How did an unassuming house painter from Italy pull off "the greatest little known art heist in modern time?" Was his motivation more than money? Writer-director Joe Medeiros traces the path of Vincenzo Peruggia, charged with the 1911 theft of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa from The Louvre, and finds the story of a daughter mourning the father she never knew and a country recovering from old wounds. Combining historical photographs, animation and interviews with Peruggia's descendants, Medeiros answers why and how the man called "Macaroni" by his French co-workers absconded with and kept the legendary painting for two years. This riveting, often humorous documentary portrays a man struggling to find his way in the world and make his family proud. Most touching are the scenes of Peruggia's 84-year-old daughter, Celestina, who grew up on stories about her father and longed for the truth.Written by
Mill Valley Film Festival
A Great Drama Within a Great Drama _ Both Worth Seeing
Did you hear? Somebody stole the Mona Lisa! Well, okay _ it happened in 1911. But still.
Filmmaker Joe Medeiros spent 30 years researching and making this documentary, and it's difficult to know which is more fascinating, the original theft _ which has been called the greatest art heist of the century _ or Medeiros's dogged pursuit into why it happened.
At 7 a.m. on Monday, August 21, 1911, Vincenzo Peruggia (1881-1925), a small, nondescript Italian who worked at the Louvre, where the storied Leonardo da Vinci painting was hanging in the Salon Carre', donned the customary white worker's garb worn by the museum's employees, sneaked in when the place was closed for its weekly cleaning, and lifted the little (yup, it's very little) painting off four hooks, removed it from its protective case (Leonardo painted it on wood), wrapped it in his smock, hid near a service staircase, and left through the same door that he entered.
It's important to remember this all happened in a day when not a whole lot of people, apparently, knew exactly what the Mona Lisa looked like. The Washington Post, for example, in reporting the theft ran the wrong picture, this of a nude woman.
Peruggia hid the painting in a trunk in his Paris apartment for two years. The police came by to question him not realizing it was right under their nose.
Next, he returned to Italy, where he also kept it in his apartment in Florence.
Here, stories begin to conflict, but what is true is that he contacted Alfredo Geri, an art gallery owner, expecting to be honored _ and financially rewarded _ for what he regarded as returning the painting to it's "homeland."
Geri then called Giovanni Poggi, director of the Uffizi Gallery, who vouched for the painting's authenticity.
Then Poggi and Geri, who took possession of the painting, allegedly for safekeeping, called the gendarmes, who arrested Peruggia at his hotel.
The painting was exhibited throughout Italy, which rejoiced, then was returned to the Louvre in 1913.
Peruggia spent a short time in jail, then got out just time to serve in the Italian army during World War I. The luck.
He later married and had a daughter, Celestina, eventually returning to France, where he continued to work as a painter under his birth name Pietro Peruggia, supposedly so no one would recognize who he was.
He died in his young daughter's arms on October 8, 1925, at age 44, in the town of Saint- Maur-des-Fossés, France. His widow married his brother, which, according to sources in the documentary, was not an uncommon practice back then.
Filmmaker Medeiros became obsessed with why Peruggia did what he did, and equally obsessed with turning the whole story into a movie drama.
Medeiros _ who tracks down Peruggia's daughter, 84 years old at the time of the interview, and various descendants _ boils it down to two theories. Either Peruggia did it for patriotic reasons, thinking it belonged in Italy, and to strike back at French workers at the Louvre who derisively nicknamed him 'Macaroni' in reference to his heritage _ or he did it to get rich.
It's important to note that although Peruggia stated he wanted to bring the painting back for display in Italy "after it was stolen by Napoleon," the fact is da Vinci took this painting as a gift for Francis I when he moved to France to become a painter in his court during the 16th century _ 250 years before Napoleon's birth.
The evidence is pretty strong that Peruggia expected to profit from the venture _ testimony came out at his trial supporting that theory _ but the fact that this was an Italian man, and proud of it, cannot be denied either.
The court apparently took this into consideration in giving him a light sentence of one year and fifteen days, only seven months of which he served. Indeed he was hailed as a patriot of sorts in Italy.
An intriguing theory also arose later, that the theft may have been ordered by a con man named Eduardo de Valfierno who, the story goes, commissioned art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the painting, whose value would have risen because the original had been stolen. But the theory was based entirely on a 1932 Saturday Evening Post article by Karl Decker, a journalist for Hearst _ and it's emphasized, quite fairly, that Hearst's style of journalism was shoddy at best. Scratch one theory.
It cannot be stressed strongly enough that Medeiros is relentless and thorough in studying this case, and he does it in a way that is riveting and completely entertaining, appealing to general audiences as well as art aficionados.
This story has been alluded to in film before (Willi Forst in 1931, and in a television miniseries called "The Man Who Stole La Gioconda" with Alessandro Preziosi in 2006, for example), but here's hoping the tale gets the big screen treatment it (and Medeiros) deserve. And by the way, Johnny Depp would be perfect as Peruggia.
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