How the theft of the Mona Lisa helped make it an enduring cultural work

I stumbled upon this story again when looking for an example of cultural production for one of my classes. This is a fascinating tale: “How the Mona Lisa became the world’s most famous painting.”

It would be 26 hours before someone noticed that the painting was missing. It was understandable. At the time the Louvre was the largest building in the world, with more than 1,000 rooms spread over 45 acres. Security was weak; fewer than 150 guards protected the quarter-of-a-million objects. Statues disappeared, paintings got damaged. (A heavy statue of the Egyptian god Isis was stolen about a year before the Mona Lisa and in 1907, a woman was sentenced to six months in prison for slashing Jean Auguste Ingres’ Pius VII in the Sistine Chapel.)

At the time of the “Mona Lisa” heist, Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was far from the most visited item in the museum. Leonardo painted the portrait around 1507, and it was not until the 1860s that art critics claimed the Mona Lisa was one of the finest examples of Renaissance painting. This judgment, however, had not yet filtered beyond a thin slice of the intelligentsia, and interest in it was relatively minimal. In his 1878 guidebook to Paris, travel writer Karl Baedeker offered a paragraph of description about the portrait; in 1907 he had a mere two sentences, much less than the other gems in the museum, such as Nike of Samothrace and Venus de Milo

In December 1913, after 28 months, Perugia left his Parisian boardinghouse with his trunk and took a train to Florence where he tried to offload the painting on an art dealer who promptly called the police. Perugia was arrested. After a brief trial in Florence, he pleaded guilty and served only eight months in prison.

Thanks to the high-profile heist, the Mona Lisa was now a global icon. Under a shower of even more publicity, it returned to the Louvre following mobbed exhibitions in Florence, Milan and Rome. In the first two days after it was rehung in the Salon Carré, more than 100,000 people viewed it. Today, eight million people see the Mona Lisa every year.

From a cultural production perspective, the key to the painting’s success is not its inherent beauty or its genius artist. While the painting was known and in the Louvre, it wasn’t a hit until this theft. It was this extra attention that brought it into the public’s consciousness. A public search and discussion about the painting transformed it from a work by a master to a masterwork by a master. Perhaps we could argue that the thief did us a favor: he opened our eyes to the real value of the painting. (On the other hand, perhaps we could argue that it draws attention away from more deserving works just because it happened to have been stolen.)

Art thefts seem to thrill society: how can people sneak into museums and carry out priceless works of art? Here are two reasons why this could be the case:

1. This seems more like a crime of prestige or daring since it is difficult to resell these works. It would be hard to become wealthy by stealing well-known art. These criminals are respected or admired. Think of the main character in the Thomas Crown Affair.

2. Famous art is seen as a public good and so all sorts of people are concerned about its fate. Stealing the Mona Lisa is not just robbing the Louvre of an important work or denying visitors a chance to see it; it is like stealing our collective history.

3. Perhaps people also have an interest in how museums could “let” this happen. Actually, I’m surprised that art or famous items aren’t damaged more often in museums where it would seem to not be difficult to do harm if someone was determined to do so. Museums are supposed to be protectors of good things, keepers of our collective memory and history.

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