Monday, March 27, 2017

True Crime: The Kidnapping of Lisa La Gioconda

Annamaria on Monday

On 21 August 1911, Lisa Gherardini was kidnapped from her Paris home.  She was not missed until twenty-four hours later.  Then, despite frantic efforts by the Paris Prefecture of Police and La Sûreté and a world-wide hunt for her abductor, with her picture blazoned over front pages of newspapers everywhere, nothing was heard of her whereabouts until December of 1913.  Here is the photo that the police used to try to locate her:


Lisa, nicknamed Mona, was already famous before she disappeared.  Once the dragnet went out to try to find her, hers became the most famous face on the planet.

Lisa was, as her name indicates, Italian—yet she was ensconced in the Louvre when she disappeared.  Leonardo da Vinci, unable to part with her and give her to her husband Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine silk merchant, took her with him to France around 1517.  After Leonardo’s death, she lived in splendor with King Louis XIV.  Louis XV didn’t much like her looks, so he relegated her to the office of one of his minions.  She went to live in the new art museum in the Louvre in 1797.

Once her disappearance was noticed on 22 August 1911, a hue and cry went up from the citizenry of Paris.  How could the administration of the Louvre have been so careless as to lose her?  And how could the Paris police and the French National Criminal Investigations Department be so clueless when it came to getting her back?   Some wags posited that the disappearance was a set-up—to boost attendance at the museum.  Had that been the case, it would have worked.  As it happened, people lined up to get in to see the empty wall where the painting had hung.

Jokes circulated: The Eiffel Tower will be next to be taken.  Cancan girls danced dressed as topless Mona Lisas.

Directors and investigators lost their jobs.

Despite every stone being turned, every vehicle being searched, every museum employee being investigated, the trail went cold.

Little did the flics know that the lady was ensconced for the next two years just a few blocks from her former home, in the humble apartment of Vincenzo (ne’ Pietro) Peruggia, who had worked at the Louvre as a carpenter.

He kept the painting hidden for two years, at which point he contacted a Florentine antiquarian art dealer—Alfredo Geri—and the Director of the Uffizi—Giovanni Poggi.  He told them that he (mistakenly) believed that the masterpiece had—as so many others had—been looted by Napoleon.   He claimed to have taken it because it was Italian and belonged in Italy.  He wanted the government to give him a reward for his patriotic caper.  Those Florentine gentlemen, handling the delicate situation with great aplomb and cleverness, got Peruggia to turn the painting over to them.  Once he went back to his hotel room, he was arrested.

Then the Hotel Tripoli-Italia, now the Hotel La Gioconda

In the course of Peruggia's trial, the story of how he managed the theft emerged.  Dressed in the typical white smock of a museum skilled worker, he entered on a Sunday and hid in a storage room overnight.  The next day, when the museum was closed and only staff members were about, he took the picture into a stairwell and removed it from the protective box in which it had been displayed.    The Mona Lisa is painted, as many Renaissance works were, on a board.  He took it out of its frame, wrapped it in his smock, and for all intents and purposes, walked out of the building with it under his arm.

Once the director of the Uffizi had authenticated it, he declared that it would be returned to France.  Mona Lisa made a triumphal tour of her true homeland before she went back to her place in the Louvre.

Peruggia, because of his patriotic claims, got off with a light sentence of one year and fifteen days.  He served seven months.

These are the facts as far as I can tell.  There is a lot of other conjecture about the affair, but I take it with a grain of salt.  Especially, the long article in the May 2009 edition of Vanity Fair—a first serial printing of a chapter of a book, The Crimes of Paris by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler.  For one thing, those authors—throughout their recounting of the story—misspelled Peruggia’s name.

Some authors say that it was this theft that made the Mona Lisa the most famous painted work of art in the world.  Art historians, though, say that it is a surpassingly wonderful work.

The last time I saw it, I was appalled by how it is treated as a celebrity, rather than as a work of genius.  Camera flashes are going off, several a second, right in poor Lisa’s face.  Ugh!  On top of which, another Leonardo masterpiece, his The Virgin of the Rocks hangs nearby, and none of the philistines that are taking selfies with Mona even give it glance.  Here it is.

If you show up in the Louvre, of course you should try to see Mona in person.  But spend a few minutes with this one too.


  1. Among the things that impressed me most about the Mona Lisa when I first saw her more years back than I care to (or can) remember was how small it is. Somehow, I always imagined it as a large looming painting. But of course it is, in so many ways other than size. Thanks for the tale. sis.

    1. You are so right, Bro. You can see that in the photo of that raucous crowd taking snaps. I always like to think, though, that small can be powerful. Just saying, your munchkin sis!

  2. What a wonderful story. I was reading it like a mystery. And it was solved. The culprit confessed out of love for his country, he says.
    Thank you for telling it.

    1. Kathy, there is a lot of conjecture about Peruggia having been in collusion with a forger who would use the fact that ML had gone missing to sell forgeries of the painting. And the head of the Uffizi trying to profit from returning it to France. (According to French law, anyone who reporting evidence leading it its return was entitled to a reward, which the French government never paid in this case.) Those suppositions were reported in the Vanity Fair article, but since the authors were not careful enough to spell Peruggia's name right, I give no credence to their insinuations.

  3. I still haven't met her. The thought of the crowd puts me off. I'd like a quiet moment with her. No cameras, no tourists. Just us. Never gonna happen unless I do a Peruggia.

    1. Leye, I wish the Louvre would schedule quiet time with her (and her neighbors) for folks like us. Say, that's an idea. Maybe they can be convinced to give over a few hours a week to small group, camera free visits. I have French friends who have great art connections. I think I'll suggest it. Who knows, we might not have to turn into art thieves after all. Cara, any thoughts on this?

  4. When I saw her, it was before the days of mobile phones and budget airlines, and I had a short time almost alone with her. I resisted the temptation to stick her up my jumper, and contemplated her eyebrows instead. Nowadays, she would have her eyes 'enhanced' by a couple of Kardashian caterpillars.