You may be shocked to find out that the renowned painting the Mona Lisa, or La Gioconda, wasn’t as famous as it is today until the beginning of the 20th century – nearly 500 years after it was painted. That’s right, a painting considered the most famous piece of art in the Western world was an obscurity, unknown to ordinary people at the time.
Probably the best part of this story is the heist wasn’t even an elaborate plan. Thieves didn’t repel into the Louvre from the roof and dangle above the painting to avoid tripping wires and alarms. Instead, it was done by one man who simply walked into the Louvre through one door and out another with the painting tucked under his arm.
This is the story of how an Italian man named Vincenzo Peruggia ended up making the Mona Lisa one of the most famous paintings in the world.
Who was Vincenzo Peruggia
Vincenzo Peruggia was born on October 8th, 1881 in Dumenza, a small village in the Alps of Italy on the border of Switzerland. Not much is known about his early life besides that he wasn’t rich and his family would find themselves in financial trouble later on.
He eventually would move to Paris, where he worked as a carpenter and perform miscellaneous tasks at the Louvre. Funnily enough, Peruggia built the exact kind of case in which the Mona Lisa was held when he eventually stole it.
Besides carpentry, Peruggia was, ironically, a painter like da Vinci himself. By moving to Paris, he may have hoped to have been discovered and recognized for his creative works. Unfortunately for Peruggia and in turn, La Gioconda, that never happened.
The Day of the Heist
Eventually, maybe after growing restless at his failure as an artist, Peruggia decided to steal the Mona Lisa and return it to Italy. Peruggia claims he did it out of patriotism and a love for his country. Peruggia probably couldn’t fathom how a beautiful Italian painting could’ve been stolen by the French and held captive away from her homeland. He couldn’t take it anymore and began concocting a simple plan to rescue the famed painting.
Some details of the heist are disputed. While Peruggia claims he did it all in one day, some speculate that he hid in a supply closet until the museum was closed over the weekend. Others believe there had to have been more people involved in the heist. Sadly, all we have is Peruggia’s confession to go off of at this point and with his death, the true details also die.
Peruggia claims that he arrived at the museum on August 21st, 1911, at 7 AM wearing a white smock, similar to what other museum workers wore. He mingled with other employees and blended in as everyone started their day at the Louvre. After entering the building, he went to the Salon Carre, where the Mona Lisa was displayed among other famous pieces of artwork.
Once the room was clear of other patrons, employees, and security guards, he took the Mona Lisa from its spot on the wall and brought it to an access stairwell. Remember, this is 1911. There were no security cameras, laser beams, or pressure sensors. It was just a painting on the wall, in a frame he had probably once built.
Once La Gioconda was free from her restraints, he either placed her under his smock or used his smock to cover her while he carried the painting. Then, he simply walked out of the Louvre and hurried home. This truly was a heist so simple that the movie would be called Ocean’s One and have a runtime of four minutes. A single man without any tools managed to make off with one of the most expensive paintings in the world, and probably in broad daylight.
The next day, an employee noticed the empty spot on the wall where the Mona Lisa should have sat. The Louvre began to shut down, and an investigation was held to determine if the Mona Lisa was really stolen or if it had been removed to be photographed, or if the frame was perhaps being refurbished. The authorities truly couldn’t believe it had been stolen. Eventually, the authorities realized that there had been a heist and that the Mona Lisa was truly gone.
The Police and Museum’s Response to the Theft of the Mona Lisa
You might think he immediately took off for his homeland Italy, but instead, Peruggia stayed in Paris for another two years. The police had even come to his apartment and questioned him twice about his possible involvement since he was either a prior or current employee at the Louvre.
Peruggia knew this was a possibility and had hidden the painting in a trunk with a false bottom. He seemed to have a plausible alibi, and with no artwork to be found in the apartment, the police crossed him off their list of suspects.
Two unlikely people who also made the list of suspects were none other than the artist Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, a famous poet and playwright. Eventually, both were cleared and exonerated, but the police still didn’t have a suspect.
The director of national museums, Jean Theophile Homolle, couldn’t believe that the painting was stolen and insisted the Mona Lisa was moved elsewhere within the building. He’s even quoted as saying it couldn’t possibly have been stolen because stealing it would be like suggesting that “one could steal the towers of Notre Dame.” It should go without saying that he was fired shortly after these events transpired.
A Look at Vincenzo Peruggia’s Patriotism – or Greed
Eventually, Peruggia would leave Paris and return to Italy with La Gioconda in tow. He kept it at his apartment in Florence, probably putting it on display when guests weren’t around. Peruggia certainly was satisfied with his success at returning the stolen painting from France to Italy. After all, how could he let the French keep a stolen painting created by one of the most famous Italians of all time? Leonardo da Vinci would undoubtedly have wanted it to be in the hands of the Italians and not on display for the French.
Well, our buddy Vincenzo should’ve read up on the history of it before stealing it because the Mona Lisa was bought by French King François I after da Vinci’s death. Da Vinci was in France via an invite by the very same King to perform work for him until he died in 1519. Peruggia’s idea that it was stolen is a pretty far stretch considering the King paid a hefty sum for it, approximately 4,000 gold coins.
Peruggia’s patriotism is also called into question after he attempted to profit off of his art napping. It seems he may have even considered the idea of selling it shortly after he stole it. There are several letters to relatives written by Peruggia after the theft where he discusses how he will make a fortune but avoids mentioning exactly how it will be made. One can only assume he intended to sell the Mona Lisa privately and pay off his family’s debts.
The Arrest of Vincenzo Peruggia and the Return of the Mona Lisa
Peruggia’s claims of patriotism get even more dubious after he tries to sell the painting for a nice sum of 500,000 lire to Mario Fratelli, an art gallery owner in Florence. Fratelli met with Peruggia, who had used a fitting false name, Leonardo. Upon seeing La Gioconda, Fratelli told “Leonardo” to leave the painting so he could authenticate it and make sure it was real. Fratelli instead phoned the police, who waited for Peruggia at his apartment and quickly took him into custody.
Peruggia instantly became an Italian hero, and La Gioconda was put on display all over Italy before eventually being returned to France as a show of good faith. Peruggia was put on trial where he claimed his motives were patriotic, which only slightly swayed the judge that sentenced him to a lenient year and fifteen days in prison.
Peruggia would only serve seven months before being released and enlisting in the Italian army to fight in WWI. He would return to France and live in Paris again, close enough to steal from the Louvre. However, Peruggia’s art thief days were over and he would instead focus on his own paintings until his death in 1925 at the age of 44. His death was not widely known since he had decided to go by his birth name, Pietro Peruggia, after his escapades.
The Mona Lisa was well-known among the art connoisseurs in the Western world in the 20th century, but it would take a one-man heist to throw it into the spotlight and make it world-renowned. Leonardo da Vinci certainly had the skill to create the beautiful Mona Lisa, but Vincenzo Peruggia’s theft put it into the headlines of every newspaper in the Western world. Peruggia’s claims of patriotism are dubious, but either way, he certainly brought more fame to the Italian painting and the Italian polymath, Leonardo da Vinci.