Exposed: The 100-Year-Old Riddle Behind Theft of the Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa... men have named you.

By , Contributor
It all began in 1976 when I read a book about famed Italian Renaissance painter Leonardo da Vinci. On a page about the Mona Lisa, it said: ‘On August 21, 1911, an Italian workman named Vincenzo Peruggia stole the painting to take to Italy.’ I was immediately hooked.

As a recent film school graduate from Temple University in Philadelphia, I immediately thought: feature film. After months of research I learned that the painting disappeared on a Monday when the museum was closed. The theft wasn’t discovered until the next day because the Louvre guards assumed the masterpiece was with the museum photographer.
There was a worldwide search that turned up more false leads than actual clues. Even Pablo Picasso was questioned for unknowingly having stolen statues from the Louvre in
his possession.

All the while, Peruggia was living with the painting in a room in Paris about two miles from the Louvre. He had worked a short time at the museum for a subcontractor who was helping to cover 1600 masterpieces with glass. Peruggia was one of five workers entrusted with cutting and cleaning the glass. As Peruggia worked, he became familiar with all the Italian art and wondered why it was in a French museum. He believed, wrongly, that Napoleon had looted Italy’s art treasures when he conquered that country. Peruggia believed that all the Italian art in the Louvre was there illegally and chose the Mona Lisa, small and easy to carry, to return to his native country.

vp-mugshot-08.jpgPeruggia (left) kept the Mona Lisa in his tiny room in Paris and then in December 1913, brought her to an art dealer in Florence, Italy claiming to be an Italian patriot. He was quickly arrested and the painting was soon sent back to Paris. In my early research, I found many details about the crime, but there was little about Peruggia the man; who he was, what he thought and why he really stole the painting. I had hit a dead end.

Thirty-two years passed, but I still wanted to tell Peruggia’s story. Then one day while Googling his name, I came across a magazine article about his 84-year-old daughter Celestina who was living in the town where Peruggia was born. I went to see her with the thought that I could make a documentary about her father. She was a kind, charming woman, but didn’t know much about her father as he died when she was a toddler. But all her life she wanted to know the truth, and I wanted to help. This involved getting access to the original police files and court documents in France and Italy. We also found a critical piece of evidence -- the report of the psychiatrist who interviewed Peruggia.

mona list theft_247370.jpg
Return of the Mona Lisa to the Louvre, January 1914

With the help of a team of translators, I began to piece together Peruggia’s life story. Once I had that, we went to the Louvre with Peruggia’s grandson Silvio Peruggia and re-traced the route his grandfather took to steal the painting. And in Paris, we found the apartment where Peruggia kept the painting for nearly 2 ½ years. We then traveled to Florence with Peruggia’s granddaughter Graziella Peruggia. There we visited the hotel room where he was arrested and the prison where he was held. And in the Florence archives, we found the key to the mystery - the letters he wrote to his parents shortly after he stole the Mona Lisa.

In the letters we found what I think was Peruggia’s true motive for stealing the Mona Lisa, but it wasn’t what his daughter Celestina would want to hear. However I had promised to return to her with the truth and that’s what I had to do. The Missing Piece: The Truth About the Man Who Stole the Mona Lisa is an 88-minute documentary about the affair which will be test screened in New York on August 17 with two further screenings in Philadelphia on August 21- the 100th anniversary of the theft - and August 22nd.

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Joe Medeiros has been shooting and editing his own short films since the early 1970s when 8mm cameras and splicing tape were still in vogue. A Hollywood television comedy writer by trade, but a filmmaker by vocation, Joe spent 17 years as head writer for The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. Joe has also…

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