Comments, Culture, In Focus, Visual Arts

When the Gioconda disappeared

It was the greatest robbery and anguish in the history of art. After all, it was one of the world’s most famous paintings. It was found, it’s true, but the fear remained in the air, and today it is protected by bulletproof glass.


Fausto Triana


Five hundred years of studies and reflections on the most sought-after smile in the world vanished within minutes in 1911, with the disappearance of t     (La Gioconda) from the Louvre, with suspicions surrounding Picasso and Apollinaire.

It was the greatest robbery and anguish in the history of art, according to comments from newspapers at the time, because of the mysterious lady painted by Leonardo Da Vinci from 1503 to 1506 on a poplar panel using the sfumato technique. The first suspects turned out to be, surprisingly, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and the Malaga painter Pablo Picasso. Both lived in Montmarte in the famous Bateau Lavoir, but after interrogations they were finally released.

Number 13 Place Ravignan, now known as Place Emile Goudeau was, “a nest of anarchists, nihilists, symbolists, bohemians, and other unsavory people”, according to police at that time. There, Picasso produced his piece, “Las señoritas de Avignon”.

Paris, the Louvre and the universe of art were tormented by the considerable loss until 1913, when the painting returned to its adopted home from its native Florence. The location is another matter that generates debate and controversy.

A smile of pleasure for the pregnancy and the happy recent birth, or the combination of both states, are amongst the sea of speculation and studies surrounding the piece, based on a figure of rank (Lisa Gherardini) or on an commonplace courtesan.

The most talked about in the collection of anecdotes of the incident was that of the discovery being made by the Louvre’s security guards on 21st August 1911.

Another claims that it was the painter Louis Béroud who raised the alarm on detecting that the painting was not hanging up on the wall of the Salón Carré. The 77x53cm oil painting is now safeguarded in the Pabellón Denon, protected by bulletproof glass.

With Apollinaire and Picasso ruled out, the investigation ended up focused on Vincenzo Peruggia, a young Italian who knew the Louvre well, and supposedly got hold of a white coat, then used by copyists, in order to hide in the museum.

But the inquiry took time and Peruggia, supposedly hired by the Argentinian fraudster Eduardo de Valfierno, wasn’t found out until he contacted the Galleria degli Uffizi, in Florence, in order to sell the piece.

Peruggia was arrested on 11th December 1913 and was condemned to six months in prison. The Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre on 31st December of the same year. However, other studies of the case state that almost nothing of that which we have just related is certain.

Jéróme Coignard, author of the book, “Une femme disparait. Le vol de la Joconde au Louvre en 1911”, recently stressed that the instigator of the robbery was Otto Rosenburg, a German arts dealer. In order not to lose the smile that attracted so much of the public up till then, the Louvre decided to hang in the place of the Mona Lisa another Italian artist’s painting; Raphael’s Baldassare Castiglione, a bearded man who is also smiling.

Who knows. Maybe at this point, if the Mona Lisa had disappeared forever, international art would suddenly be fascinated with the Baldassare Castiglione portrait, whose authorship is also in doubt.

It was King Francisco I who bought the Mona Lisa, probably brought to France by Da Vinci.

It is known that Florence wishes to exhibit the famous painting in 2013, of course, taking it only on loan.

However, the Louvre says that the painting would suffer too much damage on such a long journey. (PL

(Translated by Eleanor Gooch –  Email:


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