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  • Robert M. Edsel

100th anniversary of the recovery of the Mona Lisa

It is the world’s most famous painting, and yet few people know that the Mona Lisa was once stolen.

The Mona Lisa after it was recovered on December 10, 1913.

It was Monday, August 21, 1911, when Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian worker immigrated to Paris, simply walked into the Louvre museum and walked out with the Mona Lisa in his hands. As Peruggia later explained, he was acting out of patriotic motivations, trying to steal back what Napoleon had stolen from his home country. The painting was missing for more than two years before surfacing one hundred years ago today, on December 10, 1913 in Room n.20 of the Hotel Tripoli in Florence, ever since renamed “La Gioconda”, as Italians refer to Leonardo’s painting.

Giovanni Poggi, then Director of the Uffizi Gallery, had a prominent role in the recovery of the Mona Lisa. It was he who came across Leonardo’s stolen painting and convinced Peruggia to return it. After twenty-eight “romantic months” with the painting hanging over his kitchen table, Vincenzo Peruggia had decided to go to Florence to sell the work of art through the antiquarian Alfredo Geri, to whom he had sent a letter signed “Leonardo” stating that “the painting was in his hands” and requesting 500,000 lire in its return. Geri, accompanied by Poggi, scheduled an appointment in Peruggia’s hotel room; the two art experts immediately recognized the painting as the original work by Leonardo. Peruggia was arrested, while the recovered Mona Lisa was first exhibited in Florence at the Uffizi Gallery, then in Rome at the French Embassy in Palazzo Farnese and at the Borghese Gallery and last, it made its way back to the Louvre.

This was not Poggi’s only contribution as a defender of the arts. An illustrious connoisseur and curator, Poggi was one of the most esteemed superintendents in Italy and during WWII he organized the evacuation of art treasures from the Florence museums to repositories in the Tuscan countryside.

THE OUTBREAK OF war in 1940 had caused Italian superintendents to transfer collections to areas outside the city centers. Acting with “frenzied lucidity,” Poggi and his team had moved almost six hundred major works to privately owned villas and palaces in the Tuscan countryside in less than two weeks. That number had increased more than eighteenfold—to 11,139 various art objects—within six weeks. Those that couldn’t be moved, usually due to their size and weight, had to be protected in situ, often by employing the most ingenious of methods. Local artisans built a brick tomb around Michelangelo’s towering sculpture of David, and smaller ones for each of his adjacent works, referred to as the Slaves. Poggi hoped that these brick silos would provide protection against bomb fragments or even the collapse of the roof in the event of a direct hit on the building. [excerpt from Saving Italy]

Read more about Giovanni Poggi’s invaluable contribution to the preservation of Florentine masterpieces in Saving Italy – you can purchase here!

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