The Mona Lisa has been scrutinized and poeticized and theorized for decades, even centuries. It’s probably one of the most famous paintings in all the world, if not the most famous painting. And yet, before the 1910s, it wasn’t that big a deal. Thousands of people had been through the Louvre and caught a glimpse of it in a row with other paintings of similar size.
Photo Credit: The Mona Lisa’s vacant place in the Salon Carre after it was stolen in 1911, unknown author, Century Magazine, 1914 February, The Century Company: Meidosensei/Wikimedia Commons/PD anon expired
So what happened to make the Mona Lisa warrant a wall of her own with a heavy wooden railing and bulletproof glass to protect her? In a word: theft.
Many people aren’t aware the Mona Lisa was stolen in 1911. And not by some world-renowned professional gang of thieves or a highly skilled and experienced cat burglar either. It was a working man, an everyday house painter, who walked off with the Mona Lisa.
An Italian immigrant working in France by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa. He had been arrested twice before, once for theft (though he claimed it was a misunderstanding) and once for not having his immigration papers on him. He was highly suspicious of the French, who showed a lot of xenophobia at that time, especially against the Italians, who were the largest immigrant group at that time. There are theories he was psychologically unbalanced due to lead poisoning from the paint he used in his job as a house painter. Yet, he managed to steal the Mona Lisa (painting only – he left the frame on the service stairs of the Louvre) and keep it hidden for two years.
Why he stole it is still a mystery. One theory is that it was an act of patriotism. Tensions were heating up in Europe, especially between France and Germany, and Italy, tensions that would eventually cause the outbreak of WWI in 1914. Peruggia, as mentioned earlier, had been subject to a lot of ridicule and prejudice in France for being Italian. His coworkers had nicknamed him “Macaroni” and he vowed one day to show them just who was a “macaroni.” In addition, the Mona Lisa was painted by an Italian — Leonardo da Vinci — and it was believed at the time France acquired it illegally during the Napoleonic wars when it was known Napoleon and his army would loot a conquered city of its precious artifacts and ship them to France. This story turned out to be untrue (da Vinci left all his works to his assistant, who later sold them to representatives of European monarchs, including the King of France) but maybe Peruggia wanted to believe it to have a reason to steal the painting.
Others surmise it was purely for money. Though the Mona Lisa didn’t have the notoriety it has today, it was still pretty famous and could fetch a cool $5 million at that time by some estimates (today the Mona Lisa is estimated to be worth more than a quarter of a billion dollars.)
Whatever the reason, this relatively small painting (roughly, 2 1/2 x 2 feet – compare with the Last Supper, which is roughly 15 x 29 feet) became a celebrity of its own after it was discovered missing. Media mayhem ensued and a frantic international search began, though it lasted only a few months. After that, all became quiet until 1913, when the painting showed up and Peruggia was apprehended.
Want the full details of this fascinating crime that didn’t involve murder? I’ll be doing a series of newsletters next month where I’ll be exploring all the ins and outs to celebrate the release of Book 4 of my Adele Gossling Mysteries (which is also about the theft of precious items, though none as precious as the Mona Lisa) on January 28, 2023. If you’re not a subscriber of my newsletter, now is a great time to join and find out all about the Mona Lisa heist. And you’ll get a free book when you do!
And if you’re into thieves and golden cats, check out Book 4, which is now at a special preorder price, here.