The Secret History of Art
Noah Charney on Art Crimes and Art Historical Mysteries

The Secret History of Art – Noah Charney on Art Crimes and Art Historical Mysteries

Chronology of the Mona Lisa: History and Thefts

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With the release of The Secret History of Art’s new book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting (the sale of which supports charity), we are happy to present a series of excerpts from the book, clips from the story of the world’s most famous theft and the biography, often little known by the general public, of the most recognizable of all artworks.

Here we present a chronology of the biography of the Mona Lisa, beginning with the story of Leonardo and incorporating the key events in the multi-faceted history of the painting.  This includes its role in the “affaire des statuettes,” in which Apollinaire and Picasso were implicated in the theft–they were innocent of that, but guilty of having stolen other works from the Louvre–and also the fate of the Mona Lisa during the Second World War.

CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS SURROUNDING THE MONA LISA

15 April 1452

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci is born in the village of Anchiano, near Vinci, thirty miles from Florence.

1462 or 1464

Leonardo moves to Florence with his father and begins his humanistic education.

1466

Leonardo, age fourteen, is apprenticed to the sculptor and painter, Andrea del Verrocchio.

1472-1475

Leonardo paints an angel as part of Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ, a figure considered far superior to the work of his master in the same painting.

1477

Leonardo becomes an independent master of painting.

15 June 1479

Lisa Antonmaria Gherardini, the subject of the Mona Lisa, is born near Florence.

1481/1482

Leonardo joins the Sforza court in Milan as a military engineer.

1495-97

Leonardo paints his famous Last Supper, using the fresco secco technique but surprisingly painting it in oils.

1500

Leonardo returns to Florence after the Sforzas are driven from Milan.

1503-1505

Leonardo paints the Mona Lisa, although it may have been touched up as late as 1519.

1505

Leonardo begins, but does not finish, the Battle of the Anghiari fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, a work that is currently lost.

1506

Leonardo returns to Milan at the request of the French governor, Charles d’Amboise.

1507

Leonardo is named court painter to the French king, Louis XII.

1509

Leonardo collaborates with Luca Pacioli, on publishing a mathematical treatise Divina Proportione.

1513-1516

Leonardo lives and works in Rome for Pope Leo X.

1516

Leonardo moves to France permanently, in the service of King François I, bringing the Mona Lisa with him.

2 May 1519

After Leonardo’s death on 2 May, his estate is legally purchased by King François I for the French royal collection. This includes the Mona Lisa. A misunderstanding about how France acquired the painting would lead to its theft in 1911.

1550

Giorgio Vasari publishes the first edition of his Lives of the Painters, which perpetuates Leonardo’s legacy, and that of his most famous portrait.

1695

The Mona Lisa is moved, along with the majority of the French royal art collection, from the castle of Fontainebleau to the newly-built palace of Versailles.

1797

Numerous works from the royal collection are moved from Versailles to the Louvre after the French Revolution, including the Mona Lisa.

1799

Napoleon has the Mona Lisa moved from the Louvre to his bedroom at the Tuilleries Palace.

1803/1804

The Mona Lisa moves from display in Napoleon’s private apartments to public display at the Musée Napoleon (the precursor to the Musée du Louvre).

1869

Art historian Walter Pater publishes a famous essay about the Mona Lisa as the embodiment of the eternal feminine, reigniting popular interest in the painting.

September 1904

The young Cubist painter Pablo Picasso attends the opening of a new room at the Louvre that featured Iberian art from the museum’s permanent collection. It would inspire him to later arrange a theft of two statuettes he saw there, which in turn would lead him and Apollinaire to be accused of having stolen the Mona Lisa.

March 1907

By his own admission, Josephe-Honoré Géry Pieret, Apollinaire’s secretary, begins stealing from the Louvre and sells two stolen Iberian statues to Picasso.

1907

Anarchists knife an Ingres painting, prompting Louvre staff to commission the construction of glass cases to protect some of its most famous masterpieces, including the Mona Lisa.

1907

Pablo Picasso paints Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, considered by many to be the first “modern” artwork. He incorporates in it the statuettes that he had purchased after they were stolen from the Louvre.

Late 1907

Most of the Iberian statuettes are moved from display into Louvre storage.

October 1910-January 1911

Vincenzo Peruggia works for a company sub-contracted by the Louvre to prepare protective cases for famous works in their collection, including the Mona Lisa.

7 May 1911

Géry Pieret steals a third Iberian statuette, of a woman’s head.

21 August 1911

The Mona Lisa is stolen by Vincenzo Peruggia.

22–26 August 1911

The investigation of the theft begins, including the questioning of Peruggia on two occasions.

29 August 1911

Géry Pieret admits in Paris-Journal to having stolen a “Phoenician” statuette from the Louvre in May of 1911 and to stealing other items in 1907. The statuette stolen in 1911 is put on display in the paper’s window.

5 September 1911

Two Iberian statuettes are returned to the offices of Paris-Journal, probably by Apollinaire, after he and Picasso grew frightened that the stolen statuettes, and their involvement with them would become known thanks to the publicity about the Mona Lisa theft

7 September 1911

Guillaume Apollinaire is arrested on suspicion of involvement in the Mona Lisa theft. Picasso would be likewise interrogated by the police as an accomplice

13 September 1911

Apollinaire is released from jail and absolved of any involvement in the Mona Lisa theft

14 April 1912

The Titanic sinks, finally shifting the talk of the world’s media away from the failed investigation of the Mona Lisa theft.

29 November 1913

Vincenzo Peruggia writes a letter to art dealer Alfredo Geri, hoping for help in returning the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

10 December 1913

Alfredo Geri and Uffizi director Giovanni Poggi meet Vincenzo Peruggia and see the stolen Mona Lisa in his hotel room.

11 December 1913

Peruggia is arrested and imprisoned, awaiting trial. Many think of him as a hero.

14 December 1913

The Mona Lisa goes on display at the Uffizi, drawing a sell-out crowd of 30,000 people on the first day.

4 January 1914

The Mona Lisa is back in the Salon Carré of the Louvre, having been returned by Italy.

4 June 1914

Peruggia’s trial begins in Florence. He would be sentenced to 380 days in prison.

29 July 1914

Peruggia’s attorneys submit an appeal, which is accepted; his sentence is commuted to seven months and he is immediately released for the time served.

1915

Apollinaire explains his side of the “affaire des statuettes” in a letter to his friend, Madeleine Pages.

1919

Iconoclastic artist Marcel Duchamp creates his L. H. O. O. Q. print, mocking the Mona Lisa for its fame.

1932

An article by Karl Decker is published in The Saturday Evening Post that claims to tell the true story of an Argentine aristocrat, Valfierno, who was the mastermind behind the Mona Lisa theft.

27 August 1939

The Mona Lisa, or a decoy copy, is placed in a specially-marked crate for protection during the war. It is sent to a series of castles for storage to keep it, and other masterpieces from the French royal collection, out of Nazi hands.

5 June 1940

The Mona Lisa is transferred to Chauvigny on a cushioned stretcher in the back of an ambulance, which had been sealed to keep the humidity constant.

1942

The Mona Lisa is moved to Montal, where it would remain, according to official records, until the Nazis steal it and bring it to Alt Aussee. Whether the Nazis stole it, or an identical copy, is still a subject of debate.

1942-16 June 1945

During this period there is no record of what happened to the Mona Lisa. Scholars suspect that a copy of the Mona Lisa was sent to a series of castles in place of the original, to lead the Nazis on a wild goose chase, while the original never left Paris.

16 June 1945

The Louvre lists the Mona Lisa as one of the paintings that had been safely returned to its walls. This same day the first of the looted art is brought out of the Alt Aussee salt mine by Allied Monuments Men.

12 December 1945

A document states that “the Mona Lisa from Paris” was among “80 wagons of art and cultural objects from across Europe” that had been taken into the Alt Aussee salt mine, which had been converted into a hi-tech warehouse for art looted by the Nazis.

1950

Nat “King” Cole sings the hit song “Mona Lisa,” further solidifying the popularity of the world’s most famous painting.

1956

The Mona Lisa is twice assaulted. It was sprayed with acid, resulting in damage to the lower portion of the painting and several months in the museum’s conservation studio. The very same year a Bolivian man hurled a stone at the painting—it stuck just beneath Mona Lisa’s left elbow, requiring further conservation.

1960

Picasso, in an interview, admits to his involvement in the “affaire des statuettes.”

21 August 1961

Fifty years to the day after the Mona Lisa theft, Kempton Bunton steals Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington from the National Gallery in London as a protest against having to pay television license fees.

1974

The Mona Lisa is sent on tour to Tokyo and Moscow.

April 1974

While the painting was on display at the Tokyo National Museum, a handicapped Japanese woman sprayed red paint at the Mona Lisa, in protest against the museum’s policy for disabled visitors.

2 August 2009

An “unhinged” Russian woman hurls a mug at the Mona Lisa.

This chronology comes from The Thefts of the Mona Lisa: On Stealing the World’s Most Famous Painting (ARCA Publications 2011), and is reprinted with permission of the author.  All profits from the sale of print editions of this book go directly to support ARCA’s charitable activities in the study of art crime.

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  1. [...] “Portrait of the Duke of Wellington.”  The occasion is the 100th anniversary of the Mona Lisa theft and the 50th anniversary of the Goya theft from London’s National Gallery, both of which were [...]