“Public opinion was on his side. The spectators would cheer when he said something and grumble when the prosecution tried to make a point. He was in jail but he got love letters. People sent him bottles of wine. Women baked cakes for him. He was really important and this did not displease him.”
– Seymour Reit, author of “The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa”
Vincenzo Perugia. Neither the name nor the… uh… “noble” visage of the man pictured above are likely to trigger much of a reaction in most of my readers nowadays. But at one time, however briefly he was indeed as Mr. Reit says above “really important”, even popular including with the ladies. Yes, Vincenzo was one of the earliest of a common modern day phenomenon… a popular defendant, a man who in spite of having clearly done the crime, nevertheless caught the public’s fancy. Before Scott Peterson, or any of these other media darling criminals with which we’ve become so familiar in today’s world, there was Vincenzo Perugia, the man who brazenly stole the “Mona Lisa” in broad daylight on today’s date, August 21, 101 years ago in 1911 (Sorry I missed the centennial!).
The Early Morning Theft of the World’s Most Famous Painting
This painting, which is arguably the most famous painting of all time is believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of an Italian nobleman, Francesco del Giocondo. Painted in oil on a wooden panel, it was produced by the great Leonardo da Vinci somewhere between the years 1503 and 1506. And contrary to what Perugia seemed to think, it was acquired by King Francis I of France and presented to him by Leonardo himself in 1516 and became the property of the French Republic ever after. It was moved to the Musée du Louvre in Paris after the French Revolution, and has remained there since. But it seems that Vincenzo was under the misconception that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon during his long primacy in Europe. While the Little Corporal did indeed purloin a lot of things in his time, this was not among them. Nevertheless, it was with this bogus idea in mind that Perugia hid himself inside the Louvre on the night of August 20, 1911 as the museum was closed for the evening. The morning of the 21’st was a Monday, a day on which the Louvre was normally closed for maintenance. Perugia then emerged, dressed in a painters smock so as to blend in with many of the museum personnel and entered the Salon Carre’, the room in which the Mona Lisa was displayed, removed her from her four hooks and ducked down a service door nearby. Once in the stairwell, he quickly removed her from her large and bulky frame and made for the exit. But he found this door locked. He then heard someone coming. He simply tucked the painting under his smock which concealed her well enough, as she is a mere 30 x 21 inches in size. The footsteps he heard belonged to a plumber who, finding Perugia quite irritated at the locked door reassured him that he had some pliers which he then produced, and got the door open. Whereupon Vincenzo simply walked away with the Mona Lisa concealed under his smock, and disappeared into the crowd of that hot Paris morning
The Theft of the Mona Lisa Causes a Sensation….
The disappearance of the Mona Lisa was not actually discovered until the next day, the 22’nd. A painter who had brought his easel to make his own version of Leonardo’s work found the space
normally occupied by the master- piece empty (as pictured above). At first there was no alarm, as the works at the Louvre were frequently removed for photo- graphing which was a new process at that time. But when it had not been returned by 11:00 that morning only then did the rather lacksidasical security then in force at the Louvre finally kick into gear and discover that the Mona Lisa was gone. The French press had a field day. “We still have the frame!” was the rye headline in the Petit Parisien . Some thought that it had been swiped by the Germans as a way of embarrassing their European rivals and the Action Française newspaper, a far- right publication blamed the Jews, still a convenient target in these recent post- Dreyfus days in France.
Two Years Pass and Then a Break….
But there was nothing remotely so grand, no such foreign intrigue in the actual whereabouts of the celebrated Leonardo masterpiece. Vincenzo had simply taken it back to his apartment in Paris wherein he hid it in a trunk for two years. The police did search all over, even coming to his apartment and questioning him, but he was able to produce a plausible alibi as to his activities
on the 21’st. Vincenzo eventually reuturned to the Italian city of Florence with it where he kept it in his apartment. He contacted one Alfredo Geri (above) who was a the owner of a Florentine Art Gallery, and told him that he had the Mona Lisa which he wished to “restore” to Italy. But he made it clear that he was expecting a reward for his artistic patriotism in the amount of a half-million lire. Geri brought Giovanni Poggi the director of the Uffizi Gallery to pay a visit to Vincenzo’s flat and perhaps to authenticate the work. The stories told by Perugia and Geri conflicted on any number of points, and Geri’s motivations may have been less than philanthropic as well. But in the end, Poggi did authenticate the work as the real thing, and after he and Geri took possession of the Mona Lisa for “safekeeping” as they assured Perugia, they informed the police who then arrested Vincenzo at his apartment.
Perugia Makes a Public Showing for Italy at His Trial
In the super-charged publicity for his trial (which was in Italy) Vincenzo wound up becoming a hero in his homeland for his zeal to restore to Italy her “stolen” masterpiece… nevermind the fact that it had not been stolen. Hence the ladies sending him love letters and baking him cakes. And that is hardly surprising considering Perugia’s highly romantic claim of his motivations. He maintained throughout that the Mona Lisa had bewitched him with her beauty and that his only wish had been to rescue her from
the sinister clutches of the French. He frequently interrupted the proceedings arguing with the judge, and with his lawyers. The idea that his motivations may have been more than a little bit mercenary, given the fact that he had afterall attempted to extort some 500,000 lire from Geri as a reward for his act of romantic patriotism didn’t seem to lessen his public appeal. In the end, Vincenzo Perugia was convicted but an Italian jury which actually approved of his actions gave him a mere seven month sentence. And since he had already served eight months, he was released immediately. He would go on to open a paint store in France, marry and have two children, and serve with the Italian Army during World War One. He died in 1925 without attracting anywhere near the attention that he garnered with his famous theft. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre in Paris in 1913, wherein she resides to this day (above), presumably under better security than she had in 1911.
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