And She Smiled Through It All

The 'Mona Lisa' by Leonardo da Vinci

Mass media coverage of a frantic search for the stolen 'Mona Lisa' helped to make the masterpiece the most famous painting on earth.
(Image credit: Wikimedia Commons)

An Obscure Masterpiece Made Famous

On December 13, 1913, the headline on the front page of France's leading newspaper, Le Petit Parisien, read "La 'Joconde' est Retrouvée". The New York Times featured the same story, but referred to the painting at the center of this remarkable story by its more familiar title, proclaiming "Find 'Mona Lisa', Arrest Robber." Both titles derive from the subject of Leonardo da Vinci's portrait in oil paints applied to poplar wood. Today, the 'Mona Lisa' is arguably one of the most famous paintings of all time.

The 'Mona Lisa' has most recently garnered the attention of the public when new theories started showing up in the news that suggested that the painting incorporates a secret code. The widely successful novel by Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, helped to expound this idea by suggesting that da Vinci, himself, was privy to fantastic secrets and he secretly and cleverly encoded this knowledge into his masterpieces. It would not be without precedent that artists placed symbols or other hidden concepts within a work of art to express something consciously (or unconsciously) that could have otherwise drawn ire from church authorities, for example, if the symbols were made more explicit. Additionally, the golden ratio and other benign mathematical curiosities are often hiding within pieces of great art and architecture.

Lisa Gherardini, born in 1479, was married to a wealthy businessman named Francesco del Giocondo. Her maiden name translates to "light-hearted" or "jovial." On that December day in 1913, many would be familiar with the title and visage of the woman, but that wasn't the case just 27 months earlier.

It was Leonardo, himself, who had sold his 'Mona Lisa' painting to King François I of France during a time when Leonardo worked in France at the king's invitation. Da Vinci was over 60 years old at the time and renowned not only for his drawing, painting and architectural skills, but also for his scientific prowess, conceiving concepts that transcended his time.

Born in Tuscany near the town of Vinci, he would most famously reside in Florence and be central to the flowering of the Italian Renaissance. His later time in Milan brought the world another known masterwork, 'The Last Supper.' The world around him was not placid; there was turmoil and war. Eventually, it was the invasion of the French under François I that brought Leonardo to spend his last years in France in friendship with the monarch who admired him deeply.

For centuries, the 'Mona Lisa' remained a possession of French royalty, making its way to Louis XIV who housed it at Versailles. After the French Revolution the portrait went back and forth from the Louvre Museum, to the bedroom of Napoleon I, and back again to the Louvre. All the while, the image of the woman with the enigmatic smile did not garner much fame or even favor, particularly among the general public. In fact, the painting was even fairly obscure within the art world at the time. It wasn't until the mid-to-late 1860s, when writers and artists of the Symbolist movement began ascribe mythical and ethereal qualities to the 'Mona Lisa,' did the work begin to grow in popularity throughout the art community as an exceptional piece. No doubt, the fine technique used by da Vinci imparts a mystique and a literal sense of "shrouding" to the painting.

Suspects Included Picasso

As more and more visitors passed in front of her eyes in the ensuing 50 years or so, one man named Louis Béroud, a Parisian painter, made a visit to the Louvre on August 22, 1911. His express purpose was to look at the 'Mona Lisa', but when he reached the place where it should have been hanging--between paintings by Correggio and Titian--the space was empty save for pegs jutting out from the wall. Béroud sought out museum guards, yet so casual was their concern they initially wrote off the painting's absence to its likely being photographed. The museum photographers, however, knew nothing of its whereabouts. The nonchalant attitude gave way to an eventual frenzied and intense search for the painting and the perpetrator of this theft. At a loss, police looked for obvious suspects. As avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire had railed against the Louvre, calling for it to be burned down, he was brought in and arrested. In his circle of close friends was the young artist, Pablo Picasso, who also fell under suspicion and was apprehended. Both were soon released as these leads were complete dead ends in the frantic search for the 'Mona Lisa'.

The longer the painting remained missing, the more the desire to see it grew. 'Mona Lisa' was not completely unknown prior to the theft, but the drama had now made it the single most famous painting in the world. The theft and the robber's motive were wrought with irony. The Louvre wasn't immune to theft and even vandalism of the art on display: statues had been stolen, and paintings had been slashed. It was, in fact, a painting by Ingres that was damaged by a woman that led to the idea that some paintings should be encased in glass. Even the one-time suspect Pablo Picasso had lifted small Iberian statues at the prodding of friends.

A Surprising Motive

Among the crew hired to do maintenance and other jobs in the Louvre was an Italian immigrant living in Paris. His name was Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia was embittered about what he felt was an anti-Italian bias against him and that felt mocked because of his physical stature as he stood 5'3". His fixation on having gotten a bad deal in his life in Paris gave birth to an idea.

An exterior view of the Louvre Museum in Paris, France

A handyman named Vincenzo Peruggia, who worked at the Louvre, had smuggled the 'Mona Lisa' out of the museum in broad daylight.
(Image credit: Bigstock/pxhidalgo)

It wasn't for over 2 1/2 years after its disappearance that the Mona Lisa turned up. Peruggia had indeed stolen it without any complication. His easy access to the art by virtue of being one of the museum workers avoided suspicion. Although he and the other workers were questioned following the theft, his reputation gave validity to his alibi of being drunk and at home sleeping at the time of the robbery. It was only after the passing of so much time, did Peruggia turn desperate and travel with the painting he'd kept hidden in the bottom of a wooden trunk in his apartment.

The very act of stealing 'Mona Lisa' had made it too hot an item to be sold in Paris. Eventually, he traveled by train to Florence where he presented the masterpiece to an art dealer. The dealer notified the police, at which point Peruggia was arrested. He was tried in Florence despite the robbery having taken place in Paris. The trial was quite a spectacle with Vincenzo Peruggia jumping up and expressing with great aplomb as to why he had stolen the 'Mona Lisa'. Sometimes he stated that the painting had bewitched him, but the overriding motive was that he was avenging what France had done to Italy. He stated that Napoleon and others had stolen all this great art, and he wanted to return Leonardo's work to its rightful Italian home. He served only eight months in prison.

It would have served him well to know that da Vinci had brought his beloved painting to France in the first place. The mystique and attraction of the Mona Lisa have only grown since the day it was stolen. The theft can arguably be called the perfect crime at the perfect time. The theft took place in a time when mass media was still in its early stages. However, thanks to mass media, the theft helped to make an otherwise obscure Renaissance-era portrait the most famous and recognizable painting on earth.