Mona Lisa … Mona Lisa … Just a cold and lonely work of art … ?

There is magic in the name – Mona Lisa. Though, here in France, should you speak of Mona Lisa, or of the Mona Lisa, you will receive blank stares. It was what had happened to me when, on first arriving in France, I asked a gardien (guard) in the Louvre where I can find the […]

There is magic in the name – Mona Lisa.

Though, here in France, should you speak of Mona Lisa, or of the Mona Lisa, you will receive blank stares. It was what had happened to me when, on first arriving in France, I asked a gardien (guard) in the Louvre where I can find the Mona Lisa. I thought ‘bloody idiot’, when, in fact, I was being stupid because here in France the Mona Lisa is known as La Joconde. The woman on the Leonardo da Vinci painting being, as is generally thought (yet not generally agreed) Lisa Gherandini, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a rich silk merchant from Florence.

The painting is often described as the most famous in the world. Official statistics show that in 2010 8.5 million people visited the Louvre Museum where the Mona Lisa is on display. Of these 7 million had gone there only to see the Mona Lisa. (In 2009 7.8 million people had visited the Louvre which has 180 guards and they go on strike ever so often – for more pay and better working conditions.)

Leonardo da Vinci

Earlier this year the painting was in the news because Signor Silvano Vincenti who heads a team of scientists and historians of Italy’s National Committee for Culture and Heritage, claimed that the woman who sat for Leonardo da Vinci was not Lisa Gherandini. It was not even a woman. It was Leonardo’s lover: Salai (Little Devil) as Leonardo called him. The young cross-dresser’s real name was Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Orena. (I wrote about it and you can read it here.) I recommend that you read it because Signor Silvano Vincenti upset the Louvre with that allegation, and the signor has done so yet again.

Signor Vincenti wants the Louvre to loan him the Mona Lisa (he calls it La Gioconda) to be exhibited in Florence in 2013.

Having met with determined reluctance on the part of the Louvre, he went to the media saying that he and the government authorities of the province of Florence were to launch a worldwide internet appeal to support his request.

“This is not a declaration of war against France. It’s an appeal aimed at collaboration,” he told the media.

He added that the painting had left the Louvre three times and can do so again.

Yes, the Mona Lisa has left the Louvre since its acquisition of it during the French Revolution. It has left the Louvre five times. The first was during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871) when it was moved to the Brest Arsenal. The second was in 1911 when it was stolen (see below). The third was in the Second World War when it was moved to the Imgres Museum in Montauban. The fourth was in 1963 when it was loaned to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (You can watch the video of President John F.Kennedy at the exhibition’s opening.)  The fifth was in 1974 when it was loaned to the Tokyo Museum for Art.

Many books have been written about the theft of the Mona Lisa and a movie is to be made of it too based on the 1981 Seymour Reit (1918-2001) book, The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa, which you can read about here.

Joe Medeiros and Celestina, the daughter of the man who stole the Mona Lisa

Also, a documentary by the American screenwriter/director Joe Medeiros, The Missing Piece, will be released on August 18 this year (2011). Medeiros’s research led him to Celestina, the daughter of the thief. (She died, aged 84, soon after he had filmed her for his documentary.)

The thief was the Italian, Vincenzo Peruggia, a house painter. That the painting was missing was discovered on Tuesday, August 22, 1911 when a painter, Louis Béroud, walked into the Louvre’s Salon Carré. (Béroud was not a house painter like Peruggia, but a painter on canvas, an artiste peintre as the French call such a painter so that there is no confusion.

For two years the painting remained missing while France’s best criminologists tried to find it. One such criminologists was Alphonse Bertillon who gave us anthropometry (the scientific mapping of the human body and face) which led to fingerprinting and the police mug shot of today.

Peruggia (1881-1925) tripped himself up when, in 1913, he contacted a Florence art dealer to sell him the Mona Lisa. Until then Peruggia had kept the painting in his small apartment on the Canal Saint Martin in Paris’s 19th arrondissement (district).

The art dealer, on seeing the painting and realizing it was not a copy, as he had originally thought, called the police.

Police mug shot of Peruggia

Peruggia , claiming he had stolen the painting for Italy, its rightful owner, served 7 months and 9 day of a one year and 15 days sentence. In the First World War he served in the Italian army and after the war he returned to France.

There are many versions about Peruggia’s fate after he had returned to France.  For the first time ever the real story will be told in Joe Medeiros’  The Missing Piece. He had kindly given me permission to reveal that Peruggia settled in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, a few miles south of Paris, where he died on October 8, 1925, the day of his 44th birthday. He died of a heart attack; he had collapsed at the feet of Celestina.  He was buried in the Cemetery Condè in Saint-Maur-des-Fossés. There is a rule in France that remains can be removed from a grave if the grave has remained unvisited and untended for 50 years, and this happened in the case of Peruggia’s grave. (The procedure is that a warning is put on the grave for two years that if no one establishes ownership, the cemetery will reclaim the plot.)  Such remains are cremated. Celestina had in the last years of her life erected a headstone marker for her father in Dumenza where she lived.

The only other detail I will reveal from The Missing Piece is that after Peruggia’s death someone claimed to be him; that person died in 1947. Do visit the documentary’s site, here.

As for the Mona Lisa it was first put on display in Florence and in 1914 it was returned to France and to the Louvre.

The painting had another four mishaps.

Early in 1956 someone threw acid at it, damaging its lower part, and then again on December 30 of that year a Bolivian threw a rock at it. The rock chipped the Mona Lisa’s left elbow. The third was in 1974 in Tokyo when a woman sprayed it with red paint, and the fourth was in 2009 when a Russian woman who had been denied French citizenship threw a terra cotta mug at it. She’d bought the mug in the Louvre’s souvenir shop. After the first three attacks the painting needed reparation.

Today, the Mona Lisa is protected by bulletproof glass. It is a pity because seeing a painting, any object for that matter, through glass, removes something of its beauty. This is my opinion anyway. I must just say that I have seen it before glass covered it; when I had first seen it that day when I asked the guard where I would find the Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa will not make the trip to Florence in 2013, or any other time.

On Friday, June 24, the Louvre notified Signor Silvano Vincenti that the painting will not be loaned out.

Vincent Pomarède, Head of Painting at the Louvre, told the French News Agency (AFP) that it is “absolutely unthinkable” that the museum’s most popular artwork will be loaned out for exhibitions. He described the painting as “extremely fragile” and a journey could cause it “irreversible damage”. It is painted with oil on wood, and it is air-conditioned inside its bulletproof glass box.

You may remember Nat King Cole (1919-1965) or you might have heard of him. In 1950, his song Mona Lisa won an Academy Award. Are you warm, are you real, Mona Lisa? Or just a cold and lonely lovely work of art? was what he sang. You can listen to it here.

She’s real to very many people …

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

2 Responses

[…] original post here: Mona Lisa … Mona Lisa … Just a cold and lonely work of art … Comments […]

6-27-2011 at 07:58:27

Hi Marilyn,

What a wonderful site. And thanks for mentioning our film. We know that there are countless people who love the Mona Lisa and it certainly was a thrill for me to be alone with her in the Louvre as we were shooting our documentary. Even though she was behind bullet-proof glass, I can only imagine what Peruggia felt when he had her in his hands alone in his little room in Paris.

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