Over 150 years ago, in a now defunct art and culture magazine,the French poet and journalist Théophile Gautier penned an essay praising a portrait containing a ‘sphinx of beauty who smiles so mysteriously.’ It was ‘Mona Lisa”s unyielding yet serene gaze that enticed Gautier, and he was certain that the work, despite its relative obscurity at the time, presented a ‘yet unsolved riddle to the admiring centuries.’ His supposition came true in the early morning hours of Monday, August 21, 1911, when the painting vanished from the Louvre Museum, whose two century anniversary is this week, without a trace. As a result of one of the greatest art heists of all time, the disappearance stimulated a global fascination with the work that not only redefined its social, cultural, and artistic value, but also secured its status as one of the most captivating enigmas of all time.
‘La Giaconda,’ most commonly referred to by its English name, ‘Mona Lisa,’ was produced in the early 16th century by Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci. Although still uncertain, the commissioned oil-on-wood portrait is believed to be that of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Originally intended as a gift, da Vinci ended up keeping the final product, and continued adding small details and touch-ups to the portrait as years went by. In 1517, the artist and his oeuvre moved to the Château of Cloux near Amboise, France upon invitation by King Francis I. He lived out his remaining two years in the country as the royal painter and architect before his death in May of 1519. It is rumoured that his apprentice, Salaì, then sold the work to the King, who housed it in the Palace de Fontainebleau before passing it along to Louis XII. In 1804, after a brief stint of hanging in Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom, the ‘Mona Lisa‘ made her way to the Louvre Museum for safekeeping. She resided in the museum’s Grand Gallery for some time before settling in the Salon Carré, a wing dedicated to Italian art spanning the 12th to 15th centuries.
Long before the days of closed circuit television and facial recognition technology, many art institutions relied solely on the naked eye for detecting acts of theft or defacement. Despite the fact that the Louvre had applied several glass panels over some of its most treasured works throughout October of 1910, few other security precautions existed, with roughly 150 guards responsible for hundreds of rooms. When Louis Béroud, a French painter, embarked on a Tuesday afternoon excursion to sketch the now famous figure in 1911, he was met with an eerie silhouette of where the small-scale canvas once hung. Confused, he located museum security, who seemed convinced that the work was merely being photographed for press related matters upstairs. After double checking their assumptions, the staff faced an ugly truth: ‘Mona Lisa’ was indeed missing, and it had taken 28 hours for authorities to realise the situation. In response, the Louvre remained closed for a week and a country-wide investigation commenced, resulting in the closing of the French border and halted train lines. Police attempted recreating the crime scene and dusting for fingerprints (a relatively new innovation for the period) to no avail.
After three years of virtually no developments, the culprit was finally determined as Vincenzo Peruggia: an Italian petty criminal and former employee of the Louvre who specialised in fitting glass encasings onto paintings. Although police speculated that Peruggia camped out in a broom closet the night prior to the theft, further questioning revealed that he entered the museum around 7 a.m. along with other employees. After donning a standard work uniform and strategically waiting until the Salon Carré emptied out, Peruggia detached the painting from the wall, removed its frame in a nearby stairwell, and covered it with his white worker’s smock. Incognito, he slipped out of the same door he had entered in, and sprinted to a nearby train station before fleeing the city centre with his loot.
For over two and a half years, he concealed the work in a trunk in his Paris apartment before attempting a several thousand dollar handoff to Alfredo Geri, an art dealer in Florence in December 1913. Geri wisely consulted the distinguished Uffizi Gallery for verification, and upon confirming the painting’s authenticity, ensured Peruggia that he would receive hefty compensation. Shortly after Peruggia departed, Geri exposed the crime to local authorities. It wasn’t until the thief returned to his lodging that he was apprehended by Florentine police. In the hopes of reshaping his reputation, Peruggia insisted that the burglary was an act of patriotism: seeing that the portrait had been plundered by Napoleon and gifted to France in the 18th century, it was only right and fair that he return ‘Mona’ to Italian soil. While this notion may seem honourable, the ‘Mona Lisa’had been in French hands for centuries prior to Napoleon, and investigative officials were puzzled by his attempt to profit from his self proclaimed good deed. He was sentenced to a measly eight months in prison before eventually serving in the Italian army in World War I. After a brief celebratory tour around Italy, ‘Mona Lisa’ was returned to the Louvre in January 1914, to the delight of both museum curators and the French public.
Although a remarkable testament to da Vinci’s use of composition and form, the painting was rarely acknowledged beyond esoteric circles of French Renaissance art enthusiasts prior to its theft. It wasn’t until four metal screws hung in place of her coy smile that “Mona Lisa”truly became an international sensation. When the Louvre reopened nine days after the robbery, thousands of viewers flocked to the Salon Carré in hopes of catching a glimpse of the desolate wall space–some even wept and left flowers. Local and global media also latched onto the case, with news outlets regularly blasting enticing reward offers and police updates. Acknowledging the work’s largely unknown status, French police posted 6,500 flyers with the ‘Mona Lisa’s’ face around the City of Lights in the hopes of attracting information and stimulating recognition amongst the public. These actions helped permanently cement the face of Lisa Gherardini into the cultural conscience of Paris and beyond, and solidified her position as the most wanted woman in the world.
Nearly 100 years later, ‘Mona Lisa’ remains a symbol of desire, mystery, and virtuosity. With over six million annual spectators, it’s one of the most widely viewed artworks in history. In the early months of 1963, when the painting embarked on a brief United States tour during John F. Kennedy’s presidency, over two million people flooded the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to catch a glimpse of the spectacle. ‘Mona Lisa”s prevalence in popular culture has made her the focal point of many creatives—take Nat King Cole’s crooning ballad of the same title, her starring role in the box-office hit thriller The Da Vinci Code,and a recent appearance between two legends of their own right, Beyonce & Jay-Z, in their 2018 ‘Apeshit‘ video. Artistically, the painting has also seen a fair share of funny remixes throughout the decades from the likes of Banksy, Salvador Dalí, and Marcel Duchamp.
However, no medium has reinterpreted and reinvented ‘Mona Lisa’s’ ethos quite like the world of fashion. From Jean Paul Gaultier to Maison Margiela, the monumental muse has found a home out of her frame and into the wardrobes of everyone from Lady Gaga to the ever-quirky Phoebe Buffay from Friends. It is her timeless beauty, enigmatic smile, and unerring self-assuredness that renders ‘Mona’ a femme fatale, an idea commonly associated with generations of fashion’s It Girls. Designers took note of this concept, and began reworking ‘Mona’ into their own interpretations of sophistication. In keeping with its highly elegant image, Chanel also debuted a tongue-in-cheek 1987 ad featuring the work for its Paris boutique: a model bedecked in tweed and high heels crosses the street, canvas in hand, while nonchalantly hailing a cab as her escape method. Twelve years later, Yves Saint Laurent creative director Alber Elbaz selected Italian photographer Mario Sorrenti for a shoot featuring models Noot Seear and Kate Moss recreating critically acclaimed Renaissance and Enlightenment artworks. Alongside depictions of masterpieces such as Edouard Manet’s ‘Olympia’ and Diego Velasquez’s ‘Vénus à son miroir, ‘Seear flexed her brooding eyes and well-defined cheekbones in her own highly convincing version of ‘Mona.’
In a contemporary world chock full of influencers and nearly instantaneous selfies, brands also explore the lasting power and intrigue of ‘Mona’s’ own self-portrait through their collections. For Off-White‘s Spring/Summer 2018 collection, Virgil Abloh splashed a Gherardini graphic all over crewnecks, t-shirts, and iPhone cases in red and black colour-ways. Iconic skateboarding house Supreme also tapped into the fun, featuring a design of the portrait with a contemporary cracked screen overlay. In April of 2017, Louis Vuitton announced the Masters collection, a new line of bags and accessories in collaboration with artist Jeff Koons. The line centred on masterpieces reinterpreted through the lens of Vuitton’s trademark flair. It’s signature styles, like the Keepall and Neverfull, were embellished with maximised images pieces like Vincent van Gogh’s ‘Wheatfield With Cypresses’ and Fragonard’s ‘Girl With A Dog,’ and artist’s names in gold or silver lettering. Unsurprisingly, da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’ also made the list, with the bag’s imagery favoured by the likes of supermodels Kendall Jenner and Natalia Vodianova.
In an homage to da Vinci’s repeated additions to Mona over several years, some brands view the ceaseless detailing of the original work as representational of their own in depth creative processes. For its Fall/Winter 2019 men’s show, Dior collaborated with American graphic artist Raymond Pettibon to create a series of ‘Mona Lisa’ inspired designs, including a knitwear piece that required a painstaking 1,600 hours and 24 hands for completion. The final product is an embodiment of the standard of excellence, attention to intricacies, and exclusivity that the French fashion house has upheld for over seventy years.
Although ‘Mona Lisa’ is over five centuries old and counting, there’s no telling the ways in which her image will be revamped in coming decades. With high fashion and art repeatedly calling on the other for inspiration, perhaps a more contemporary muse will arise, with an equally compelling backstory. But for now, the world remains enchanted by the ‘Mona Lisa’s’ unsolved riddle.
This article first appeared on ELLE UK.