Monday, 22 August 2011

Mon Dieu! La Joconde, elle est perdu!

Mona Lisa. La Gioconda. La Joconde. However you know her, Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of a beguilingly mysterious lady is inarguably the world’s most famous painting. Instantly recognisable, the face of the Mona Lisa is identifiable to even the most uncultured philistine among us.

But why is this the case? Why is this particular painting more famous than, say, Virgin of the Rocks or Lady with an Ermine? Both are equally as accomplished, if not more so, as Mona Lisa. For that matter, why does Mona Lisa's renown eclipse works by other Old Masters, like those of Raphael, Caravaggio or Rubens?

Many would claim that the reason Mona Lisa has captured our imagination for generations is all down to that enigmatic, mesmerizing smile. Others would point to her inscrutability (Is she smiling or smirking? Is she happy or scornful?) as the reason behind our continuing fascination with her. Still more would cite the long-running theory that the painting is, in fact, a crafty self-portrait of the artist himself.

Most likely, all of these explanations are true, in part at least. But it may surprise many to learn that, up to a century ago, the most famous painting in the world existed in relative obscurity. While she still hung in the Louvre, the daily queues of tourists, eager to catch a glimpse of those legendary lips, simply did not exist. Yes, she was a highly valued example of da Vinci’s genius, but she did not inspire anything like the adoration she does today.

Vincenzo Peruggia
The fact is, Mona Lisa’s fame can be traced to a precise point in time, 21st August 1911, almost exactly one hundred years ago. On this day, a humble Italian painter and carpenter by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia staged one of the most audacious art thefts the world has ever seen, and in doing so, propelled Mona Lisa into a realm of notoriety, hitherto unknown for any artwork, no matter how extraordinary.

Peruggia, in the mistaken belief that Mona Lisa had been stolen by Napoleon, was determined to restore the masterpiece to his native Italy. (In fact, the painting had never been misappropriated - da Vinci had brought the painting with him to the court of the French king, Francis I, and it had remained in France ever since.)

Having previously worked in the Louvre, Peruggia was familiar with the layout of the gallery, and so was able to secrete himself in a hiding place close to where Mona Lisa hung. There he waited for hours, until the gallery had cleared of visitors. When he emerged, he was wearing a painter’s smock, similar to those worn by the gallery’s many restoration staff. Coolly lifting the precious painting from the wall, he then sauntered to a stairwell, where he discarded the frame and protective glass. Sticking the bulky treasure under his smock (Mona Lisa is painted on wood, not canvas), Peruggia calmly exited the building. He then took a bus back to his apartment, where he laid the painting in a specially constructed box, and stowed it under his bed, where it remained for the next two years.

Astonishingly, the theft went unnoticed for a full 24 hours. When the Louvre’s security guards saw the empty wall space which had previously been occupied by Mona Lisa, they assumed the painting had been taken to the photography department for safekeeping. Blithely unaware that any theft had taken place, the guards went about their business as normal. Only when a persistent visitor asked repeatedly about Mona Lisa’s whereabouts was the theft discovered…

Within hours, news of the robbery had spread all around the world, where it was greeted with widespread consternation. How could so precious a painting as Mona Lisa simply disappear from the Louvre, without a single person noticing the loss?

The ensuing controversy captured the public’s imagination unlike any other art theft in recent memory – to the extent that more people went to view the empty space where Mona Lisa once lived than had seen the actual painting the entire year previously. Ironically, despite the fact that Mona Lisa had hung in the Louvre for many years, it seemed the precious masterpiece only began to be appreciated in its absence.

So unknown was da Vinci’s painting prior to the theft that French police, in an attempt to familiarise the public with the image, printed 65,000 copies of Mona Lisa, which were subsequently distributed throughout Paris.

In the blink of an eye, an industry sprang up around the missing painting. Enterprising traders, keen to capitalise on the unprecedented interest, set about reproducing the police copies with fervour. Soon, she began appearing on everything from postcards to matchboxes to chocolate boxes. So intense was the demand for reproductions that, within days, even the de Medici Society in London sold out of its store of facsimile copies. Mona Lisa was suddenly the most celebrated artwork in the world.

However, two long years were to pass before Mona Lisa was returned to her adoring public. She eventually re-surfaced in a hotel in Florence in December 1913. Peruggia had travelled to Italy with a view to selling his ill-gotten gains to an art dealer. As he was leaving the Hotel Tripoli-Italia for a rendezvous with a potential buyer, an eagle-eyed concierge noticed he was carrying a rather bulky load. Fearful that Peruggia was making off with one of the hotel’s cheap reproduction paintings, he accosted the guest and accused him of theft. When a quick search of the unfortunate Peruggia revealed that painting he was carrying was, in fact, Mona Lisa, the gig was finally up - Peruggia was arrested soon afterwards. And so it was, rather comically, a lowly hotel concierge unwittingly nabbed the most daring art thief in history!

Peruggia at his trial
But the story doesn’t end here. Luckily for Peruggia, the Italian authorities refused to extradite him to France, insisting he should be tried in Italy instead. He was eventually sentenced to 27 months for his crime, which was commuted to 7 months on appeal. Upon his release, Peruggia entered the Italian army, where he served honourably during WW1. In 1921, he married an Italian girl and eventually settled in (where else?) France.

Mona Lisa was not returned to her adopted home straightaway. She went on display in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, where she was seen by many thousands of people. She was made her triumphant return to the Louvre on 4th January, 1914, none the worse for her adventure.  If anything, her little sojourn proved only to be beneficial ... Mona Lisa emerged from her two years in darkness to become the most feted work of art in the world – and it doesn’t look like she will surrender her crown any time soon.  Now that's definitely something to smile about!

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