8 October 2017

Vincenzo Peruggia – art thief

Gallery worker who stole the Mona Lisa

A police mugshot of Vincenzo Peruggia
A police mugshot of Vincenzo Peruggia
Vincenzo Peruggia, a handyman who earned notoriety when he pulled off the most famous art theft in history, was born on this day in 1881 in Dumenza in Lombardy, a village on the Swiss border.

Peruggia stole Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa from the Louvre in Paris and evaded detection for more than two years, even though he was questioned by police over the painting’s disappearance.

It was only when he attempted to sell the iconic painting - thought to be of Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a cloth and silk merchant - to an art dealer in Florence that he was arrested.

Experts accept that, although the Mona Lisa - sometimes known in Italy as La Gioconda - was a notable work, it is open to debate whether it was the best of all the magnificent pieces created by the Tuscan Renaissance genius, whose other masterpieces included The Last Supper and The Virgin of the Rocks and other outstanding portraits, such as The Lady with an Ermine.

Yet it is without question the most famous painting in the world and enjoys that status largely because of Peruggia’s audacious crime.

The theft took place on August 21, 1911, a Monday morning, when Peruggia removed the painting from the wall of the Salon Carré in the Musée du Louvre on the Right Bank of the Seine. He took the canvas from its frame inside a protective glass case and left the building with it hidden under a smock.

Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa
Detail varies in the stories of the theft. Some say he entered the Louvre the day before, knowing the museum would be closed on the Monday, hid in a closet overnight and left the following morning, wearing a coat of the kind worn by workers at the gallery and concealing the canvas underneath.

His own version of events under interrogation was that he entered the museum at 7am on the Monday morning, mingling with a group of employees arriving for work.  He claimed he had gone to the Salon Carré and waited until it was unattended before making off with the painting.

Thefts were not uncommon at the Louvre at the time and there were 200 security staff.  However, with 400 rooms to watch over the guards could not be in two places at once.  It was not unusual, in any case, for paintings to be removed sometimes, so that the frame and case could be cleaned.

Peruggia may have stolen the coat but it is possible he was in possession of one anyway, having previously worked at the gallery, where one of his jobs, ironically, was making glass cases of the kind in which the Mona Lisa was kept.

What is not disputed is that he took the painting back to his apartment in Paris and hid it inside a trunk with a false bottom. Police visited him in the apartment twice but accepted his story that he had been working elsewhere on the day of the theft.

Peruggia, who had done some painting himself and moved to Paris in 1908 in the hope of being discovered, remained in the French capital for two years, in which time the press indulged in endless speculation as to who might be responsible.

Another Da Vinci portrait, Lady with an Ermine, which some experts believe is superior.
Another Da Vinci portrait, Lady with an Ermine,
which some experts believe is superior.
A theory that modernist enemies of traditional art must be involved led to Pablo Picasso coming under suspicion for a while. Indeed, police arrested the avantgarde poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire and questioned him for a week before being letting him go.

In the meantime, the story of the mystery of its whereabouts turned the Mona Lisa into the best known work of art in the world.

Eventually, in November 1913, calling himself Leonardo Vincenzo, Peruggia made his move, writing to Alfredo Geri, an art dealer who kept a gallery in Florence with an offer to bring the painting to Italy.

He claimed he would be performing an act of patriotism, believing the Mona Lisa was in France only because Napoleon had stolen it.  In fact, while Napoleon at one time had it in his home, it was rightfully in the possession of the French nation, having been bought from Leonardo da Vinci by King Francis I in 1516.

Peruggia travelled to Florence by train, having packed his clothes and other possessions in the trunk containing the canvas. He took the painting to Geri, whereupon he somewhat undermined the magnanimity of his ‘patriotic’ gesture by asking for a reward of 500,000 lire.

Geri persuaded him to leave the painting overnight so that he could show it to Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery, for authentication. In fact, Geri contacted the police and when Peruggia returned to his hotel he was arrested.

In the event, despite the criminal circumstances of its arrival, the return of the painting to Italy was celebrated. Visitors flocked to the Uffizi to see it before it was returned to the Louvre.  The 31-year-old Peruggia was given only a short jail sentence and, on release, joined the Italian army to fight in the First World War.

At the end of the conflict he returned to Paris with his wife, Celestina, and a child, opening a paint shop.  He died young, on his 44th birthday.

Luino sits on the shore of Lake Maggiore
Luino sits on the shore of Lake Maggiore
Travel tip:

Peruggia’s home village of Dumenza, in the province of Varese, is situated in the pre-Alpine slopes that rise from the northern shores of Lake Maggiore, almost on the border with Switzerland. The nearest town is Luino, a popular tourist destination on the lake, which has a noteworthy weekly market and a number of fine churches, including the parish church of San Pietro in Campagna.

The courtyard between the two wings of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
The courtyard between the two wings of
the Uffizi Gallery in Florence
Travel tip:

The Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which takes its name from its origins as a building housing the administrative offices (uffizi – nowadays uffici) of the Florentine magistrates at the time of the Medici, contains a huge collection of art works divided between 101 rooms with 13,000 square metres of exhibition space, including paintings by Cimabue, Michelangelo, Giotto, Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio, Raphael and Rembrandt.  Da Vinci’s The Annunciation and Adoration of the Magi are among his works on display.


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