Writer-Director Joe Medeiros tried for thirty years to solve the mystery of the man who stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre on August 8, 1911. The painting was missing for two years. Medeiros was able to come up with a fascinating story which shook the art world and made La Gioconda (the Mona Lisa) more famous than she had ever been.
Vincenzo Peruggia lived in the small town of Dumenza in northern Italy. He was the oldest of four children and worked as a house painter in Milan. When he was 20 years old, he went to Paris, France, a very modern city, and continued to work as a house painter. Vinzenzo became ill with lead poisoning from the paints that were used at that time. He spent 15 days in a hospital in Paris due to the lead poisoning.
Mona Lisa (La Gioconda) - Wikimedia
New Job at the Louvre
He was able to get a job at the Louvre cutting glass for a company that worked inside the museum. There existed a cruel hatred of Italians in France because of rumors that Italy might join Germany in the war. Vincenzo’s fellow workers mocked him and called him “macaroni.” There were several Italian art pieces in the Louvre. He learned that a great many paintings had been looted by Napoleon. He believed it would be a patriotic gesture if he took the art pieces out of France and brought them back to Italy.
The Dangers of Lead Poisoning
Medical experts learned that exposure to lead shrinks part of the brain and can cause criminal behavior. Vincenzo had two prior arrests charging him with attempted theft. He was carrying a weapon and did not have his immigration papers. He was sent to jail in Paris for eight days.
Leonardo Da Vinci, Self-Portrait - Wikimedia
Vincenzo Peruggia’s Daughter
Joe Medeiros was able to track down Vincenzo Peruggia’s only child, Celestina, and called her on what was her 84th birthday. He flew to Milan to talk to Celestina about her father. She was just a toddler when the theft occurred, and nobody told her about it; nobody even talked about it. She learned the truth when she was 20 years old. She showed Joe Medeiros pictures of him. He died on his birthday on October 8, 1925. She mourned the father she never knew. Medeiros was able to speak also with Celestina’s daughter, Graziella, and her husband Amleto.
Joe Medeiros wondered why there were no signs of Peruggia in Dumenza, no memorials. He learned that it was against the law in Italy to memorialize a person who was a criminal. Joe remarked that there were memorials to Mussolini; why not to Peruggia? There was a small headstone in Dumenza even though Vincenzo was actually buried in France.
What was Peruggia’s Motive?
Although the painting was discovered and returned in 1913, the reasons behind the theft were never made clear, even to Vincenzo’s daughter. Joe Medeiros had his work cut out for him. He was able to use historical photographs, newspaper clippings, and his interviews with Peruggia’s relatives to piece together the information he needed to make his movie on the subject of the greatest art heist in modern times. Paris newspapers had reported it as “unimaginable.”
Vincenzo Peruggia - The Thief - Wikimedia
The Plot to Steal the Mona Lisa
Joe Medeiros was able to put together many puzzle pieces to come up with his story. The Louvre was always closed on Monday. There was an empty space on the wall where the Mona Lisa had hung, but oftentimes workers took pictures down to clean them. The Mona Lisa was still missing on Tuesday, however. The frame was found on a staircase. The Director of the museum was on vacation and had left as curator in charge.
Paris was rocked by the news. People were shocked and saddened. They left flowers at the museum’s gate; it was like a funeral. A reward of 40,000 francs was offered, with no questions asked.
Retracing the Events of That Fateful Day
Petruggia’s grandson retraced his grandfather’s footsteps. Vincenzo had left the job at the Louvre and returned to house painting. On Monday, August 11th, he went back to the museum and arrived at the Salon Carre, the room where the Mona Lisa is hung. It was the smallest painting there and hung on four metal hooks. He had to remove it from its frame. Vincenzo was able to take it without any noise. There were only twelve men in the entire museum on Monday. He hid the picture on the stairs. The Mona Lisa is made of wood, not canvas. A plumber who did not know Vincenzo locked the back door. When he left, Vincenzo retrieved the painting, took his smock and wrapped it around the painting. He walked right out of the museum, took a cab, and went home. Even Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning.
The Investigation Begins
An investigator named Bertillon took the fingerprints of 257 workers at the museum. All the glassworkers showed up with the exception of Peruggia. Some supposed eyewitnesses gave conflicting stories. Peruggia rented a room in a Parisian ghetto near the museum. He kept the Mona Lisa in his dingy room for two and a half years.
In December of 1913, Peruggia felt that he needed to get rid of the painting. He built a crate with a false bottom. He knew of an art dealer in Florence named Geri who might be interested in it. He wanted 500,000 lira from Geri, which was equal to $100,000 at the time. Geri had other appraisers look at the painting also. They agreed that it was the stolen Mona Lisa. When Peruggia arrived, he was arrested immediately. A psychiatrist named Dr. Amaldi evaluated him. He concluded that his patient was a simple, fragile person, not crazy, but mentally deficient, and a half-wit.
The Louvre, Paris - Wikimedia
The Mona Lisa Returns
In 1913, the Mona Lisa was returned to its Parisian home, undamaged. There was a previous abrasion on her cheek and a slight mark on her left shoulder which confirmed its authenticity.
Other persons were thought to be the masterminds of the heist, but the truth remained that Peruggia alone had masterminded the theft of the iconic masterpiece. It was determined that the Mona Lisa was not a part of Napoleon’s loot. It had been purchased by King Francis I of France and truly belonged to France.
Peruggia is Sentenced to Prison
Peruggia was sent to prison for one year and 17 days but was set free after seven months and five days. He had pleaded patriotism as his motive, but prosecutors agreed that he would have chosen to donate it to the museum rather than to seek remuneration from his act if he was just being patriotic. When war broke out, he was held prisoner by the Austrians for two years, after which he returned to Paris, was married, and took his wife to the Louvre. He spent the rest of his life in Paris, never committed another crime, and died in 1925.
Joe Madeiros Completed His Film
Before he left Dumenza, Joe Medeiros was given permission to put up a memorial to Vincenzo Petruggia on a private home, which was legal. He wrapped up his film, to the delight of all the viewers, including myself.
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