The Monna Lisa’s Instant Fame


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By Diane H.

Would you believe that the Leonardo da Vinci’s Monna Lisa (*) was not always the acclaimed work of art that it is today? In fact, most art critics did not even consider it a masterpiece of Renaissance art until the 1860s, more than 350 years after it was painted. For years the public showed little interest in the Monna Lisa. It was simply one of the many works of art in Paris’ Musée du Louvre. However, all that changed when the painting was stolen in 1911 and, instantly, the Monna Lisa went from being just another pretty face to overnight sensation. lisa

On Sunday night, August 20th, 1911, a worker at the Louvre named Vincenzo Peruggia stayed behind, hidden in a closet. When the museum had closed and all was quiet, he entered the museum’s Salon Carré, took the Monna Lisa from the wall, removed the wooden canvas from its frame, and attempted to make his escape. Unfortunately for him, the doorknob was missing and he was forced to stay in the museum overnight, most likely in the closet to avoid the elderly security guard. The next morning when an unsuspecting plumber came by, Peruggia got him to open the door with some tools. On the morning of the 21st, Peruggia strolled out of the museum onto the busy Paris streets with the Monna Lisa hidden under his work smock and headed home.

gioconda1 Being a Monday, the museum was closed and none of the staff noticed the painting was missing. The next day a still life artist, who had set up his easel in the gallery to sketch the Monna Lisa, inquired about the painting’s whereabouts. Thinking it might be one of the paintings that had been removed to be photographed, he insisted that a guard find out how long it would be gone.When the guard was told it was not with the artwork to be photographed, they realized the Monna Lisa had been stolen.

When embarrassed museum officials announced the theft, the newspapers had a field day with the story.

Outrageous rumors spread, from the German Kaiser being behind it to it being stolen by Pablo Picasso. The lax security at the museum became a national scandal and the museum closed for a week to conduct its investigation. When it reopened, people were lined up to see the bare space where the portrait once hung. Police arrested the French poet and playwright Guillaume Apollinaire even though there was no evidence tying him to the crime. stolen

A week later they released him and the crime remained unsolved for two years.

vincper Meanwhile, Peruggia, who had initially intended to sell the artwork, knew it would be impossible to unload because of all the media attention. He hid the painting away for 28 months and then returned to Italy with the painting hidden in a false-bottomed trunk. Peruggia contacted an art dealer in Florence, offering to bring the painting in for a reward. The dealer, Alfredo Geri, contacted police and Peruggia was arrested. At first Peruggia claimed he was an Italian nationalist trying to return the painting to its homeland, but then pleaded guilty and served eight months in jail.
When he was released he opened a paint shop in France.

Before the painting was returned to France it went on a victory tour to Florence, Rome and Milan. About 100,000 people had seen it by the time it returned to the Louvre and the crowds haven’t stopped since. Today eight million people each year visit the famous painting under very tight security.

(*)*While in many countries we recognize the title of Leonardo’s famous painting as ‘Mona Lisa’, the original Italian title is “Monna Lisa”. “Monna”actually evolved from latin “Mea Domina” and then from the old italian “Ma donna” (my lady)

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