Vincenzo Peruggia

The man who stole the Mona Lisa

Deirdre Pirro
July 14, 2011

Her custodians at the Louvre in Paris have banned any future travels. But this has not discouraged Italy's National Committee for the Enhancement of History, Culture and Environment ('Comitato nazionale per la valorizzazione dei beni storici, culturali e ambientali') from continuing its appeal for a temporary return to Florence of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece, the Mona Lisa, for an exhibit at the Uffizi Gallery in 2013. The committee is acting in collaboration with the Province of Florence, which owns the Convent of Sant' Orsola, where research is currently underway to find the remains of the woman depicted in the picture, Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant named Francesco del Giocondo (hence the name La Gioconda).


According Silvano Vinceti, chair of the committee, the goal is to collect 100,000 signatures, during the next six months, in support of the campaign. This petition would then be presented to the Italian and French governments and the museum in an effort to persuade them to let the Mona Lisa make a visit home.



Why 2013? The year marks the 100th anniversary of the painting's last appearance in Florence. How it came to be is the story of one of the most clamorous art heists of the last century.


On August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia calmly walked out of the Louvre with the painting tucked under his workman's smock. An immigrant carpenter and decorator born 1881 in Dumenza, a small town on Lake Como, Peruggia worked at the museum. Having planned the burglary, he spent Sunday night there, hiding in a storeroom. On Monday morning, the day the museum was closed, he unhooked the painting, took it out of its heavy frame, which he abandoned under a staircase and, unscrewing the knob of a locked door, let himself out of the building.


On Tuesday, the theft was discovered, and it soon became not only front-page news around the world but also a serious embarrassment to French authorities, who quickly began squabbling among themselves about who was to blame for the loss of this national treasure.


Conspiracy theories were rife and wrongfully implicated important figures like poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire and artist Pablo Picasso. It was even suggested the Germans had hatched the plot to discredit the French. Hundreds of people were questioned, including museum employees.

The police even searched Peruggia's shabby lodging but failed to find anything: he had carefully hidden the masterpiece under a tabletop of the same dimension.


When the Louvre re-opened nine days later, people flocked to see the empty spot where the painting had hung, making the image of the woman with the enigmatic smile the icon it still is today.

Two years later, Peruggia arrived in Florence, his precious cargo in his suitcase, wrapped in a red cloth hidden under grubby underwear. Staying at the Tripoli e Italia hotel, he used an alias when he contacted Alfredo Geri, an antique dealer in Borgognissanti, offering to return the painting. The antiquarian, together with Giovanni Poggi, then director of the Uffizi Gallery, went to examine it. Satisfied it was authentic, Geri tipped off the police and Peruggia was arrested.


During his trial, Peruggia, a small man with a bushy black moustache, admitted he had chosen the artwork because its size made it easy to conceal. However, he said, his motive for the theft was patriotism. He had believed, mistakenly, that Napoleon had stolen it and taken it from Italy to France. Although it was unclear whether he had tried to sell it or hoped to receive a reward for it, he was hailed as a hero throughout the country and the court treated him leniently. A more recent theory that he was the accomplice of a gang of forgers headed by a conman, Marquis Eduardo de Valfierno, seems unlikely.


Before the Italian government returned the painting to the Louvre, it exhibited the Mona Lisa, first at the Uffizi in Florence, then at Palazzo Farnese and the Galleria Borghese in Rome, and, finally, at the Brera museum in Milan. The exhibitions over, it was transported by special train to the Italian border, where it was handed back to the French. On reaching the Louvre on January 4, 1914, the entire French government and the president of the republic were there to welcome it home.

After serving only seven months and four days of his 380-day sentence in Florence's Le Murate prison, Peruggia fought with the Italian army during World War I. Following his marriage, he returned to France where he opened a paint store. According to his daughter, Celestina, he died at age 44, of a heart attack in Haute-Savoie in 1925 and not in 1947 as reported in other sources-a final element of mystery in his story.



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