"Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa?" - The Theft of the World's Most Famous Painting

12 December 1913, Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Gioconda”, the Mona Lisa, resurfaced two years after being stolen from the Louvre in a hotel room in Florence.
“Many dreams have been brought to your doorstep / They just lie there and they die there / Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa? / Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art?" (Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, “Mona Lisa“)

The world’s most famous piece of poplar (Bob Dylan)

The most touching interpretation of the best known work art in the world is certainly the approach to see the famous La Gioconda as a portrait of Giuliano II de’ Medici’s lover Pacifica Brandani who died in childbed. Allegedly, the Duke of Nemours and son of Lorenzo the Magnificent ordered the posthumous portrait for his own son Ippolito de’ Medici to comfort him over the loss of his mother he had never known. Certainly a distinct humane streak in a Medici. The oldest and best established theory is still that the lady is the third wife of the Florentine merchant and politician Francesco del Giocondo. And indeed, in 2008 a contemporary note was discovered that Leonardo produced a portrait of a Lisa del Giocondo. The painting originates from the first years of the 16th century, acknowledged by all experts, is painted in oil on poplar with the dimensions of 77 x 53 cm and was acquired by Leonardo’s patron, the French King Francis I after the master’s death in 1519 from his student and maybe lover Salai – who might, according to another theory, be the Mona Lisa himself. During the following decades, the “Mona Lisa” found a home first in Fontainebleau, then in Versailles in the collection of Louis XIV and in 1795, after the Revolution, in the new Louvre public museum. Napoleon had the painting removed and hung it in his own bedroom and it returned after his fall to the Louvre for the next 100 years.

Vacant wall in the Salon Carré, Louvre after the painting was stolen in 1911

And then, one fine Tuesday morning in August 1911, inventory number 316, the Gioconda, was gone without a trace. The police rounded up the usual suspects, among them the poet Guillaume Apollinaire who had in iconoclastic zeal, not long before, proposed to burn down the Louvre anyway. His roommate Pieret was involved in the theft of sculptures from the Louvre’s depot and obviously had sold them to Picasso, who was also questioned by the police, but to no avail. A huge scandal that domineered the headlines of the world’s newspapers for weeks, the Louvre’s curator was handed his marching orders and his successor hung first Raphael’s “Baldassare Castiglione” and then Camille Corot’s “Woman with a Pearl”, both works being heavily influenced by Leonardo’s masterpiece, over the empty spot on the wall that had become an attraction of its own. And while the sale of “Mona Lisa” reproductions rose to astronomical heights until the end of the year and everyone who was able to look at the first page of a newspaper had by then seen and heard about the “Mona Lisa”, the painting remained lost.

La Joconde est Retrouvée” (Mona Lisa is Found),
Le Petit Parisien, Numéro 13559, 13 December 1913

Two years later the Florentine art dealer Alfredo Geri received a letter by one Vincenzo Leonardo, Place de la République, Paris, offering him the “Mona Lisa” for covering Vincenzo’s expenses of 500.00 Lira (about 1.5 Million Euros). Geri naturally thought it was a joke, but his friend Giovanni Poggi, curator of the Uffizi, persuaded him to meet with Vincenzo and on December 11th, the two art specialists identified the “Mona Lisa” in a suite of Florence’s Hotel Tripoli on the Via Panzani. The handover was agreed for the following day and Vincenzo was, naturally, apprehended by the police. Vincenzo Leonardo, née Vincenzo Peruggia, was a 32 years old house painter and petty criminal from Varese who worked for the Louvre as a handyman. On 21 August 1911, he locked himself in a cupboard in the museum and carried the painting out under his coat when the visitors came in on the following morning. The “Mona Lisa” was hidden for more than two years in a whole in the wall of his flat until Vincenzo decided to carry out his original plan to return Leonardo’s painting to his native Italy. The painting was exhibited in Florence and Rome until 31 December 1913 when it was returned to the Louvre, while Vincenzo was celebrated as a kind of national hero by the Italian press. His following trial ended with quite a light sentence, because the judges were convinced that he had not acted with a criminal intent and he got 7 months and 9 days for stealing the “Mona Lisa”.

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