The familiar face with the soft smile is a work of art etched into our very knowledge as the image of a classic painting vaguely reminiscent of a mother, a wife, a sister -- but with no definite certainty, and a sense of the absurd feeling that she knows more about us watchers than we do about her, staring back.
Le Louvre Museum in Paris is the largest one in the World and the Mona Lisa (La Joconde, as she is called in French) is the most recognizable and visited piece of art on the planet. To this day, nobody fully understands why, but she is our little link to a defunct universe of classic beauty and quiet times gone by.
The security at the museum is certainly something of the highest priority for its curators, directors, maintenance and security personnel. And yet a museum employee managed to snatch her away from the wall she resides on, and kept her for two years in his apartment. It's to be wondered if he hanged her on one of his walls. Or maybe stored her up in a small closet with the unfazed smile still on her face.
Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian citizen who strongly believed the painting on wood belonged to Italy, its country of creation, and should be returned to its birth place. Was he even wrong? After all, many art pieces get shipped back to the countries that once owned them. Many of the art recouped by the Monuments Men from the Nazis were sent back to their proper museums, along with the private properties reunited with their owners.
He was not a thief per say, just a museum worker with strong beliefs and determination. The petite frame must have spoken to him and possibly expressed the desire to see her homeland. We don't know. But what is certain is that he took the painting under his arm and took off. She is not painted on pliable canvas, but on sturdy poplar wood, so there was no folding her, nor rolling her up.
On Sunday August 20, 1911, Peruggia realized what is known as the greatest art robbery of the 20th century. He hid inside the museum on a Sunday, the day before he knew it would be closed the following one, a Monday, a traditional day when most museums of the capital are still closed today. On that Monday morning, wearing the habitual white artists' smocks that museum employees were used to see around, he walked into the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa was - and simply lifted it from the wall.
No wiring, no electronic chip, no sensors, no alarm, no laser shield, not a shred of security protection to deal with. This was a time of mere simplicity, when an uniformed guard would simply glimpse and evaluate the adoring visitors during the opening hours -- to make sure no one was touching it -- but beyond that, the painting was not even cordoned off with a few feet of safe space. Nothing.
The painting weighed just about 18 pounds, since da Vinci painted it on three slabs of wood (as opposed to canvas), like many during the Renaissance. Painted in oil on a white poplar panel, it is believed to date back to the period during 1503 and 1506, as far as its beginnings, only to be finished in France while da Vinci arrived at the royal court, some 10 years later.
Most people don't realize how small she is: only 30 by 21 inch, she is hardly impressive in size and visitors to the Louvre sometimes have a hard time seeing her until they get close and can peek in between shoulders and admirers' heads. This is one of the reasons Perrugia was able to conceal her under his worker's uniform.
After snapping her away, the thief took it to an enclosed stairwell, leaving only four iron pegs behind. After removing the glass case and the heavy frame, he concealed the painting under his smock, walked right by a deserted guard station, and went home.
He kept the celebrity work of art in his flat for two years. When interrogated by the police of his whereabouts of that Monday, he simply said he was not working that day, and that was it. After he transported the painting to Italy -- with no troubles at the border while riding in the train -- he was finally denounced by a Florence art gallery dealer, to whom he had tried to unload the master's art. He had asked for a reward for returning the painting to its homeland.
He may not have been aware that the small frame was a gift from Leonardo da Vinci to the king of France Francis I, for welcoming him to court when he became an official royal painter of his majesty's reign during the 16th century.
Perrugia believed the painting had been stolen by Napoleon (who was himself king of Italy in 1805 to 1814), but obviously the painting had been in France for centuries before the birth of Napoleon. The man did not have his history facts right. The Mona Lisa was French all along, and even though it was painted by an Italian master, it was never stolen, never commandeered, she was simply a gift from a master painter to a king.
In 1913, the Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre Museum. At his trial, the court agreed that Peruggia committed the theft for patriotic reasons and gave him a very lenient sentence of one year and fifteen days -- he served only seven months. Perrugia then joined the Italian Army during WWI. He died at age 44.
Her Name is Serene.
She got her French name, La Joconde, from her own real Italian name: she was Mona Lisa del Giocondo, after taking the name of her husband. Therefore called La Gioconda, which translated in French into La Joconde. Giocondo in Italian means "serene," so the appropriate angelic face on the painting might just be because her name was invoking serenity and da Vinci painted just that emotion on her face.
That would be the simplest explanation -- but we'll never know much more than that. Her subdued gaze follows yours around the room when you move, and that feast alone makes her a true emotional rendering, as she looks and feels alive in her frame.
On the death of da Vinci, in 1519, the painting was inherited by his assistant, who sold it to the king of France who kept it at his summer palace, until the new king, Louis XIV took it to Versailles. After the French revolution, when kings were no more, the painting was hosted by the Louvre Museum, where it remains to this day, ogled by millions of adoring fans.
Some rumors claim that the original Joconde is deeply hidden in a bank vault underneath the museum -- so secretly in fact that the press office of the museum have not been able to confirm/deny the fact to me. The security around her is now high-tech top of the line, and the guards are never even blinking.
She was the first celebrity.
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