Vincenzo Peruggia, the misunderstanding, the Mona Lisa and Pablo Picasso.
At seven in the morning on August 21st, 1911, after having spent the night there, a slender figure slipped out of a small side room of one of the large halls in the Louvre. Despite the fact that it was summer, he was wearing a dark, heavy jacket. His clothes, however, did not prevent him from moving quietly and quickly about the museum. It was a Monday, the Louvre’s closing day, and the only visitors to the building’s vast halls were the guardians who were walking along the corridors, given away by the sound of their own steps. Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian from small town of Dumenza, near Varese, with only an elementary school education, crouched at the entrance of the Salon Carré. With his nostrils blackened by candle smoke and his shoes stuffed into the pockets of his jacket, he waited for the right time to put his plan into action. When the guards’ steps echoed farther away, he crossed the hall until he reached the Mona Lisa. He grabbed the painting with both hands, carefully lifting it up in order to free it from the hook. The painting was quite small, however the frame and glass were unexpectedly heavy. Peruggia staggered for a few seconds before regaining his bearings, and the headed towards the exit. Taken by the frenzy, he had to slow his pace over and over again in order to avoid slipping. He was walking in his socks.
Upon reaching the Sept Mètres, he got rid of the frame and the glass, and then headed out into an inner courtyard of the Louvre – at that moment deserted – and wrapped the painting up in his jacket. He reached the exit undisturbed. Once in the street, he waited for the bus home, however he went in the wrong direction. Getting off the first stop, he hailed a ride from a passing motorist, who finally droped him off in rue de l’Hospital Saint-Louis, the street where he lived. Once home, he hid the precious painting. Since he had to go back to work, and not knowing how to justify being late, Peruggia said that had spent the night drunk on the street. In the evening and once again home, in order to protect the painting from humidity and any possible police searches, he decided to entrust the work to his compatriot, Lancellotti, who lived in a nicer apartment in the same building.
The morning of August 22nd, 1911, two artists – Louis Béroud and Frederic Languillerme – entered the Louvre for a study session on art’s great masters, and were the first to arrive in the Salon Carré. They noticed the theft and promptly warned the head of security Monsieur Poupardin, who immediately closed the doors to keep out the few workers and visitors there at the time. The frame and the glass of the Mona Lisa were found at the foot of the Sept Métre steps, near a glass door with a missing knob, having been tampered with. Since this was a service entrance used only by employees, the latter were questioned one by one for the entire day, while at the same time the authorities launched an appeal to all Parisians: anyone who provided useful information to find the painting would be paid a reward of twenty-five thousand francs. An employee of the museum responded, saying that on the morning of August 21st, he had noticed a man walking briskly by, and that he had thrown a small object near the moat adjacent to the road. The missing doorknob was found.
The investigations continued until what appeared to be the definitive turning point. In fact, Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were stopped on the charge of aiding and abetting. However, these two employees of the Louvre, after some investigation, were declared to be not involved in the events at hand. Therefore, the investigations moved on to the maintenance workers. In addition to interrogations, the police also carried out investigations at their homes. Even the house of Peruggia, who had taken back the painting in the meantime, was ransacked by the gendarmes. However, they did not find the Mona Lisa’s hiding place: a small space created under the flooring, below of the only table in the house. Meanwhile at the Louvre, in order to avoid leaving the Salon Carré empty, a work by Raphael was exhibited: the Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione.
In 1913, two years after the theft, Vincenzo Peruggia learned that Alfredo Geri, a Florentine collector, had organized an exhibition of works by private collectors. Using a false name and surname, he wrote to Geri proposing the sale of the “Gioconda” (as the Mona Lisa is known in Italian) on the condition that the work would remain permanently in Italy. Intrigued by the proposal, Geri organized a meeting in a hotel in Florence. The director of the Uffizi, certifying the authenticity of the canvas, also took part. Peruggia was then arrested by the Italian police.
The trial took place on June 4th and 5th , 1914, at the Court of Florence, in front of the international press and a benevolent public who believed that Peruggia was guilty only of having returned to Italy something that belonged to the country in the first place. Public pressure and the insanity plea, attested with a riddle about a hunter: “Vincenzo, if there are two birds on a tree and a hunter shoots one of them, how many are left on the tree?” “One!”, replied Peruggia. “Idiot!” thundered the court psychiatrist, Professor Paolo Amaldi, who had taken office just two weeks prior, on May 24th. “There is not one left because the other would fly away!” This testimony led the court to set a fairly mild sentence: one year and fifteen days in prison. On July 29th, the sentence was reduced to seven months and eight days. Peruggia was immediately released. When he left prison, he was met by a group of Tuscan students who gave him the sum of 4,500 Lira that they had collected in his name.
No one knows the real reason that prompted Vincenzo Peruggia to steal the Mona Lisa. There were rumours that he acted on commission from the Marquis of Valfierno, an Argentinean fraudster who had already found a buyer in the United States. However, the only truth seems to be found in the court documents. They describe how Peruggia had become enraged after consulting a Louvre pamphlet with a list of Italian paintings brought to France by Napoleon Bonaparte. Vincenzo wanted to return at least one of those paintings to Italy, no matter what.
He had initially targeted the La Belle Jardinière by Raphael, but the large size of the painting had discouraged him. The choice fell on the Mona Lisa due to the small size of the painting. The story of Vincenzo Peruggia is quite extraordinary, for the daring way in which it took place, as well as for the incredible superficiality of the managers of the Louvre and the Parisian gendarmerie. Yet the story is truly singular due to a great misunderstanding.