Людмила Калабуха
Бизнес-тренер, писательница, блогер
Liberal Arts
4 minutes for reading

HOW «MONA LISA» BECAME THE MOST EXPENSIVE PICTURE IN THE WORLD: the best PR scandal

Олег Казимирович Васюков — философ, поэт, леонардовед
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Oleg Kazimirovich Vasyukov is a philosopher, poet, Leonard scholar / Art design: Olena Burdeina (FA_Photo) via Photoshop

 

Oleh Vasyukov, a professor of philosophy, poet, journalist, and one of the founders of Lviv television, made a real revolution in Leonardo studies in his book «The Passionate Mystery of Gioconda».

Lyudmyla Kalabukha, daughter of Oleh Vasyukov, is submitting fragments of his research, to which he devoted his entire life, for publication in memory of her father.

 

The most scandalous theft turned the painting, previously known only to a narrow circle of researchers, into the world’s main artistic masterpiece. Here’s how it happened.

On August 22, 1911, a glass installer in the Louvre’s premises, wearing a work coat, entered the room where Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (also called Gioconda, after the name of the alleged customer of the portrait) hung. The thief took it out of the frame, hid it under his cloak, and took it out of the museum.

The absence of the painting was noticed only two days later: the Louvre was undergoing technical work, and everyone thought that the painting had been taken to be cleaned. The only clue was a few clearly visible fingerprints on the newly installed protective glass and frame found on the museum’s stairs. However, the French police chief at the time did not believe in fingerprinting, which was gaining momentum around the world, and did not check them against the database that the police already had.

And do you know why? Because he was promoting his own method of searching for criminals as much as possible, which never caught on because of its imperfections. As a matter of principle, he did not want to use any other methods during the investigation that he did not invent.

 

HOW «MONA LISA» BECAME THE MOST EXPENSIVE PICTURE IN THE WORLD: the best PR scandal
Louvre — Room 711, dedicated to Italian painting

 

As researchers later wrote, because of his audacity, the famous portrait was searched for two years and might not have been found at all. But if he had instructed them to check the database for a fingerprint, it would have taken only two hours. It’s amazing, because an Italian migrant glassworker had already been imitated, and his fingerprint was in the French police file.

And «jocondomania» began on the planet: in Parisian cabarets, girls danced with Mona Lisa masks on their faces, pop stars of the time were shooting out songs dedicated to the painting, and housewives, laundresses, and cooks glued its reproductions to kitchen cabinets. The Louvre also increased its attendance, with huge queues stretching into the museum just to look at the empty space where the painting hung.

 

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Journalists made this story the main event of the year. The director of the Louvre, who liked to boast that it was easier to steal Notre-Dame de Paris in France than anything from the Louvre, resigned loudly.

Only the sinking of the Titanic temporarily moved the «Gioconda» to the front pages of newspapers. Although the investigation of this theft became a national affair for the French police, it yielded no results. Until in December 1913, the painting was found as unexpectedly as it had disappeared.

An antiques dealer in Florence receives a letter offering to buy the painting. He invites the director of the Uffizi Gallery to this meeting; they cannot believe their eyes when they see the original Leonardo da Vinci, which is being hunted by all the police in the world. The «Mona Lisa» is found under the bed of the same laborer-glassmaker, where it had been lying for two years.

At the trial, the thief, an Italian named Vincenzo Peruggia, accused the French of stealing Italian cultural heritage and declared himself a fighter for justice, whose mission was to return the masterpieces to his homeland. And he was not at all embarrassed by the fact that Leonardo da Vinci voluntarily brought his painting when he came to France at the invitation of King Francis I, who bought the Mona Lisa from a student of the great Italian (as evidenced by documents).

 

HOW «MONA LISA» BECAME THE MOST EXPENSIVE PICTURE IN THE WORLD: the best PR scandal
Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian museum worker and decorative artist. In 1911, he stole Leonardo da Vinci’s painting «Mona Lisa» / wikipedia.org

 

 But Peruggia spoke so eloquently and convincingly about his «patriotic act» that the court was imbued with sympathy and respect for him. He was given only a year in prison, and a few months later he was released.

After exhibitions in Italian cities in January 1914, the painting returned to Paris. All this time, it was on the covers of newspapers and magazines around the world, depicted on stamps and postcards, and it is not surprising that it became an object of worship, more popular than movie actresses and opera prima donnas. Even for factory workers, special evening excursions to the Louvre were booked, where they wanted to see nothing but the Mona Lisa.

Let me remind you:

 

Even a masterpiece by Leonardo da Vinci needed promotion to rise in value to $3 billion (the amount of the Louvre’s insurance contract) and gain such popularity and worldwide recognition

 


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