Italian Art Heritage Abroad: The Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa and the incredible story of a patriotic theft

The most popular and valuable painting in the world is one of the only four portraits done by the Italian genius Leonardo Da Vinci: the Mona Lisa, a world-famous masterpiece of the Italian Reinassance and a can’t miss symbol of Paris.

Leonardo da Vinci started the artwork on commission by the nobleman Francesco Di Bartolomeo Del Giocondo, who lived in Florence in the early 1500s. What would become the most enigmatic and iconic painting in the world was conceived as the portrait of his future wife, Lisa Gherardini, born in an aristoctratic and influent family from Florence, to later become “La Gioconda” after their marriage: especially in ltaly and France, the portrait is particularly known with this name. In greater detail, the title “Mona Lisa” was given after the first name of Del Giocondo’s wife, whereas the attribute “Mona” came from the Latin word “Mea domina”, that simply means “My Lady”.

Road to France

Leonardo Da Vinci worked on the painting nearly until his death, and took it with him to France when, in 1516, he was invited by King Francis I, who had just conquered the Duchy of Milan, to work at the Château du Clos Lucé, near his castle in Amboise. According to some credentialed academic pundits, one year before the demise of Leonardo, the Mona Lisa was purchased by the King himself from Leonardo’s assistant and pupil Salaì, who inherited many works of art from his master. The Louvre Museum indeed explains that the precious painting rejoined the royal collection in 1518.

Then, it was on display for almost half a century at the Palace of Fontainebleau, until Louis XIV, the famous “Sun King”, took it to Versailles, where in 1682, after rebuilding and enlarging the structure, he moved his royal residence. When the French Revolution ended in 1799, the Mona Lisa made its first entry into the Louvre of Paris, with only a brief interval period during which it was hung in the private bedroom of Napoléon Bonaparte, in the imperial palace on the bank of the river Seine. During the Franco-Prussian, the First and the Second World Wars, La Gioconda was removed from the Louvre to find some safe houses across France, to then be permanently back to the Louvre in 1945, where it is still the most visited and protected artwork.

The Mona Lisa at the Louvre, Paris

The incredible story of a patriotic theft

Although Mona Lisa survived the wars, someone tried to bring her back to its native land, Italy. The story of one of the most incredible thefts in history did not involve an army, and not even the famed French thief Alexandre Jacob, who inspired the character of Arsène Lupin, but an Italian decorator from a little village near Luino, a quaint town in Lombardy overlooking the Lake Maggiore and very close to the Swiss border. At the turn of the twentieth century, the decorator emigrated to Paris to find a job, as many other fellow countrymen housepainters used to do. Vincenzo Peruggia, that was his name, was employed for a short term at the Louvre Museum in 1911 and, washed over by a wave of patriotism and due to the mistaken belief that the painting was stolen by Napoléon from Italy, on August 21, a closing day, he sneaked into the museum through a service door. There, he removed the Mona Lisa from the wall and left the Louvre hiding and wrapping his smock around Leonardo’s painting . Into his mind, justice was finally served!

Vincenzo Peruggia kept “La Gioconda” hidden in his boarding house in Paris until 1913, while the French police was fishing in the dark and the embarassing news broke around the world. Then, he decided to come back to his hometown, letting Mona Lisa back to Italy after about five hundred years. Impatient to return the masterpiece to the Italian people and convinced he would be acclaimed, at the end of 1913 he reached out a renown Florentine art collector with the proposal of selling the painting. Thus, the decorator went to Florence to arrange a date (in a hotel named after La Gioconda) with the art collector, who was accompanied by Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery. Both the art experts, having certified the authenticity of the work of art, took the Mona Lisa and called the police to arrest Vincenzo Peruggia.

After this incredible theft, the Mona Lisa became the most famous painting in the world and Peruggia, having provoked the sympathy of many Italians, was sentenced to a light punishment by the Court of Florence. After being shown one last time in the Uffizi Gallery, the portrait of Lisa Gherardini left Florence and in January 1914 finally returned on a special train to France, where it was welcomed by the joyful French authorities.

The beatiful village of Luino, birthplace of Vincenzo Peruggia

A world-famous icon of art and mystery

Leonardo Da Vinci gave to the portrait of Mona Lisa an enigmatic touch and a discontinued background, getting growing attention and triggering imitations, inspirations and even psychoanalytic studies. For example, the surrealist artist Salvador Dalí argued that in the portrait people projected their mother figure and that, seeing her exposed in a public museum with her perceptible smile directed at all, they respond with the unconscious, hateful instinct to kill her. The dadaist Marcel Duchamp redesigned the painting in a disrespectful way, adding her moustaches and naming her with sexual innuendos. The American artist Andy Warhol depicted her in a poster, while the Colombian Fernando Botero made her chubbier like all his other artworks. Mona Lisa inspired also street art, literature, cinema and music: she was featured on the cover of the popular mystery thriller novel “The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown, appearing on the city walls of London, Paris, Tokyo, while the contemporary Italian singer-songwriter Ivan Graziani dedicated a song to her.

Maybe, the reason of her faint and symbolic smile is just one: Mona Lisa accompanied Leonardo in the latter part of his life, from Florence to Ambois, passing by Milan. She was never handed over to the Del Giocondo spouses, and what was commissioned to enhance the prestige and the union of the two families, would become a global icon of art and mystery.

Instead of embellishing the noble couple’s bedroom, the eyes of Lisa looked upon the beds of the French Kings and Napoléon, peeping who knows what kind of things. Finally, from the royal chambers, she ended up hung in the kitchen of a humble Italian decorator, who probably cooked pasta in front of her flirty look. Peruggia, when questioned in the court, said that he spent “two romantic years with Mona Lisa in the kitchen”. After all, could La Gioconda lose her fateful smile?