by Drew Martin
Mona Lisa is Missing is a smart, funny and thoroughly engaging documentary, which was written, produced and directed by Joe Medeiros about Vincenzo Peruggia, the Italian laborer who stole La Gioconda (Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa...La Joconde in French) and kept it in the closet of his modest apartment in Paris for a couple years before bringing it to Italy. Peruggia lifted it from the Louvre on August 21, 1911 and kept it for two years, three months and 17 days.
Mona Lisa had been a famous painting since its creation in the early 1500's, and a personal favorite of Leonardo, but the sensationalism of the heist turned it into the icon that it is today.
Peruggia did not have his sights specifically set on this painting but it was one of the smallest works in the Salon Carré of the Louvre, which made it less difficult to carry through the main entrance of the museum in broad daylight. Additionally, it is painted on wood, so it only took a minute to pop it out of its frame once he stole it away to a service staircase in the museum in order to wrap it in his white, worker's smock.
The most important factor was that is was by an Italian master, and Peruggia, who was repeatedly called a dirty macaroni by the French as he labored in Paris, wanted to spite them all and bring a masterpiece back to his people. This urge was intensified when he learned that many of the great Italian works were actually plundered from Italy by Napoleon. The Mona Lisa, however, was a clean purchase by King Francis I from Leonardo himself, which then became the property of the French Republic and has been on permanent display at the Louvre since 1797.
Peruggia had access to the Louvre because his employer had the contract for glass-related projects in the museum. Originally this meant repairing skylights and windows but after a couple paintings were slashed by psycho museum-goers, the company received additional work to protect the most famous paintings with glass.
Peruggia no longer worked in the Louvre at the time of the theft but his prior experience gave him knowledge about the ins and outs of the museum. He knew, for example, that there was an average of 166 guards at work each day except on Mondays when the museum was closed to the public and the security staff was reduced to only a dozen people. It was also on Mondays that famous works were removed from the gallery walls in order to photograph them in a studio.
This is a very personal documentary that pings between Peruggia's descendants including his daughter, who is in her eighties and wants to hold on to to her version of the story that her father's actions were primarily an act of patriotism. As Medeiros discovers, however, the truth is not so simple. Peruggia was more accurately looking for a quick lira. Actually, the sum he requested from an art dealer in Florence would be the equivalent of two million dollars today. His transaction, however, led to his arrest and imprisonment although his term was reduced from more than a year to seven months, partly because his act was seen as patriotic by his countrymen.
In his trial it was argued that Peruggia was a half-wit and mentally deficient. While this was partly introduced to excuse him of conscious motives, he had been seriously treated twice for lead poisoning. He also worked as a house painter in Paris in a time when painters were the worst affected profession by the toxic metal, even more so than plumbers. One result of the disease is that it shrinks the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is essential for decision making.
Such an intimate abduction of art was not unprecedented. In 1876 Adam Worth stole Thomas Gainsborough's painting Duchess of Devonshire, of the fetching Lady Georgina Cavendish, and kept it in a suitcase for 25 years.
The stealing of the Mona Lisa, dumbfounded Paris' finest. Rumors were that the Germans or Americans stole it. Even Picasso and his friend the Polish poet Jan Kostrowitski a.k.a. Guillaume Apollinaire (who coined the term, surrealism) were brought in for questioning because of their involvement with stolen statues from the Louvre, which Picasso used for two of the faces in his painting, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. They were let off the hook in exchange for the return of the statues.
Interesting facts and stories aside, Medeiros offers us a fun movie that transcends the artworld and does so without an agenda or self promotion. I love his playful visuals and other personal touches such as filming his volunteer translators, especially Nando de Stefano, owner of The Good Pizza restaurant in Los Angeles, who translated Peruggia's psychiatric report between customers. He was one of my favorite characters/performances in the film. And I love Medeiros' conclusion in Dumenza, Peruggia's town in northern Italy which ends with the descendants affixing a bronze plaque for their infamous ancestor on the exterior wall of the home in which he was born.
Unlike the descendants of Peruggia's friend Vincenzo Lancellotti, who say it was their ancestor who stole the Mona Lisa, and worked the story into the marketing and merchandising of their family restaurant in Cadero, Italy, Dumenza is quiet on the subject. But as Medeiro points out the town even has a wall in the village square with a memorial to the former Italian dictator Mussolini. And, just as remarkable, there is a "Watch Out: Falling Toni" street sign dedicated to a drunk who fell into a ravine when he tried to retrieve his keys.
The difference in titles between the Italian La Gioconda and the English Mona Lisa is because the sitter is Lisa Gherardini, who was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, which makes her Lisa del Giocondo. La Gioconda, like the word jocund: cheerful and lighthearted, literally means "the jocund one", and is a play on the feminine form of Giocondo. The French title La Joconde has the same meaning. Renaissance art historian Giorgio Vasari created the title, Mona Lisa when he wrote (in Italian) "Leonardo undertook to paint, for Francesco del Giocondo, the portrait of Mona Lisa, his wife." Mona in Italian is a polite form of address, which evolved from ma donna (not unlike Madam) into madonna, the contraction of which is mona.
Pictured from top to bottom:
The void left in the Salon Carré at the Louvre after the Mona Lisa was stolen.
Peruggia's grandson, Silvio, in front of the restored, and better protected Mona Lisa in the Louvre.
A mural in the town hall of Demunza (without mention of Peruggia) commemorating the return of Mona Lisa to Italy with the ghost of Leonardo da Vinci looking on in approval.
Thomas Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire.
Mona Lisa is Missing is also titled/referred to as The Missing Piece: The Truth About Vincenzo Peruggia and the Unthinkable Theft of the Mona Lisa
If you are interested in other articles/documentaries about individuals who turned the art world upside down, check out my post Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi: Forging Ahead.