In December, 1913, two years after it was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece was recovered in a hotel room in Florence. This excerpt from Mona Lisa: A Life Discovered describes the dramatic scene:
“La Joconde, c’est partie!” (The Mona Lisa is gone!) a guard at the Louvre gasped in horror on Tuesday, August 22, 1911. Only four iron hooks framed by a ghostly rectangular shape hung in her place on the wall. In an instant La Joconde (its French name) became the most wanted woman in the world. Leonardo’s portrait seemed to change from a missing masterpiece to a missing person, with the public responding as emotionally as they might to an abduction or kidnapping.
News of the sensational “l’affair de La Joconde,” traveling as fast as telegraph and cable could carry it, captivated millions. Tabloids churned out reams of copy on the painting and its seductive model. Gone missing from the heart of Paris, the Mona Lisa popped up almost everywhere else. Long before the technology existed for her image to go viral, Mona Lisa’s smile—like the Cheshire cat’s — seemed to materialize from thin air on kiosks, billboards and magazine covers.
More than two years passed, and the hubbub died down. Then, on November 29, 1913, Alfredo Geri, an antiques dealer with an upscale shop on Via Borgo Ognisanti in Florence, received a letter postmarked from Paris and signed “Leonardo.”
The writer—and the unlikely perpetrator of “the heist of the century” — was an Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia, a 30-year-old amateur painter who had occasionally worked as a handyman at the Louvre. Deftly removing the painting from the frame he had helped construct, he hid it under his coat and carried it out of the building.
“The stolen work of Leonardo da Vinci is in my possession,” the note read. “It seems to belong to Italy since its painter was an Italian. My dream is to give back this masterpiece to the land from which it came and to the country that inspired it.”
Skeptical, Geri brought the letter to Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi, who advised him to request a chance to inspect the painting in Florence before making an offer. A few weeks later a short, dark-complexioned man, not more than five foot three, with pomaded hair and a handlebar mustache waxed at the tips, checked into the Albergo Tripoli-Italia, a shabby cut-rate hotel on Via Panzani, not far from the train station in Florence.
On December 12, 1913, Peruggia ushered the two experts into his room and locked the door. Wordlessly dragging a wooden case from under the bed, he heaved it onto the rumpled sheets and dumped out woolen underwear, shirts, shoes, and other “wretched things,” as Geri put it, to reveal a false bottom. Under it was a package bundled in red silk.
“To our amazed eyes, the divine Gioconda appeared intact and marvelously preserved,” Geri reported. “We carried it to a window to compare it to a photograph we had brought with us. Poggi studied it and we had no doubt the painting was authentic.” Closer examination would reveal a bruise-like discoloration on one cheek and a small scratch on her left shoulder. Otherwise the Mona Lisa was in remarkably good shape for a 400-year-old who had spent two years in cheap rooms in Paris before hopping a train to Florence.
The Uffizi’s Poggi insisted on taking the portrait back to his museum to compare it with other works by Leonardo. Peruggia, who expected the Italian government to pay him 500,000 lire—about $2.14 million today—for the “ great service rendered,” remained in his room. Within the hour, police hammered on his door.
Waking from a nap, the clueless thief accompanied them without protest, confident that he soon would be hailed as a hero. Instead he spent about seven months in jail. On his release Peruggia was so penniless that he turned his pockets inside out as he left the courthouse. (Part 2 of this excerpt describes the Mona Lisa’s triumphant stay in her native land.)