Friday, May 18, 2012

History Friday: The Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa


The moaner, Lisa

As near as the art world can figure it, Da Vinci's classic painting The Mona Lisa (actually called La Gioconda) was painted about 1509 or 1510. Among the little that is known about this masterwork is that Da Vinci prized it over most of his other works; unlike most of his commissions, which were turned over to his customers immediately after being finished, he held on to this one for years; it was found among his possessions after he died in 1519.

Over the years there has been much speculation as to whom the woman with the enigmatic smile was based upon; for years it was thought she was the wife of a nobleman.  The current thinking is that it was a self-portrait; she was compared to a sketch of the artist and the similarities were eerie, according to those who saw the analysis.

The muted colors and murky background are due to age; Da Vinci used bright colors and gave the portrait a much lighter tone. But the Louvre's art restorers are loath to attempt any kind of restoration, because instead of being painted on canvas, Da Vinci painted her on a wood panel, which of course is far more susceptible to expansion and warping due to humidity, and they don't want the wood, or the paint on it, to crack. So there it sits, its worst hurts given a careful cleaning once a year, when a team of 30 specialists hover over her for a nervous hour before they have to restore her to her temperature- and humidity-controlled sarcophagus. 

She's currently on display at The Louvre, in Paris, behind a bulletproof plexiglass enclosure.  The room where she sits is under 24-hour surveillance; cleaning crews are specifically selected and extensively backgrounded before they're allowed to clean the room where she lives.  They are exceedingly careful with their prize, because even though they'd love the world to forget the fact, she was stolen once before, and was missing for years, before a small-time crook, more idiot than master thief, tried to sell it back to an Italian museum.

It was actually an ingenious plan. August 21, 1911, a worker in the Louvre named Vincenzo Peruggia hid in a broom closet until after closing, then took the painting down, cut it out of its bulky frame, hid it in his workman's tunic, walked past a preoccupied plumber and a dozing security guard, and disappeared into the Paris night.

But it was not he who masterminded the theft.

That honor goes to Eduardo de Valfierno, who knew a number of fabulously rich art collectors who wanted the Mona Lisa for their very own.  Valfierno stood to himself become fabulously rich, and so he came up with the caper, by which the Mona Lisa would be stolen...

...and kept, safe.  He never was going to sell the real Mona Lisa; he was going to sell six forgeries to six different patsies, each one believing that he got the prize beyond price, the Mona Lisa, which every newspaper in the world announced had just been stolen.

Before the theft, Valfierno hired a forger, one Yves Chaudron, to make six copies of the Mona Lisa, and had them shipped to the various countries where his customers were - a good move, since after the theft it would be orders of magnitude more difficult to do so.  And one by one, he referred to the thefts in the newspaper, convinced each of them that they were in fact now the proud yet secret owners of THE Mona Lisa, and took them for a huge chunk of their fortunes.

Since he had no use for the original, he never contacted Peruggia after the theft to pick it up.  Peruggia kept it in the false bottom of a steamer trunk for a few years, then tried to sell it to Italy's Uffizi Gallery, asking for a reward of 500,000 lire and a promise to never return the painting to France.  The curator of the Uffizi, recognizing the seals of the Louvre on the back of the painting, was convinced that this was indeed the original and notified police, who collared Peruggia when he tried to hand it over to the museum. After a brief tour through Italy, the painting was restored with sufficient pomp and circumstance back to France and the Louvre, where it sits today.

Peruggia would only serve four months in prison for his crime; he was considered a hero in Italy because of his nationalistic opinions toward the painting. 

Valfierno would never answer for his crime.


20 comments:

  1. I've never found the 'Mona Lisa' to be attractive...

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    1. Makes sense, now that you know it's a portrait of a dude...

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  2. Did you ever read "The Great Train Robbery?"

    If not and you like stuff like this, you would love the book.

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    1. It's officially on my list...thanks Duggle!

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  3. My experience in viewing the Mona Lisa was not exactly what I expected. As I attempted to take a photograph of the painting (and was very surprised that I could do so), I was continually pummeled on both my left and my right by the craziest, most rude tourists (not from the USA fortunately!)evah who were pushing and shoving to get close enough for a good photo.

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    1. Yeah...and it's really a less-than-impressive picture. Really the picture would just serve as proof that "I was there..."

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  4. Before I even read this there's something I would like to say, history Friday, hell to the yes! Sorry Josie but it's the best thing since Velvet Thursday.

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    1. Why thank you, Carmel. Nice to be appreciated.

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  5. I'm waiting for Operation Mincemeat.

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  6. I was lucky enough to visit the Louvre in the summer of 1982 when I was on tour with a youth chorale. They allowed us to take pictures of it as long as you were certain not to use flash. One of my tourmates removed the batteries from his flash and snapped a quick picture and *POOF*...it flashed. Guards descended on him in seconds shouting, "NO FLASH! NO FLASH!" They grabbed his camera and drug him away to an office where he was held until our tour group left the Louvre. I wasn't impressed by the painting and it was much smaller than I thought it would be.

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  7. Great story and you proudly fly your Midwestern flag by using "drug" which was the proper tense in Ohio, as well!

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    1. I guess I never realized it was because of where I grew up, but 'dragged' always just sounded so wrong to me in that context.

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    2. Well I was taught specifically that "drug" was wrong, but if an entire region of the country uses "drug," it's tough to justify that the use is wrong...me personally I'd more consider it a regionalism than anything else, but I'm no cunning linguist.

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  8. Replies
    1. Thanks Mojo - and congrats on your cash at the circuit event.

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  9. So how did Valfierno not get murdered in his sleep by assassins sent by ripped off rich guys?

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  10. Well if I had to hazard a guess, I'd say it was one of two things: They might have been embarrassed to have been exposed as dilettantes in the art world, and were happy to just let the matter drop. Alternately they might've understood the wisdom of going from just a ripped-off rich guy to an attempted purchaser of stolen fine art and a murderer besides. Or they could have been Jews and just decided to ruin him financially based on their ability to control the world's money supply...

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    1. We have super powers like that? SWEEEEET!

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    2. Plus we run the world media. Know why you've never heard that? 'Cause WE RUN THE WORLD MEDIA!

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