Surely everyone has heard of the Mona Lisa? Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic artwork today helps attract millions of visitors to the Louvre in Paris, making it one of the most popular museums in the world. But perhaps the work would not be quite so well known if it hadn’t been for the events of 21 August 1911.
Vincenzo Peruggia was an odd-job man hired to carry out work at the Louvre. He was an Italian patriot who believed that da Vinci’s Mona Lisa should be returned to his home country. He planned to steal the painting.
But this was no intricately masterminded extraction; Peruggia simply hid in a cupboard until the museum closed, then popped out, collected the painting, and hid it under his clothes. He was almost thwarted when he found his route of escape blocked by a locked door but helpfully a passing plumber let him out.
It wasn’t until the following day that anyone even noticed the painting had gone. The museum was not heavily guarded overnight and staff assumed the painting had been taken away to be cleaned or photographed. When the realisation hit that the Mona Lisa really was gone, the Louvre was closed immediately to begin the investigation.
The French borders were closed and a hefty reward was offered to anyone who found the Mona Lisa. Various suspects were arrested, interviewed and released, among them artist Pablo Picasso.
The theft became global news, with the image of the Mona Lisa distributed in newspapers far and wide. Crowds even queued outside the Louvre just to see the space where it had once hung. But it would be two years before the painting reappeared.
Peruggia, apparently tired of sitting on the spoils of his heist, attempted to sell the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, Italy. He was arrested and served seven months in prison.
After hanging for several weeks in the Uffizi Gallery, the Mona Lisa returned to the Louvre on 4 January 1914.
Peruggia’s act, and the whirl of press attention that ensued, had transformed the Mona Lisa into one of the most recognisable artworks in the world.