By Philippa Campsie

Musée du Louvre, Paris, by Barbara Redmond

Barbara Redmond

We call her the Mona Lisa. The French are more formal and call her by her married name, La Joconde. You probably thought she had been in the Louvre since time began, or at least, since Leonardo da Vinci brought her from Italy in 1517.

She was once the property of royalty. Louis XIV displayed her in a gallery at Versailles. Louis XV lent her to a royal functionary—he just wasn’t that into Italian painting. But things changed after the Revolution. You might think that during the Revolution and all the upheavals that followed, no one would have time for art, but this is France. Art is important. In 1797, someone somewhere had the time to assemble the collection that is now at the core of the Louvre Museum. And La Joconde was given a permanent home.

Well, it was supposed to be permanent. She remained there comfortably for 114 years, which is amazing when you think of what was going on outside the walls of the Louvre—republics and monarchies rose and fell, wars were won and lost, the Tuileries Palace burned down, and Haussmann reshaped the city. Through it all, she smiled placidly at her visitors.

Mona Lisa stolen!

So imagine her surprise when on August 21, 1911, she was unceremoniously unhooked from the wall, taken to a nearby stairwell, stripped of her protective glass case, and stuffed under the smock of a man dressed as an employee of the Louvre. The man’s name was Vincenzo Perugia, and he took her first to a cheap Paris hotel and later, to a cheap hotel in Italy. Not the sort of thing she was used to at all.

(When he was later tried for the theft, Perugia said that he had taken her because he thought she belonged back in Italy. The truth was more complicated: he had stolen her at the request of a forger who wanted to sell copies of the Mona Lisa, and who needed the publicity of the theft to make it seem that his forgeries were the real thing. He was able to sell six copies to American millionaires who were, of course, sworn to secrecy, because they could never tell the world what they thought they had bought.)

Mona Lisa travels to Italy

Nobody knows how Mona travelled to Italy, but probably it was in a suitcase—she was small; she would fit—in a train. She lived in that suitcase for a couple of years. In November 1913, the thief contacted an official at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and offered to sell her. The official was taken to meet her at the Hotel Tripoli-Italia, where the thief removed her from a trunk with a false bottom, and unwrapped her from a cocoon of red silk. She must have been relieved to get back out into the open again.

The Uffizi official negotiated her release from captivity. She made a brief, triumphant tour of Italy before returning to the Louvre in January 1914. More than 100,000 people came to pay their respects in the next few days. Home at last. But not for long. At the outbreak of the First World War later that year, she was taken to Toulouse for safekeeping. She was also taken into protective custody during the Second World War in Montauban (not far from Toulouse).

Mona Lisa and Jackie Kennedy

The next person to disturb Mona’s peaceful existence in the Louvre was Jackie Kennedy. She came to Paris in early June 1961 on a state visit. The French swooned over Jackie’s youth, her clothes, her glamour, her impeccable French accent. De Gaulle was captivated, and so was his Minister of Culture, André Malraux. Malraux and Jackie kept in touch and the following year, he came to Washington for a visit.

Jackie took Malraux for a morning tour of the National Gallery, and popped the question. She wanted him to send the Mona Lisa to the United States for a visit. Could he make it happen?

He gave her his answer that evening at a formal dinner at the newly renovated White House, when Jackie was looking irresistible in a strapless pink Dior gown. He would make it happen.

On December 14, 1962, Mona Lisa was once again locked into a suitcase (this one more high-tech than the last). She was taken under heavy guard to the port of Le Havre and bolted to the floor of a stateroom in the ocean liner S.S. France. Five days later, she arrived in New York and was taken in an armoured van to Washington. When she arrived at the National Gallery, she was immediately locked in a room with curators and technicians, who were anxious to see how she had survived the journey.

Despite her more than 400 years, she emerged looking fresh and ready for her American debut on January 8, 1963. She smiled on more than a million visitors over the next few weeks, before returning home to Paris in March.

Mona Lisa travels to Tokyo and Moscow

It was a tiring trip and it took her 11 years to recover before setting off again, this time to Tokyo National Museum, followed by the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, in spring 1974. That was her last trip abroad. She has done her bit for French foreign relations, and has earned a rest.

La Joconde is the French translation of the subject’s last name, Gioconda; she was a Lisa Gherardini who married a Francesco del Giocondo in the late 15th century. (“Mona” is an honorific in front of her first name.) She is an oil painting (peinture à l’huile) on a wooden panel made of poplar wood (un panneau de bois de peuplier). The original is considered un chef d’oeuvre (a masterpiece). Somewhere in the world, there are at least six passable forgeries once owned by wealthy Americans. The French word for forgery is contrefaçon.

VOCABULARY: French to English translations

Contrefaçon: Forgery.
Peinture à l’huile: Oil painting.
Un chef d’oeuvre: A masterpiece.

Philippa Campsie

Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy. She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.

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Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved
Illustration copyright ©2012 Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.