August 21, 1911 That Smile

Artistic types are fond of talking about the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa, the “Gioconda smile”, and what it may mean. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the sad smile of a mother who lost a daughter in 1499 before giving birth to a son, in 1502.

Something like 7.8 billion people lived on this planet in 2020, roughly 7 percent of all those, who have ever lived. In all that humanity precious few have ever been known in all times and all places, by a single name. Napoleon. Michelangelo. Ghandi. Leonardo.

Funny how many of them, are Italian Renaissance guys.

The Italian polymath Leonardo, the illegitimate son of a teenage orphan named Caterina, painted his most famous work (Italian Monna Lisa) in stages, between 1503, and 1506. Evidence suggests he was adding finishing touches, as late as 1517.

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci. (Credit: DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/Getty Images)

Mona Lisa was painted in oil on a panel of poplar wood, measuring thirty inches by twenty-one. It’s a very small object to hold the Guinness World Record for highest insurance valuation: US $100 million in 1962, equivalent to $870 million, in 2021.

The model is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, an Italian noblewoman otherwise little known, to history. She was married in her teens to Francesco del Giocondo, a much older merchant of cloth and silk who lived an ordinary middle-class life in which she bore him, five children.

Artistic types are fond of talking about that “enigmatic smile” of the Mona Lisa, the “Gioconda smile”, and what it may mean. Perhaps it’s nothing more than the sad smile of a mother who lost a daughter in 1499 before giving birth to a son, in 1502.

Leonardo could stare at a portrait for hours on end before adding a single brush stroke, and walking away. It may explain why Mona Lisa remains “Non-Finito”. Not finished. This in turn may explain why the artist never gave the portrait to the Giocondo family. He was never paid.

In the last years of his life Leonardo suffered some sort of paralysis, on his right side. While that didn’t impede the left-handed artist’s sketching, to stand for long periods and hold a painter’s palette, proved increasingly difficult.

It is believed Leonardo willed the portrait to his favorite apprentice Gian Giacomo Caprotti da Oreno, better known as Salaì, but the artist died, in France. So it is the most famous painting in the world, “La Jaconde”, remains in French hands from that day, to this.

Sort of.

When the French Revolution abolished the Royal Family, Mona Lisa made her way to the Louvre. She lived for a time in Napoleon’s bedroom in the Tuileries Palace. During the Franco Prussian war of 1879-’81 she was moved to the arsenal at Brest, for safekeeping.

On August 21, 1911, Mona Lisa disappeared from the Louvre.

Sunday August 20 was a big social night, in Paris. Come Monday morning half the city, was hung over. Three Italian handymen were not hung over though they may have been, tired. The three hid out when the museum closed and spent the night, in an art supply closet.

ITALY – CIRCA 2002: Theft of the Mona Lisa. Illustrator Achille Beltrame (1871-1945), from La Domenica del Corriere, 3rd-10th September 1911. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

With the Louvre still closed the trio lifted 200 pounds of painting, frame and protective glass from the wall. Then it was off to the Quai d’Orsay station to catch the 7:47 train, out of town.

Dorothy and Tom Hoobler wrote about the heist in a book, called The Crimes of Paris. According to these two it was 28 hours before anyone noticed, those four bare hooks.

The man who noticed was himself an artist, painting a portrait of the gallery itself. Even then there was no cause for alarm. The museum had a project at that time, to photograph every painting in the gallery. The cameras of the day didn’t photograph well indoors, so it was that each work was brought to the roof, to be photographed.

A fussy little man, the artist “just couldn’t work”, without that portrait in place. He persuaded a guard to find out when Mona Lisa was coming back down, from the roof.

Oops.

Masterpiece of Renaissance Italian art though she might be the Mona Lisa was barely known, outside of art circles. Now that all changed. The New York Times’ headline all but screamed from the front page, “60 Detectives Seek Stolen ‘Mona Lisa,’ French Public Indignant.”

Literally overnight, Mona Lisa became the most famous painting, on the planet.

The French art world was convinced at this time that evil American millionaires, were buying up French art. Never mind Mona Lisa was an Italian piece, but I digress…

American tycoon and art collector John Pierpont Morgan was suspected in the theft as was the Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso. The international tinderbox which brought a world to war in 1914 awaited only the right matchstick, in 1911. Maybe the Kaiser did it.

Meanwhile the three Italians who really DID steal Mona Lisa, two brothers, Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti and the ringleader, Vincenzo Perugia (who just happened to be the guy who built that protective glass case in the first place), didn’t know what to do.

They thought they could sell the thing, maybe even repatriate the portrait, to Italy. Now Mona Lisa was too hot, to hawk.

Twenty-eight months came and went with Mona Lisa, in a trunk. Finally, Perugia approached an art dealer, in Florence.

They said they’d get back to him but it wasn’t a half hour, before the police were at his door. Perugia claimed to be an Italian Patriot, just trying to bring Mona Lisa home. Where she belonged.

He was sentenced to eight months, for the theft.

Somewhere around this time, an Archduke was assassinated, in Sarajevo. World War 1 began just a few days, after Perugia‘s trial.

History has a way of swallowing some events whole. As if they had never happened. Like the early Monday morning in 1911 when that most famous of smiles, just disappeared.

Author: Cape Cod Curmudgeon

I'm not a "Historian". I'm a husband, a father, a son and a grandfather. A history geek and sometimes curmudgeon, who still likes to learn new things. I started "Today in History" back in 2013, thinking I’d learn a thing or two. I told myself I’d publish 365. The leap year changed that to 366. As I write this, I‘m closing in on a thousand. I do it because I want to & I make every effort to get my facts straight, but I'm as good at being wrong, as anybody else. I offer these "Today in History" stories in hopes that you'll enjoy reading them, as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. Thanks for coming along for the ride. Rick Long, the “Cape Cod Curmudgeon”

5 thoughts on “August 21, 1911 That Smile”

  1. Right! The fat little Gestapo guy…Colonel Burkhalter, think. If I’m not mistaken I think most of those guys if not all came through the “Jewish“ experience, of World War II. That would be an interesting topic. Have you ever written about Hogan’s heroes?

    Like

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