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.
Leonardo, age fourteen, is apprenticed to the sculptor and painter, Andrea del Verrocchio.
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.
Leonardo becomes an independent master of painting.
15 June 1479
Lisa Antonmaria Gherardini, the subject of the Mona Lisa, is born near Florence.
Leonardo joins the Sforza court in Milan as a military engineer.
Leonardo paints his famous Last Supper, using the fresco secco technique but surprisingly painting it in oils.
Leonardo returns to Florence after the Sforzas are driven from Milan.
Leonardo paints the Mona Lisa, although it may have been touched up as late as 1519.
Leonardo begins, but does not finish, the Battle of the Anghiari fresco in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, a work that is currently lost.
Leonardo returns to Milan at the request of the French governor, Charles d’Amboise.
Leonardo is named court painter to the French king, Louis XII.
Leonardo collaborates with Luca Pacioli, on publishing a mathematical treatise Divina Proportione.
Leonardo lives and works in Rome for Pope Leo X.
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.
Giorgio Vasari publishes the first edition of his Lives of the Painters, which perpetuates Leonardo’s legacy, and that of his most famous portrait.
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.
Numerous works from the royal collection are moved from Versailles to the Louvre after the French Revolution, including the Mona Lisa.
Napoleon has the Mona Lisa moved from the Louvre to his bedroom at the Tuilleries Palace.
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).
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.
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.
By his own admission, Josephe-Honoré Géry Pieret, Apollinaire’s secretary, begins stealing from the Louvre and sells two stolen Iberian statues to Picasso.
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.
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.
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.
Apollinaire explains his side of the “affaire des statuettes” in a letter to his friend, Madeleine Pages.
Iconoclastic artist Marcel Duchamp creates his L. H. O. O. Q. print, mocking the Mona Lisa for its fame.
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.
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.
Nat “King” Cole sings the hit song “Mona Lisa,” further solidifying the popularity of the world’s most famous painting.
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.
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.
The Mona Lisa is sent on tour to Tokyo and Moscow.
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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