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Tales of La Gioconda–Part 3 Posted by on Apr 25, 2012 in Art, History

Previously in Tales of La Gioconda: Monna Lisa Stolen from the Louvre by Decorator!!

Vincenzo Leonard was the pseudonym of Louvre decorator and odd job man Vincenzo Peruggia who was born near Luino in northern Italy.  Like thousands of other Italians, Peruggia emigrated to France in search of work. In his role as Louvre odd job man Peruggia had helped to put the protective glass over the portrait of La Gioconda. Filled with a great sense of Italian patriotism, he erroneously believed that Leonardo‘s painting had been stolen from Italy by Napoleon, and decided to return it to his beloved homeland.

On the night of the 20th of august 1911 he took the painting down from the wall and removed it from its frame, he then went and hid in a storeroom (fortunately for him there were no alarm systems installed in those days). The following morning he walked out of the museum with the portrait hidden under his coat, took a taxi to his hotel, and placed the Monna Lisa inside the false bottom of his suitcase, which he kept hidden underneath his bed. Little is known of Peruggia’s whereabouts over the following two years, although it is said that he went back to his native town of Luino, where he stayed with some relatives.

Following his arrest, Peruggia was tried in Italy where the defence argued that Vincenzo’s action was based on a misplaced sense of patriotism and had not been carried out for personal gain. It is important to remember that at that time Italy was still a young nation, and a strong sense of patriotism prevailed. Due to this, Peruggia received a lot of support for his ‘theft’ from his fellow countrymen. His defence lawyer also tried to demonstrate that Vincenzo wasn’t very bright. In order to prove this a psychiatrist questioned him during the trial in the following way: «Su un albero ci sono due uccelli. Se un cacciatore spara a uno di loro, quanti ne rimangono sull’albero?» «Uno?», rispose Peruggia. «Deficiente!», urlò il medico. La risposta corretta era zero, perché l’altro uccello sarebbe scappato!  (“On a tree there are two birds. If a hunter shoots at one of them, how many are left on the tree?” “One?”, replied Peruggia. “Idiot!” shouted the doctor. The correct reply was none, because the other bird would have flown away!)

Peruggia was found guilty of theft, and given a prison sentence of 1 year and 15 days, later reduced to 7 months when he was officially declared mentally retarded. In the meantime the Monna Lisa  made a triumphant tour through the major cities of her homeland, including Firenze, Roma, and Milano, where sixty thousand Italians crowded into the Brera museum for a final good-bye. She was then returned to France on a specially scheduled train together with an escort of museum officials, and policemen, arriving at the Louvre on the 4th of January 1914, where she was received by the French President and his ministers. La Gioconda was greeted in France with all the honours due to an important head of state.

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