is undeniably his masterpiece. 

The Mona Lisa became the possession of King Francis upon the death of Leonardo and stayed in the Palace of Fontainblue under the possession of the French crown until the French Revolution in 1797 when it was placed on display in Louvre. It remained there until today, save for a brief period when it hung in the bedroom of Napoleon. 

All these things make the Mona Lisa a very significant painting, an important painting, and an interesting painting, but it doesn’t explain why a portrait of an otherwise unknown woman from Italy is the most famous painting in the world. 

To understand that, we need to fast forward to August 21st, 1911. On that day, the Mona Lisa disappeared. 

It literally just vanished. It was hanging on the wall with several other paintings, and no one even noticed that it was gone until the next day when it was discovered missing by painter Louis Béroud. 

There was a great deal of confusion at first. The museum thought that the painting might have been taken to get photographed. Eventually, they realized that the painting had been stolen, and the blame was first pointed in the direction of modernist artists. 

The first person taken into custody was the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire who was a vocal critic of classic art. He was held for a week and and pointed the finger at his friend Pablo Picasso. Eventually, both men were exonerated of the crime. 

All the borders to France were put on alert, and everyone going out of the country had their belongings searched. Ships were prevented from leaving port until their vessels were searched for the painting. 

The day after the theft, it was headline news around the world. Papers in Sao Palo, New York, London, and Washington reported the news.

In Paris, the papers expressed outrage at the loss of a national treasure.

The French magazine L’Illustration wrote:

“What audacious criminal, what mystifier, what maniac collector, what insane lover, has committed this abduction?” 

They offered a reward of 40,000 Francs, which works out to a bit under $1,000 today.

Their competitor, the Paris Journal, then upper the reward to 50,000 Francs.

In the weeks after the theft, conspiracy theories as to who might have stolen it became a popular pastime in the media. Rumors and false leads began pouring in from all over the world. 

The Louvre remained closed for almost a month, and when it reopened, crowds of people lined up just to see the empty spot on the wall where the missing Mona Lisa used to hang. Some even left flowers in front of the empty spot on the wall as if they were honoring someone who died.

The trail went cold and for over two years, there were no leads in the case.

In November 1913, an art dealer in Florence named Alfredo Geri received a letter from a man named “Leonard” who claimed to have the Mona Lisa in his possession. He claimed to be an Italian who was “suddenly seized with the desire to return to [his] country at least one of the many treasures which, especially in the Napoleonic era, had been stolen from Italy.”  It should be noted that Napoleon didn’t steal the Mona Lisa, it has been in France since the death of Da Vinci.

Geri contacted the Uffizi Gallery and was given information about the back of the painting that no one else would know unless they had access to the actual Mona Lisa.

After weeks of cat and mouse, Geri and Leonard finally met in Florence, where the painting was produced, and Geri was able to authenticate it as the real Mona Lisa.

The two took the painting to the Uffizi and there the man who had the painting was arrested.

The man who called himself by the codename Leonard, was actually Vincenzo Peruggia. He was an Italian who was a low-level employee at the Louvre. The heist was one of the most simple capers every carried out.

Peruggia simply visited the Louvre the day before on Sunday, ducked into a storage closet, stayed there overnight, then walked out the next morning wearing an artist smock, took the painting off the wall, covered it up, and walked out the door. 

During his trial, it was determined that he had acted alone and he was sentenced to 1 year and 15 days in prison. After his sentencing, he was reported to have said, “It could have been worse.”

When the painting was announced as having been recovered, media coverage went into overdrive, and this is when the Mona Lisa became the most famous painting in the world.

The Italian government agreed to return the painting, but they did so in a very roundabout way, taking the painting to major cities in Italy for exhibitions while slowly working their way to France. In each city, tens of thousands of people showed up to see the painting for themselves.

On the first day, it was returned to the Louvre, over 100,000 people showed up to gaze upon France’s returned treasure. 

Since the painting was returned, the Mona Lisa has remained the most famous painting in the world.

In 1962 and 1963, the painting was on loan in the United States, where it was valued at $100,000,000 dollars for insurance purposes, would be worth $850 million in 2020. 

With the recent sale of the Leonardo painting “Salavdor Mundi” for $450,000,000”, it is estimated that the Mona Lisa would have a value of over $2.5 billion at auction today. 

The popularity of the painting is best described by the director of the Louvre who noted that 80% of the 10 million annual visitors to the museum go directly to see the Mona Lisa…..and leave.