A Patriotic Thief

The Mona Lisa had been missing for over two years. When she was first discovered to be absent from the Louvre galleries, the world had waited with rapt attention for any news of her whereabouts. In the two intervening years, however, other things had nudged her out of the headlines; the Titanic and her ill-fated maiden voyage; Scott and Amundsen’s race to the South Pole.

The world paid attention once again on the morning of December 12, 1913, when the headlines in Italy read, “Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa Recovered After Two Years: Confirmation is Official!” Slowly, the story of her strange journey began to emerge.

A poor man named Vincenzo Peruggia, who sometimes claimed that his name was Leonardo, had sought out a Florence art dealer named Alfredo Geri in late 1913. Peruggia claimed that he had stolen Mona Lisa from France because he could not stand to see the Italian treasure held captive in a dingy French museum. Peruggia had worked at the Louvre, even helped put Mona Lisa on the wall, and therefore had the knowledge to be able to pull off the heist. Once he had the painting, he claimed he didn’t know what to do with it, and it had sat in the closet of his run down Paris apartment for the bulk of the two years it was missing.

His only defense in court was that his crime was one of patriotic passion. The prosecution tried to paint him as a money-hungry dullard who had easy access to the museum’s troves, but the Italian public was more sympathetic.

Though facts emerged that showed he really stole la Giocanda in order to sell her to the highest bidder, a war was looming in Europe and a minor, dim-witted art thief was not the most pressing of matters to the public or even to the court. He was sentenced to 7 months in prison and released in less time than that. Mona Lisa was returned to France after a two-week vacation to her home in Italy. Most forgot the thief and believed him to be either mad or stupid. Mona Lisa had reaped a huge public exposure from the whole ordeal.

A few people in the minority had proposed the idea that Peruggia didn’t pull of the world’s biggest art heist by himself. How could he, anyways? He seemed to stupid to be able to do so, and he hid the masterpiece in his closet once he had stolen it. There must be more to the theft, thought some. As it turns out, there was.

A comic postcard from 1911 showing the popular idea that Da Vinci had fallen in love with Mona Lisa and had stolen her from the Louvre himself.

The "Macaroni" Thief

The Thief: Vincenzo Peruggia

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