Vincenzo Peruggia: The Louvre Employee Who Stole the Mona Lisa

Theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911

Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian artist and former employee of the Louvre who rose to infamy for stealing the Mona Lisa, a famous masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci. Peruggia stole the painting on August 21, 1911 and went on to keep it in his small Parisian room for close to two years.

Completed around 1517, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is arguably the most popular artwork of all time. The half-length Renaissance portrait depicts an image of a lady believed to be Lisa Gherardini (1479 – 1542), a famous Italian noblewoman. The original painting, which was set on a poplar panel, measures around 77 cm by 53 cm. After the death of the Italian artist, the artwork landed in the hands of Francis I, King of France.

Since the 18th Century, the painting has been kept at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France. It entered into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1962 after it was revealed that its US$100 million insurance value was the highest for any painted work.

In some parts of its history, the Mona Lisa has been vandalized many times. However, the masterpiece gained international recognition in 1911 when it was stolen by Italian artist and museum worker Vincenzo Peruggia (1881 –1925).

Wondering how he went about with his robbery? This article will explain to you how Peruggia stole this remarkable piece of art, his motivation, and other interesting things you should know about the Mona Lisa heist in 1911.

Who was Vincenzo Peruggia?

Peruggia was born in Dumenza, a region in the Italian province of Varese, in 1881. Some historical facts have stated that he was born Pietro Peruggia, a name he would use in his later works.

He was a museum worker under the employment of the Louvre museum in Paris between 1908 and 1911. His main task was to make strong cases for some of the arts in the museum, including the one for the Mona Lisa.

According to records, he stood at around 160 cm, approximately 5 ft. 3 inches or 5 ft. 4 inches tall.

How did he steal the Mona Lisa?

Many art historians agree that the Mona Lisa’s popularity today is attributed to its theft in 1911. The incident has been described by many historians as the greatest robbery in the history of art. It happened on Monday August 21, by that time Peruggia had finished his contract with the Louvre.

How he got inside the art center has been a mystery yet to be unveiled, but it’s widely believed that he either slept over a day before, or got into the arena on Monday morning.

For him to carry out this daring act on a day that the museum was closed to the public showed that the Italian had a perfect plan for his mission.

It’s said that Peruggia entered the building through the entrance used by most of the workers and was dressed in their garment – a white smock.

Peruggia waited for the Salon Carré, the arena where the painting was kept, to be empty before striking. He contemplated on which art to pick before settling on the Mona Lisa. The art thief perhaps picked the Mona Lisa due to its relatively small size compared to other Italian artworks in the Louvre.

According to some art scholars, any work stolen by Peruggia on that day would have been as popular as the Mona Lisa is today.

The Mona Lisa

In its more than four hundred years of existence, da Vinci’s masterpiece the Mona Lisa has been manhandled several times and stolen once. The painting’s notoriety went through the roof in 1911, when it was stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian artist and former employee of the Louvre. The art thief carried out his daring heist on August 21, 1911.

Considering the sizes of both the artwork and the Italian, it’s kind of interesting how he managed to hide the artifact from security personnel and workers at the center.

When he got to a staircase nearby, Peruggia took off the frame and protective glass around the art. With the size reduced, he hid the work under his garment.

Other accounts have also suggested that he removed his smock and used it to cover the art before setting off. This debate would have been clearer if there was a security camera in operation at that time.

The Dumenza-born artist was able to pass the security setup at the museum but had to cross another hurdle before completing his well-planned heist.

When Peruggia got to the door, he found out that it was locked. He attempted to open it but to no avail. He was approached by one of the workers, who unbeknownst to the true intentions of Peruggia, helped the art thief open the door. Peruggia thanked him and made a quick exit out of the building.

When it was announced that the Mona Lisa had been stolen, the French police started a thorough investigation. They had a list of suspected people which ranged from low-level employees of the Louvre to very prominent people in the art world. At some point, renowned Spanish painter Pablo Picasso was even considered a suspect in the theft of the painting.

The disappearance of the Mona Lisa certainly received massive coverage from the media, both locally and internationally.

Theft of the Mona Lisa

On the day of the heist, Vincenzo Peruggia dressed in a white smock in order to blend in with the Louvre museum’s workers. His in-depth knowledge of the the layout of the museum came in very handy. After removing the painting from the glass, he tucked it under his dress and exited the museum.

What happened after he stole the painting?

Peruggia didn’t leave Paris after getting hold of the painting. He spent about 24 months in the city while law enforcers were busily searching for the work. So where did he keep this hot commodity during this period?

The Italian museum worker kept the painting in his house. He initially placed it in a wooden cupboard before keeping it under a stove.

He later created a false opening in one of his trunks, where he kept it during his move to Italy a couple of years later.

Rumors had it that though Peruggia had wanted to sell the painting, he would only consider doing business with an Italian. Due to that, he kept the work for some time before contacting Mario Fratelli who owned an art center. The two later reached out to Giovanni Poggi, the director of the Uffizi Gallery, to authenticate the painting.

After Poggi came to authenticate the work, a price of 500,000 Francs was agreed for the painting. Having authenticated the painting, Poggi and the art dealer called the police and informed them about the location of the Mona Lisa.

Peruggia was later grabbed at his hideout. Before the painting was sent back to Paris in 1913, it was briefly displayed in Italy.

The authorities safely returned the Mona Lisa to the Louvre in January 1914. From then onward, the painting became the most famous piece of artwork in the possession of the Louvre.

That’s not to say that painting was not popular among art historians and artists before Peruggia’s heist. But quite certainly, the theft went a long way in boosting its popularity among the public.

Theft of the Mona Lisa

The stolen Mona Lisa painting was returned to the Louvre Museum in January 1914, almost 28 months after it was stolen.

Why did Peruggia steal the Mona Lisa painting?

Peruggia became furious after finding out that a number of Italian artworks had been stolen by Napoleon Bonaparte (1769 –1821), the famed French general and later Emperor of the French. In view of that, he decided to return some of those great works stolen from his country, according to many reports.

It is widely believed that he committed this crime out of patriotism. He had wanted to return the one-time Italian treasures to its natural home. This could be the reason why he only wanted to sell to Italian buyers.

Vincenzo Peruggia’s reason for stealing the Mona Lisa

Other schools of thought have also argued that he probably did that because of money. This point might be true considering the fact that he decided to exchange the work for money instead of donating it to any art center in his native country. It has also been said that he was contracted by Argentine fraudster Eduardo de Valfierno, but the Italian denied this allegation.

Though the painting wasn’t that popular during that period and wouldn’t have fetched him the huge amount that it would have done today, it is believed that any work by the famous da Vinci is likely to attract a reasonable amount of fee.

Authorities nabbed Vincenzo Peruggia after he tried to sell the Mona Lisa to an Italian art dealer at a discount of 25%. The Mona Lisa is considered by many art historians as a masterpiece that epitomizes the Renaissance era. As a result, it is one of the most famous and recognizable paintings of all time.

Trial and punishment

Peruggia’s trail in his native country has been described as an interesting one. According to Seymour Reit (1918 – 2001­), an author, the Italian frequently interrupted proceedings by arguing with both the judges and his lawyers.

Though he initially stated that he carried out the robbery alone, he later named two accomplices – Vincenzo Lancelotti and Michele Lancelotti. However, there was little evidence to prosecute those names he mentioned.

There are some that claim that Peruggia definitely received help from those two men, considering the fact that total weight of the object was in the region of 195 pounds. For a diminutive figure as Peruggia, he most likely would have struggled to take down the painting from the wall.

Vincenzo Peruggia's trial for stealing the Mona Lisa

Theft of the Mona Lisa by Italian Vincenzo Peruggia

After the trial, he was sentenced to a year in prison. After an appeal by his lawyers, the sentence was reduced to seven months. Nonetheless, he was set free immediately since he had already served about eight months in jail during the court proceedings.

According to Reit, Peruggia received lots of love during his time in prison. He received many baked cakes and love letters from some Italian citizens who saw him as a national hero.

Vincenzo Peruggia

Italian artist Vincenzo Peruggia was tried and sentenced to a year in prison for stealing the Mona Lisa. After an appeal, the sentence was reduced to seven months.

Life after prison

After serving his release, Peruggia became a very popular figure in his native Italy. During the First World War, he enlisted in the army. It’s said that, the former museum worker was captured by the Austria-Hungary forces during the war. He was held as a prisoner-of-war for a couple of years before he was released.

After the war, he moved to France where he changed his name to Pietro Peruggia. He worked as a decorator during his time in France.

He died on his 44th anniversary and was survived by a daughter named Celestina.

Why Vincenzo Peruggia was wrong about the true ownership of the Mona Lisa

Peruggia was undoubtedly outraged when he first read about how France, under Napoleon Bonaparte, stole a number of important artworks from Italy. A fierce patriot, Peruggia vowed to return those artworks back to what he thought was their rightful home.

However, Peruggia could not have been further away from the truth. The truth of the matter is: Napoleon did indeed steal a number of important paintings from Italy during his reign and the Napoleonic Wars. However, the Mona Lisa was not one of them.

It turns out that the Mona Lisa had been in the possession of the Louvre museum more than 250 years before the birth of Napoleon.

Historians note that Leonardo da Vinci spent his later years in the French court of French king Francis I. Upon the death of da Vinci in 1519, the French king took ownership of the masterpieces in da Vinci’s studio. Some of those works included the Mona Lisa.

The above explains how the Louvre museum and the French government came to own the Mona Lisa.

Why did Peruggia pick the Mona Lisa for his heist?

The Louvre museum is undoubtedly one of the most famous art museums in the world, as it can boast of many masterpieces, including those by many Italian artists. The question that begs to be answered: what informed Peruggia’s decision to steal that particular painting by an Italian artist?

During the trial, the art thief revealed that he contemplated other artworks by other Italian artists. He only settled on the Mona Lisa due to its relatively small size compared to those other artworks.

The Mona Lisa measures about 30 inches by 21 inches. This meant that Peruggia could easily conceal it under his white smock and sneak out of the Louvre without raising any suspicion.

Did you know?

  • It took the staff at the Louvre a whole 24 hours to realize that Mona Lisa had been stolen. It’s said that their attention was drawn to the four bare hooks on the wall after an artist visiting the museum inquired about the painting.
  • In the two years that the Mona Lisa was missing, authorities remained clueless as the only iota of evidence was the single finger print left on the glass of the frame. As the Louvre did not have a complete database of finger prints of all their employees, past and present, authorities could not find any match.
  • When authorities apprehended Peruggia, his finger prints were taken; and not surprising his finger print marched the prints that were taken from the glass of the frame.

Portrayal of the robbery in other media

Stealing the Mona Lisa

1911 was the year the Mona Lisa was stolen. The painting is a 16th century work by High Renaissance artist and polymath Leonardo da Vinci.

Regarded as one of the greatest art heists of all time, the theft of Mona Lisa by Peruggia in 1911 has been portrayed in many films, television shows, and literature. His character was played by Austrian actor Willi Forst in the 1931 German film “Der Raub der Mona Lisa (The Theft of the Mona Lisa)”.

In 1956, an episode of the popular television series entitled “You Are There” portrayed how the Mona Lisa was stolen. American actor Vito Scotti starred as Peruggia in the said TV show.

Reit documented the robbery in his 1981 book titled “The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa”.

Renowned American comedian and actor Jack Black was cast as Peruggia in an episode of Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” in 2018.

Read MoreMost Famous Renaissance Artists and their Accomplishments

Vincenzo Peruggia: Fast Facts

Born: October8, 1881

Place of birth: DUmenza, Varese, Italy

Died: October 8, 1925

Place of death: Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, France

Infamous for: Stealing the Mona Lisa in 1911

 

FACT CHECK: At worldhistoryedu.com, we strive for utmost accuracy and objectivity. But if you come across something that doesn’t look right, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.

 

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