Who Stole the Mona Lisa?
The world's most famous art heist, 100 years on.
After handing over the painting, "Leonardo" had calmly gone sightseeing in Florence. But to his surprise, he was arrested in his hotel room by Italian police. As Monsieur Bénédite of the Louvre had warned, the picture had proven valueless in the hands of a private individual.
The thief turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia, a 32-year-old Italian who lived in Paris. He was a house painter-cum-glazier. He suffered from lead poisoning. He lived in one room at 5 rue de l'Hôpital Saint-Louis, in a neighbourhood of eastern Paris that even today, a century on, is largely immigrant and not entirely gentrified. The Mona Lisa had spent two years mostly on his kitchen table. "I fell in love with her," Peruggia said from jail, repeating the romantic cliché. The court-appointed psychiatrist diagnosed him as "mentally deficient".
The French police really ought to have found him. Peruggia had briefly worked in the Louvre. In fact, he had made the Mona Lisa's glass frame—the very one he had removed that August morning. A detective had even visited his apartment, but had failed to spot the painting. Moreover, Peruggia had two previous criminal convictions for minor incidents (one a scuffle with a prostitute) so the police had his fingerprints. Unfortunately, the famous detective Alphonse Bertillon—the real-life French Sherlock Holmes—who was on the Mona Lisa case, only catalogued the right fingerprints of suspects. Peruggia had left his left print on the Louvre's wall.
He was locked up until his trial began in Florence on June 4 1914. Questioned by police, journalists, and later in court, Peruggia gave varying contradictory accounts of how exactly he had got in and out of the Louvre. He had walked out, carrying the painting, "with the greatest nonchalance", he told the court. He said he had initially got on the wrong bus, and had finally taken the Mona Lisa home in a taxi.
Under questioning, Peruggia emerged as the kind of disgruntled immigrant who in a different time and a different place might have turned to terrorism instead of art theft. In Paris he had often been insulted as a "macaroni." French people had stolen from him, and put salt and pepper in his wine. When he had mentioned to a colleague at the Louvre that the museum's most esteemed paintings were Italian, the colleague had chuckled.
Peruggia had once seen a picture of Napoleon's troops carting stolen Italian art to France. He said he had become determined to return at least one stolen painting, the handily portable Mona Lisa, to Italy. In fact, he was labouring under a gargantuan misapprehension: the French hadn't stolen the Mona Lisa at all. Da Vinci had spent his final years in France. His last patron, the French king François I, had bought the painting, apparently legally, for 4,000 gold crowns.
After Peruggia's arrest there had been a brief flare-up of patriotic "peruggisme" in Italy, but it soon died down. Most people were disappointed in Peruggia's calibre. He was more Lee Harvey Oswald than the criminal mastermind they had imagined. "He was, quite clearly, a classic loser," says Donald Sassoon in his book Becoming Mona Lisa. Despite Peruggia's claims to patriotism—"I am an Italian and I do not want the picture given back to the Louvre"—it emerged in court that he had visited London to try to flog the painting to the dealer Duveen, who had laughed at him.
The mention of this story prompted Peruggia's only show of anger during the trial. He had previously described the attempted sale himself, but in court he loudly denied it. One judge said, "Nevertheless, your unselfishness wasn't total. You did expect some benefit from restoration."
"Ah, benefit, benefit," sighed Peruggia. "Certainly something better than what happened to me here." The courtroom laughed.
Yet he had compiled lists of dealers and art collectors, who, he presumably hoped, might buy his painting. He had also written to his family in Italy saying that soon he would be rich. ("Romantic words, your honour," Peruggia explained in court.) Joe Medeiros, an American filmmaker who is finishing a documentary about the theft, believes Peruggia was motivated chiefly by an immigrant's pride. "He was a guy who wasn't typically respected," says Medeiros, "and I think he thought he was better than he was given credit for, so he set out to prove it. And I guess in some strange, perverse way he did prove it. He wasn't as dumb as people thought."
Peruggia was lucky to be tried in Italy rather than France. In Italy, his lawyer said in his closing argument, to applause from spectators and tears from the defendant, "there is nobody who desires the condemnation of the accused." Nobody had lost anything from the theft, the lawyer pointed out. Mona Lisa had been recovered. She was now more famous than ever. She had made a brief, joyous tour of Italy before returning to the Louvre. Relations between Italy and France had improved.
Peruggia received a sentence of one year and 15 days in jail. Some weeks later, on July 29, it was reduced to seven months and nine days. He was released at once because of time served.
By then, in any case, the world had bigger things to worry about. While Peruggia was on trial, the Austrian archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated in Sarajevo. On July 28 Austro-Hungary had declared war on Serbia. The Great War was starting. The theft and return of Mona Lisa was one of the last happy stories Europe would enjoy for another 30 years.
Simon Kuper is an author who writes about sports "from an anthropologic perspective.