Travel Stories: The Man Who Stole Mona Lisa

Monalisa at the Louvre

Why was the Mona Lisa kidnapped?

Ransom? Revenge? Try homesickness.

Every traveler around the world has heard of ‘Mona Lisa’. It is easily the most famous painting in the world! Today, a thick pane of bullet-proof security glass keeps artlovers a safe distance from the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo da Vinci’s “Portrait of Lisa Gherardini, Wife of Francesco Giacondo,” known in French as “La Joconde” and English as the “Mona Lisa.” But back in 1911, it was simply hung on the walls of the Musée du Louvre like any other canvas.

The Louvre
The Louvre

That was until a former museum employee named Vincenzo Peruggia strolled into the gallery before opening hours on August 21, 1911. He looked around and noticed that the room was empty. Then, in an instant, he decided to take down the Mona Lisa. And walked out of the Louvre with it under a painting smock. When the loss was finally noticed, the police were totally mystified.

For two years, the whereabouts of the masterpiece was unknown, while French detectives made various wild guesses. The theories were far and diverse. Rumours floated that it had been stolen by the Germans or by anarchists. Maybe, even by evil geniuses or lunatics. They actually arrested the country’s top art critic, Guillame Apollinaire and grilled him. Finally, finding no evidence, they had to let him free.

Then, out of the blue in 1913, an Italian art dealer in Florence was contacted by a man calling himself “Leonardo” who claimed to have the Mona Lisa and wanted to see it hang in the Uffizi, Italy’s top art museum. Although he found it hard to believe that the thief could be so reckless, the dealer tipped off the police and agreed to meet the strange Leonardo in a Milan hotel room. There, the nondescript fellow opened his suitcase, emptied out his socks and underwear, opened up a false bottom in the case to reveal the Mona Lisa! And was immediately arrested.

Enigmatic Monalisa
Enigmatic Monalisa

It turned out that Peruggia, the fake “Leonardo” was no criminal mastermind trying to make a fortune but just a sentimental Italian nationalist. He had stolen the canvas on impulse and merely wanted to see it returned to its land of origin. Far back in 1530s, the Mona Lisa was purchased by France’s King Francis I and had been shifted to France.

The recovery of this world-famous masterpiece was greeted with exultation across all of France. Finally, the famed canvas safely shipped to its home in the Louvre. Where it is displayed in all its splendor till today. People from all around the world come to view this splendid piece of art.

However, back in Italy, the ‘thief’ Peruggia was hailed as a patriotic hero in Italy. He served only a short prison sentence and was released soon enough. in 2011, 100 years after the burglary, Joe Medeiros, documentary writer/director, made a movie out about Peruggia. Watch the trailer here and learn more about this daring event.

Though Mona Lisa was painted back in the early 16th century, the credit of making it famous worldwide goes to this daring burglary over 100 years ago. As they say in Italy, Vincenzo Peruggia was the man responsible for making the Mona Lisa what it is today.

As they say, every journey tells a story. Hear about more such stories from the expert Tour Directors at Cosmos when you travel to Europe and Beyond! Our experts bring our destinations to life with firsthand, in-depth knowledge of their cities, towns, and neighborhoods. They speak the language. They know the history. So, come and discover your own stories. What are you waiting for?
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