Here’s the thing about the Mona Lisa that I love: everybody knows that smile, but not everybody knows that she went missing for two years at the beginning of the previous century. Books have been written on this subject — most recently Vanished Smile — the Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti — and The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection by Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler. But here’s the thing: could there be a better plot for a heist film? The subject has been tackled at least twice in modern history: Il Ladro Gioconda in 1966, and a television miniseries called Il furto della Gioconda in 1978. Why English-speaking film producers have not attempted it, I couldn’t say. I think it has all the makings of a slam-bang action/heist movie. George Clooney, I mean to call you about this myself.
About this, and at least one other thing. Are you free Saturday night?
So here’s the story, in a nutshell:
Leonardo da Vinci worked on the Mona Lisa between 1503 and 1519. King Francois I bought the painting and it traveled through the hands of several French rulers, including Napoleon, before it arrived at its permanent home in the Louvre. It started gaining fame in the 19th century, as artists began examining Leonardo’s innovations such as the waist-up pose and the landscape in the background and of course that mysterious facial expression. Experts say her posture — hands folded, reserved — she’s meant to represent the ideal woman, and that’s why she holds such power over people. I don’t know about all that. But she certainly did fascinate people once she became well-known.
So. Here’s a revered painting by a revered Italian artist, owned for centuries by France and and hanging in the most famous museum in Paris. If you were Italian, and an art lover, would that bug you?
That’s one of the theories for why Vincenzo Peruggia entered the Louvre as an ordinary employee on August 21, 1911, waited til a little after closing time, and walked out an art thief. Of one of the most famous paintings ever. How did he do it? Hid in a broom closet til the museum was closed, took the painting off its iron pegs, and walked out with the thing under his coat.
Why did he do it? Some say he felt ardently that the painting was an Italian national treasure and should be returned to Italy. Others say his motives were more sinister, that he planned to make copies of the painting and/or sell it on the black market. Excellent plot point, isn’t it? You could go all Oliver Stone and use the screenplay to back up your conspiracy theory, or you could leave the audience unsure of Peruggia’s motives til the very very end, or you could leave them with no answer at all.
So the painting had been in the Louvre for five years when it was stolen in 1911, but it wasn’t til the next day that someone noticed it was missing. That person contacted security, but an investigation was further held up because people thought it had just been taken down to be photographed. When they realized the painting was really, really missing, the Louvre was shut down for an entire week while investigators searched the museum from top to bottom. They found nothing.
Now the investigation gets serious. Even Pablo Picasso was questioned about the theft. For two years, nobody knows where Mona Lisa is. Meanwhile, the French are mourning her loss, filing through the Louvre to look at the iron pegs where she used to hang. Then, reports author Seymour Reit in PBS’s Treasures of the World: Mona Lisa, the theft touched off a whole Mona Lisa craze in Paris. Cartoons were drawn about the theft; songs were written and sung in cafes; even a chorus line of girls dressed as the Mona Lisa. I guess was as it is with any crisis: at some point, if you can, you have to laugh.
But: what of Peruggia and the painting? Reit — who is the author of The Day they Stole the Mona Lisa, (which is much easier to find and purchase online than the video series — Amazon.com is much more user-friendly than pbs.org) — says investigators did find a good fingerprint on the glass case for the painting, which was left behind. And authorities had just started using fingerprinting to help solve crimes. But what they had was a left thumbprint, and it turns out that at the time officials were only keeping records of the right one!
Back to the painting: it turns out it was hidden the whole time in Peruggia’s apartment, less than a mile from the Louvre. After two years he transported it to Florence, Italy, in a trunk with a false bottom. He met with the director of Florence’s famed Uffizi Gallery with an offer to sell the painting. The director kept the painting overnight, saying he wanted to verify its authenticity, then he contacted the authorities and Peruggia was arrested in his hotel room the next day. The hotel room still exists — it’s Room 20 of the Hotel-Tripoli-Italia, on Via Panzoni.
Peruggia was tried in Italy, rather than France, because Italy refused to extradite him, and ended up serving seven months in jail. The Mona Lisa went on exhibit at the Uffizi for about three weeks and was viewed by tens of thousands of people. It was returned to Paris in January 1914 and re-hung at the Louvre. Under much better security, of course.
Questions remain about Peruggia’s motives. In his trial, he insisted he was merely an Italian patriot returning a treasure to its rightful home. But people are still researching the theory that he may have planned to use the painting to make forgeries and sell them as the original.
There is at least one English-speaking filmmaker who has done significant work on this story. Joe Medeiros, who was head writer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno for 17 years, has been working on a documentary about the theft and Peruggia’s motives. He hooks up with Peruggia’s daughter and her family and says he has been exploring why Peruggia picked the day he did for the heist and what that forgery issue was all about. Here’s a Time magazine article on it, and here’s the trailer for the film. It’s to be released later this year. Hope it’s good, don’t you?
This piece reminded me of a good documentary on art authentication: Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock? It’s a film about a lady who pays five dollars for a painting at a flea market. Someone tells her it could be a Pollock and she is off to the races to prove its authenticity. It’s a fascinating story involving snobby art experts, ex-felons, private investigators, and one extremely stubborn lady truck driver. It’s out for rental now. And yes, it’s a true story.