Why Did Vincenzo Peruggia Take the Mona Lisa?

Stealing the Mona Lisa was one of the greatest thefts of the 20th century, but what made him do it? 

Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian handyman who worked at the Louvre museum in Paris. He stole the Mona Lisa in 1911. His motive for the theft was to return the painting to Italy, as he believed that Napoleon seized it and it should be in an Italian museum.

Mona Lisa

In this blog post, I’ll take you on a journey through the life of Vincenzo Peruggia and the events leading up to and following his theft of one of the world’s greatest artworks.   

Why and How Peruggia Took the Mona Lisa

The story of Vincenzo Peruggia, before he became a national hero, isn’t well known. I do not know much about young Peruggia, but I do know that he was fond of art and had a job at the Louvre. One of his tasks at the museum was to protect the paintings. Oh, The Irony!   

As one would expect, making cages did not earn him much, and he was living hand to mouth. He disliked aspects of France as much as he loved art.  

Peruggia mistakenly believed that Napoleon had looted the Mona Lisa from Italy, unaware that Leonardo da Vinci passed away at the court of King Francois I, and the king kept it. So, being poor, an art lover, and a patriot were reasons good enough for Vincenzo Peruggia to steal one of the most treasured paintings of the 20th century.   

So How Did He Do It? 

The world was startled one day when news broke of the theft of the Mona Lisa. The police were convinced that it had to be the work of a criminal mastermind. The police believed that the thief had broken into the museum, taken the painting when the place was closed, and left.  

But this was not what really happened that fateful day. According to Peruggia’s Interrogation in Florence after his arrest, these are the sequence of events that took place that day.  

  • He entered the museum on Monday, 21 August, around 7 am, through the door where other Louvre workers were entering. 
  • He wore the same white smock as the other museum workers and was indistinguishable from them. 
  • He entered the part of the museum called the Salon Carre, where the Mona Lisa was hung.
  • When it was empty, he lifted the painting along the case he built and crept to the nearby staircase.
  • He removed the protective casing, wrapped the painting in his smock, and headed for a back door. 
  • He could not get the door open and was helped by a plumber named Sauvet, who helped him open the door, unaware that he was taking the Mona Lisa.
  • He took the painting to his apartment in Paris and hid it in his trunk for 2 years before returning to Italy with it. 

Okay, so that was not quite the crime of the century in terms of technical brilliance. Still, he did manage to walk out of place with one of the most valuable paintings in the world.   

In the Aftermath, How Did He Get Caught?

The theft of the Mona Lisa was massive news worldwide; the Washington Post in the US wrote that the art world was thrown into consternation.  

According to The New York Times, the theft created such a sensation that, for the moment, Parisians had forgotten about the rumors of the war that was still three years away.  

The world was unaware that the painting was concealed in the trunk of a poor Italian handyman who would astound the world and the courts and win the hearts of his fellow countrymen.   

Vincenzo Peruggia was growing impatient, and with little cash, he decided to get rid of the painting. Peruggia got in touch with Mario Fratelli, the owner of an art gallery in Florence, to inform him of his plan to return the painting to its homeland. Peruggia expected a reward for his actions. 

But that’s not what happened. Fratelli contacted Giovanni Poggi, the director of Uffizi gallery, who authenticated the painting. After taking the painting for safekeeping, Fratelli and Poggi informed the police, who arrested Vincenzo. 

Soon after, the Italian government willingly returned the painting to its host country, and on 4th January 1914, they returned it to the Louvre Museum.  

Experts have raised questions about Peruggia’s motive for stealing the Mona Lisa. He did, in fact, attempt to profit from the sale of the painting, which was corroborated by letters he sent to his father several months after the theft.  

The courts put him on trial but agreed to some extent that he committed the crime for patriotic reasons. They sent him to jail for a year and 15 days, but Italy hailed him as a great patriot, and he served only 7 months. 

There were also reports that he tried to fence the painting to an Englishman; whether he did or not remains a mystery since much of what he said needed clarification.

The Safety Measures After the Return of the Mona Lisa

The theft of the Mona Lisa was a major embarrassment for the Louvre museum, which prompted the museum to take a number of steps to increase its safety.

  • The painting was given a special protective case which was made up of bulletproof glass and steel and was kept locked at all times. 
  • They increased the number of guards and were given an instruction to keep a close eye on the visitors.
  • The museum implemented new security measures, including alarm systems, to detect any unauthorized entry into the Salon Carre.
  • They also improved the visitor screening process. 

Final Thoughts

Though Peruggia said he stole the Mona Lisa for patriotic reasons: He wanted to bring the painting back to display in Italy.  

He contradicted himself a bunch of times. Was he working alone in the theft, or was he part of a larger group of thieves and scammers with a plan to steal the Mona Lisa and create fake copies to sell to affluent art collectors? Who knows?