Unveiling the Mona Lisa’s Tale of Fame, Theft, and Return

Mona Lisa is a name not unknown to anyone in the art world or beyond. In fact, when it comes to famous artworks, there are a few that take the cake, and Mona Lisa is undoubtedly one of them. Painted by Leonardo de Vinci between 1503 and 1519, this famous artwork was owned by French royalty for centuries. It was then liberated by Revolutionary forces and even briefly adorned Napoleon’s bedroom until it was finally installed in the Louvre, Paris.

According to experts, the Mona Lisa is the most visited and by far the most famous artwork worldwide. Painted in its revolutionary ¾ length pose, unlike the Italian paintings that used full figure postures, Mona Lisa is not demure or stoic. She looks directly into the eyes of the spectators, as a man typically would, turning slightly towards the viewers and smiling at them in secret amusement. De Vinci uses various painting techniques to give Mona Lisa a realistic touch. From irregular brushstrokes that make her skin texture almost life-like to sfumato and aerial perspective, which creates imperceptible transitions between light and dark, allowing the background to fade away in the dark. This was yet another contradiction from the Italian artwork that often portrayed the background in the same sharp focus as the central figure.

La Gioconda

But exactly who was Mona Lisa? There are many speculations on the subject of the painting. Many scholars and historians have posited numerous interpretations of the woman in the portrait. One such is Giorgio Vasari, an Italian writer and historian, who quoted that she is Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of the Florentine merchant Francesco di Bartolomeo. The merchant commissioned the painting for his new home to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. Hence, the painting is also known as La Gioconda.

The title’ Mona Lisa’ is also believed to come from the subject’s name. Mona, a contraction for Ma Donna, is translated to ‘my lady.’ Whereas the La Gioconda name comes from the Italian ‘jocund,’ which means happy or joyful. It is also intended as a pun on the merchant’s last name, Giocondo.

However, Vasari’s account has been disputed due to a lack of information and knowledge of Di Vinci’s circumstances at the time. Scholars believe he might be referring to another copy of the Mona Lisa!

The Theft of Mona Lisa

Can you believe that the painting today, known by the entire world, was once not even the most famous in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre? Mona Lisa was not widely known outside the art world for the longest time, until one day on 21st August 1911, three men stole it.

Most Sunday nights called for big social gatherings, so people were naturally hungover the next day. It was then the three men, two brothers named Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti, aided by the mastermind behind the heist, Vincenzo Peruggia. Peruggia was a handyman at the museum and had once helped fix glass over the same painting he was now stealing. On the morning the painting was stolen, they slipped out an art supply closet, where they hid all night, lifted the 200 pound painting, stripped off its frame and case, covered the wooden canvas with a blanket, and ran out.

Amazingly, no one noticed the disappearance of the Mona Lisa from the gallery unit; a visitor who had come to see it faced an empty wall and ran off to tell security. However, the artist wasn’t alarmed initially since the gallery paintings were photographed on the roof for a new project. After he finally persuaded the guard to check the roof for the painting, he found out the painting was not there.

Overnight Fame

And just like that, the Mona Lisa became famous overnight. Newspapers from all over the world ran headlines about the missing masterpiece. The heist became a nationwide scandal. The New York Times even quoted ’60 Detective Seek Stolen Mona Lisa, French Public Indignant’.

People in France were highly concerned about the theft and thought that American millionaires were buying up their legacy. As World War I approached, many also believed that Kaiser Wilhelm was behind the robbery. After about a week after the theft, Louvre opened its gates to the public and people rushed in to see the empty space where Mona Lisa once hung.

As tensions grew, it became evident to the mastermind, Vincenzo Peruggia, that it would be impossible to sell the painting. So, he stashed it in the false bottom of a trunk in his Paris boardinghouse. Twenty-eight months passed when Peruggia finally decided to sell the painting to an art dealer in Florence. The dealer got suspicious about the painting and his suspicion was confirmed when he saw the stamp of authenticity at the back of it. As Peruggia returned home, waiting to hear back from the dealer to his surprise, the police knocked on the door and arrested him. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to just eight months in prison.

Hence, Mona Lisa returned to Louvre, more famous than it had ever been. Soon, World War I broke out and suddenly, the art heist was no longer the biggest news.

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