Mystery of The Missing Mona Lisa

Mona_Lisa,_by_Leonardo_da_Vinci,_from_C2RMF_retouchedBy Alex Starace

Many people are familiar with the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile. Far fewer are familiar with the mysterious disappearance of the Mona Lisa – nor do many know that it went missing for more than two years. But, alas, it did.

On an unassuming Monday in 1911, on August 21, the Louvre in Paris was closed for cleaning and general maintenance, which was customary at the time. Workers in white smocks went to and fro, even as the Mona Lisa was not hanging where it should be: the Louvre had been periodically removing and photographing some of its more prominent works for promotional purposes.

Thief in plain sight

Certainly, no one noticed that a man named Vincenzo Perugia had left the Louvre carrying something under his white smock. He was an Italian workman who’d previously helped Louvre officials install a protective glass cover over the Mona Lisa. And he’d just completed a mind-numbingly simple plan: the preceding day, he entered the museum during regular hours dressed as a worker, hid himself in a utility closet, slept the night there, and walked out with the painting early that Monday morning.

However, it wasn’t until mid-day Tuesday that officials realized that it was missing. A painter named Louis Beroud had planned on painting a still life of the Mona Lisa in the gallery. Frustrated by its absence, he asked the guards when the masterwork would be returned. The guards inquired, only to learn that no one knew where it was. Almost instantly, all the exits were locked, the police were called, and visitors were searched. For a week, the Louvre was closed so each nook and cranny of the 650,000 square-foot former palace could be inspected.

Pablo Picasso – Arrested!Duval_Louvre_Apollo-Galerie

It was an embarrassment to the French, “a national scandal of the first magnitude,” according to a contemporaneous New York Times report. Conspiracy theories flew: some accused the Germans of  orchestrating the heist as a form of humiliation, while the Germans accused the French of an inside job. The American industrialist J.P. Morgan was a suspected mastermind. Others believed that poorly paid workers at the Louvre had done it out of spite. Some clung to the hope that the theft was a prank – and that the painting would be returned shortly.

In September of 1911, the outspoken surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire was arrested; he’d previously stated that the Louvre should be burned to the ground. Upon questioning, Apollinaire implicated his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also arrested. However, nothing came of either arrest: both artists were exonerated. With no obvious leads, the public assumed that the Mona Lisa was lost forever. Nervous jokes were made about the Eiffel Tower being next to go.

In fact, the masterpiece was mere blocks from the Louvre, stashed in a trunk, at the boarding house where Perugia lived.

Vincenzo_PerugiaThe Pursuit

As the months rolled by, the authorities were no closer to recovering it. Instead, it was Perugia’s own foolishness that led to its return. 
In the fall of 1913, more than two years after he’d executed the heist, Perugia responded to a Florentine art dealer’s newspaper ad, 
saying he would like to sell the Mona Lisa. The art dealer, Alfredo Geri, offered to pay 500,000 lire for the piece, provided Perugia came to Florence to have it authenticated. A month later, in December 1913, Perugia showed up. Geri persuaded him to leave the gallery while the Mona Lisa was formally examined – and then called the law.

By all accounts, Perugia was shocked when police knocked on his hotel room door. He’d stolen the Mona Lisa to return it to Italy, mistakenly assuming it had been ransacked by Napoleon. In actuality, the King of France, Francis I, had acquired it directly from da Vinci in the early 1500s. Regardless, Perugia was hailed by some Italian nationalists as a hero, and the Mona Lisa toured Italy before it was returned.

The following summer, Perugia stood trial and pled guilty, receiving eight months imprisonment. Less than a week later WWI began – and the affair of the missing Mona Lisa lost much of its heft.




Leonardo Da Vinci Artist, Engineer, Procrastinator


By Alex Starace

Did you know that despite his forays into anatomy, flight, and engineering, Leonardo da Vinci was a notorious procrastinator? His famous painting The Last Supper was so late that his patron threatened to stop supporting him, unless he finished. Which he finally did – three years after starting. His entire adult life, creditors hounded him for artwork he promised but never ended up delivering. In fact, only fifteen completed extant paintings are attributed to da Vinci – though he painted for over 35 years.

One could argue that da Vinci was simply otherwise engaged. In the early 1500s, to honor his then-patron the French king, da Vinci developed a life-size mechanical lion that walked ten steps forward and, after being whipped by the king, opened its chest to reveal flowers. The creation, a feat of incredible mechanical acumen and brilliant stagecraft, places da Vinci as the godfather of animatronics.

davinci-drawingHe is also considered a forerunner to modern anatomy. As an artist, he was allowed access to unclaimed corpses at local hospitals, to examine the human form. Da Vinci took these studies seriously: he dissected over thirty bodies and filled notebook after notebook with sketches. His drawings were easily the best anatomical drawings of his era – and they hold up even today as remarkably accurate depictions.

But scholars had to find his sketches in his notebooks after his death: In his defense, da Vinci meant to publish a treatise on anatomy during his lifetime, something that would have forwarded the field and allowed others easy access to his work – though, of course, he never got around to it.

Mystery of The Missing Mona Lisa