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November 5, 2018

Vincenzo Peruggia, the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa Out of the Louvre Museum and Made It a Masterpiece

Leonardo da Vinci painted Mona Lisa in the early 16th century, but Vincenzo Peruggia (1881–1925) made her famous worldwide by walking out of the Louvre with the painting wrapped in his smock over 100 years ago, on August 21, 1911.

With that daring daylight robbery, the Mona Lisa began her ascent into the stratosphere of cultural fame, while Peruggia sank further and further into the hazy mists of vague infamy. How and why did Peruggia do it? More importantly, what would have happened if he hadn’t?

In 1911, Peruggia perpetrated what has been described as the greatest art theft of the 20th century. It was a police theory that the former Louvre worker hid inside the museum on Sunday, August 20, knowing the museum would be closed the following day.

But, according to Peruggia’s interrogation in Florence after his arrest, he entered the museum on Monday, August 21 around 7 a.m, through the door where the other Louvre workers were entering. He said he wore one of the white smocks that museum employees customarily wore and was indistinguishable from the other workers. When the Salon Carré, where the Mona Lisa hung, was empty, he lifted the painting off the four iron pegs that secured it to the wall and took it to a nearby service staircase. There, he removed the protective case and frame.

The gap on the wall of the Carre Gallery of the Louvre Museum, Paris, where the Mona Lisa was exhibited before it was stolen 1911.

"La Joconde est Retrouvée" ("Mona Lisa is Found"), Le Petit Parisien, 13 December 1913.

Portrait of Vincenzo Peruggia, ca.1910s.

Portrait of Vincenzo Peruggia with his mandolin, c.1910s.

Some people report that he concealed the painting under his smock. But Peruggia was only 5 ft 3 in (160 cm), and the Mona Lisa measures approx. 21 in × 30 in (53 cm × 77 cm), so it would not fit under a smock worn by someone his size. Instead, he said he took off his smock and wrapped it around the painting, tucked it under his arm, and left the Louvre through the same door he had entered.

Peruggia hid the painting in his apartment in Paris. Supposedly, when police arrived to search his apartment and question him, they accepted his alibi that he had been working at a different location on the day of the theft.

Paris Hopital where Vincenzo Peruggia lived and where he was kept for 28 months, after he stole the canvas painted by Leonardo da Vinci in August of 1911 at the Louvre museum.

This image shows Vincenzo Peruggia’s apartment after police went through it to find the stolen Mona Lisa painting, 1911.

After keeping the painting hidden in a trunk in his apartment for two years, Peruggia returned to Italy with it. He kept it in his apartment in Florence, Italy but grew impatient, and was finally caught when he contacted Alfredo Geri, the owner of an art gallery in Florence. Geri’s story conflicts with Peruggia’s, but it was clear that Peruggia expected a reward for returning the painting to what he regarded as its “homeland”.

Geri called in Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery, who authenticated the painting. Poggi and Geri, after taking the painting for “safekeeping”, informed the police, who arrested Peruggia at his hotel.

Mugshot of Vincenzo Perugia, the Italian man who stole the Mona Lisa out of the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Vincenzo Peruggia the kidnaper of the Mona Lisa is shown in court in Florence, Italy, c.1914.

After its recovery, the painting was exhibited all over Italy with banner headlines rejoicing its return and then returned to the Louvre in 1913. While the painting was famous before the theft, the notoriety it received from the newspaper headlines and the large scale police investigation helped the artwork become one of the best known in the world.

The Mona Lisa on display in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting.

Professor Luigi Cavenaghi (second from right) with The Gioconda (Mona Lisa) exhibited in the Uffizi portrait room, after it was recovered in Florence following Vincenzo Peruggia’s theft, Italy, photograph by Perazzo, from L'Illustrazione Italiana, Year XL, No 51, December 21, 1913.

La Gioconda Florence Uffizi in the hall of portraits in 1913 after that the painting by Leonardo da Vinci was stolen in 1911 at the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia. The Monna Lisa was exhibited to the public for two days under close supervision.

Peruggia said he did it for a patriotic reason: he wanted to bring the painting back for display in Italy “after it was stolen by Napoleon”. Although perhaps sincere in his motive, Vincenzo may not have known that Leonardo da Vinci took this painting as a gift for Francis I when he moved to France to become a painter in his court during the 16th century, 250 years before Napoleon’s birth.

Experts have questioned the ‘patriotism’ motive on the grounds that—if ‘patriotism’ was the true motive—Peruggia would have donated the painting to an Italian museum, rather than have attempted to profit from its sale. The question of money is also confirmed by letters that Peruggia sent to his father after the theft. On December 22, 1911, four months after the theft, he wrote that Paris was where “I will make my fortune and that his (fortune) will arrive in one shot.” The following year (1912), he wrote: “I am making a vow for you to live long and enjoy the prize that your son is about to realize for you and for all our family.”

Put on trial, the court agreed, to some extent, that Peruggia committed his crime for patriotic reasons and gave him a lenient sentence. He was sent to jail for one year and 15 days, but was hailed as a great patriot in Italy and served only seven months in jail.

People gather around the Mona Lisa painting on January 4, 1914 in Paris.

Two men carry the painting of the Mona Lisa back to the Louvre in Paris, c.1914.

After released from jail, Peruggia served in the Italian army during World War I. He later married, had one daughter, Celestina, returned to France, and continued to work as a painter decorator using his birth name Pietro Peruggia.

He died on October 8, 1925 (his 44th birthday) in the town of Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, France. His death was not widely reported by the media; obituaries appeared mistakenly only when another Vincenzo Peruggia died in Haute-Savoie in 1947.



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