Happy birthday to the man who stole the Mona Lisa and took it to Italy

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Happy birthday to the man who stole the Mona Lisa and took it to Italy
An archival photo of Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa from France and returned it to Italy in 1911. Some part of Peruggia’s motivation for stealing the masterpiece appears to have been nationalism, but money was a big factor too. Wikimedia Commons via The New York Times.

by Sam Roberts

NEW YORK, NY.- Saturday was the anniversary of the birth — and the death — of the Italian painter who made perhaps the biggest art repatriation blunder in history.

Vincenzo Peruggia, the man who stole the Mona Lisa from France and returned it to Italy, was born on Oct. 8, 1881 and died on Oct. 8, 1925.

Though he was misguided as a historian and an umpire of provenance — the painting had been clearly and cleanly purchased by the King of France, the country to which it was ultimately returned — Peruggia’s caper is worth recalling at a time when repatriation remains a murky battleground.

Each week, it seems, investigators announce new seizures of looted antiquities from museums and private collections. Countries of origin rejoice as artifacts are returned. Collectors and museums complain that the concept of what is stolen art is being constantly redefined, at their expense and, perhaps, the public’s, too.

Do the Elgin marbles belong back in Greece or should they remain in London? Should the Lions of San Marco in Venice be returned to Turkey?

For his part, Peruggia would become a national hero in Italy when da Vinci’s missing masterpiece was finally found there.

“Grateful Italians embraced the hero-thief as Italy’s Don Quixote,” R.A. Scotti wrote in “Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa” (2009).

Even now, Peruggia’s motivation is unproven. Details of the spectacular theft are still sketchy. But this much appears to be known: By the early 20th century, da Vinci’s 1506 half-portrait of the Florentine noblewoman Lisa del Giocondo (mona suggesting noble or aristocratic, in Italian), the wife of a silk merchant, was already one of the most famous paintings in the world.

To protect it from vandals, it was rehung in the Salon Carré of the Louvre in Paris encased in a protective glass case that Peruggia, a housepainter and glazier who had worked at the museum, may have helped fabricate.

The day of the theft, Aug. 21, 1911, was a Monday. The Louvre was closed for maintenance. Peruggia had either hidden overnight in a storage room or sneaked into the museum with other workers that morning.

When the guards assigned to the gallery were on their rounds or doubling as cleaners, Peruggia, either alone or with accomplices, removed the 200-pound framed and glass-enclosed painting from the wall and lugged it into a stairway.

He gingerly removed the portrait itself, which da Vinci had painted on a 30-by-21-inch, 18-pound poplar plank, according to the many newspaper and other accounts of the theft.

With the help of a passing plumber, he managed to unlock an exit door, tucked the painting under the arm of his white worker’s smock and took it home to his one-room hotel apartment at 5 rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis, not far from the Gare de l’Est in the 10th arrondissement where he hid it in a trunk.

Nobody noticed the painting was missing until the next day when artist Louis Béroud arrived to sketch his “Mona Lisa au Louvre” and found four empty hooks in its place.

Guards assumed the portrait had been removed temporarily to be photographed during a routine inventory, but by late morning, after they checked with the house photographer, museum officials panicked.

Hundreds of visitors were herded out. Investigators scoured the miles of galleries. They found the painting’s Italian-carved frame in the stairwell. A broken doorknob was discovered in a garden outside the museum. But the Mona Lisa was gone, without a trace.

The theft was the top story in the next day’s New York Times. Embarrassed museum officials brimmed with speculation about who and what was behind the heist. They suggested the painting might be valueless on the open market — too hot to handle — unless it had been requisitioned by a very wealthy private collector.

Or, perhaps the thief planned to return a very good fake to the museum anonymously and pawn off near-perfect copies for sale as the original. Or maybe the bold theft was the bold stroke of cultural sabotage by modern artists.

The French police even interrogated Pablo Picasso. He had previously used several Iberian stone statuettes stolen from the Louvre by a friend of a friend, the avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire, as a model for his 1907 painting “Demoiselles d’Avignon.” (Apollinaire spent a few days in jail, the only person arrested by French authorities in the Mona Lisa case.)

Jean Théophile Homolle, the director of national museums, who was on vacation when the Mona Lisa vanished, scoffed at the notion that the painting could have been stolen and must have, at worst, been misplaced.

“You might as well pretend,” he said, “that one could steal the towers of Notre Dame.”

He was fired.

Stolen or not, it was missing. A color reproduction was hung instead. Then, in December 1912, a more substantial substitute, Raphael’s portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, a man, took the Mona Lisa’s place. The investigation remained open, but hopes of recovering da Vinci’s masterpiece faded.

For two years, while it remained in Peruggia’s trunk, the thief’s letters suggested multiple motivations, with money, rather than nationalism, preeminent.

In December 1911, he wrote to a relative that he was convinced that Paris was where he would make his fortune and predicted that prosperity “will arrive in one shot.” A year later, he wrote home: “I am making a vow for you to live long and enjoy the prize that your son is about to realize for you and for all our family.”

Regardless of what his family was expecting — some windfall, perhaps, a reward, a lucky wager, a ransom — Peruggia himself grew impatient.

He returned to Italy with the painting, secreting it in his apartment in Florence, where on Nov. 29, 1913, Alfredo Geri, an antiques dealer, received a letter postmarked from Paris. It said: “The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession. It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian.”

The letter was signed “Leonardo.”

After contacting Giovanni Poggi, director of Florence’s Uffizi gallery, Geri replied to the letter and on Dec. 10, a 5-foot-3, mustachioed man who identified himself as Leonardo walked into Geri’s shop. He demanded $100,000 in expenses and offered to show Geri and Poggi the painting in his room at the Tripoli-Italia Hotel.

Peruggia was later arrested at the hotel, but he would become a hometown hero.

Suffering from lead poisoning, probably as a result of his work as a painter, he served seven months in prison before he was released and returned to his hotel (which had been renamed La Gioconda, in deference to the fact that the painting had been found there). He later relocated to Paris, where he died on his 44th birthday in 1925.

But for months after its recovery, the Mona Lisa triumphally toured Italy to joyful crowds. Members of the Italian Parliament preferred to retain it, but the nation’s education minister graciously agreed to restore it to the Louvre.

“Although the masterpiece is dear to all Italians as one of the best productions of the genius of their race, we will willingly return it to its foster country,” he said, “as a pledge of friendship and brotherhood between the two great Latin nations.”

The Mona Lisa would be “delivered to the French ambassador with a solemnity worthy of Leonardo da Vinci,” he added, “and a spirit of happiness worthy of Mona Lisa’s smile.”

On Jan. 4, 1914, the painting was restored to the Louvre. It now hangs in the museum’s largest room, the Salle des Etats, opposite Veronese’s “The Wedding Feast at Cana” — the museum’s largest painting — which, in fact, had been plundered, by Napoleon in 1797 from the refectory of the San Giorgio Maggiore Monastery in Venice.

After Napoleon’s defeat, French officials were not as accommodating with the Veronese. They refused to repatriate the monumental canvas, cautioning that it was too fragile to make the return trip.

But in 1815, with Pope Pius VII arbitrating restitution demands, the French, did give Italy a painting in exchange — not “The Wedding Feast,” but Charles Le Brun’s “The Feast in the House of Simon.”

Veronese’s work apparently was still “too fragile” to travel, though French conservators later managed to move it from its regular location in the Louvre twice, when the nation was at war, in 1870 and 1939.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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