At Large  February 12, 2020  Chandra Noyes

Jodie Foster to Make Movie on the Mona Lisa Theft

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French newspaper Excelsior proclaims,"The Mona Lisa has returned," January 1, 1914.

One of the greatest thefts in art history is set to grace the big screen soon. Starting in 1911, the Mona Lisa took a two-year vacation from her home at the Louvre, courtesy of an Italian thief who felt it his duty to return her to her homeland. A screenplay based on the book The Day They Stole the Mona Lisa by Seymour Reit is currently being developed for director Jodie Foster.

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Leonardo da Vinci, The Mona Lisa, c. 1503–1506.

In 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia walked into the Louvre in Paris wearing the white worker’s smock he had donned in the past. Instead of beginning his days work, though, he snuck into a neglected broom closet. He waited until the museum closed, and then made his way to the Mona Lisa.

Removing the painting from the wall, Peruggia wrapped it in his coat, tucked it under his arm, and walked out of the same service door he entered through. Taking the subway home, Peruggia brought the Mona Lisa back to his apartment. Because the museum was closed the next day, Peruggia had more than a full day before authorities realized it was missing.

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The empty iron brackets at the Louvre that once held the Mona Lisa.

Many were accused of the theft, including Pablo Picasso and the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who was imprisoned for the crime. Peruggia was questioned but provided a convincing alibi.

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Vincenzo Peruggia

After two years of sitting on his prize, Peruggia sought to return the work to his native Italy, where he believed she belonged. Ignoring the fact that Leonardo da Vinci himself brought the masterpiece to France, where he spent his last years, Peruggia felt that the French had stolen the work from the Italian people, her rightful owner. From an apartment in Florence, Peruggia attempted to sell the Mona Lisa to the Uffizi Gallery. Director Giovanni Poggi authenticated the work and contacted the authorities.

The media sensation surrounding the theft and return of the Mona Lisa made the painting more famous and important than ever. Though some regarded her as the Renaissance masterpiece we know her to be now, the Mona Lisa was not so ubiquitous in 1913, when she was turned over to the police.

The Mona Lisa toured Italy for two weeks before her return to the Louvre, where she was greeted with much fanfare. Since then her value, both culturally and monetarily, has only increased.

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The Mona Lisa in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting.

All the drama of the story lends itself easily to film, where, in the hands of director Jodie Foster and with a big studio budget, it will surely make for an exciting thriller. There is no shortage of fascinating characters to populate the film, starting with Peruggia as the passionate protagonist whose patriotism inspired the theft. Other charismatic characters include Picasso and the art forger Yves Chaudron, who found an eager market for his copies of the Mona Lisa while she was missing.

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French newspaper clipping celebrating the return of the Mona Lisa, 1914.

A production timeline has yet to be announced for the film, but in the meantime, you can check out Mona Lisa Is Missing, a 2012 full-length documentary about the theft, as well as the 2006 miniseries The Man Who Stole La Gioconda.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is the former Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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