PCC Courier – Finding the ‘Mona Lisa’ in compelling documentary

November 30, 2016.


On Aug. 21, 1911, the “Mona Lisa” disappeared. The Italian painting vanished on a Monday morning between 7 and 7:30 a.m. when the Louvre, the Parisian museum where Leonardo Da Vinci’s art piece was being kept, was closed to the public. Only 12 people were at the museum that day, mainly maintenance staff and curators, plus the thief.

“I was attracted to the story because he’s an antihero. Peruggia was just a man tired of his job that was making him sick, and wanted to make a fortune.”

The Italian Department and Club Italia at Pasadena City College hosted last Tuesday the screening of the documentary “Mona Lisa Is Missing,” written and directed by Joe Medeiros. It tells the story of Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian immigrant living in Paris, who stole one of the most known pieces of Western art and kept it for a little bit over two years before getting caught by the Italian police while trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

“I’m from the ‘Bonny and Clyde’ generation,” Medeiros said after the screening in the Harbeson Hall. “I was attracted to the story because he’s an antihero. Peruggia was just a man tired of his job that was making him sick, and wanted to make a fortune.”

Peruggia was one of many Italian immigrants living in Paris in the beginning of the last century. Originally from Dumenza, a small Italian town on the border with Switzerland, he was making a living as a house painter, a job that caused him a hospitalization in the French capital for lead poisoning.

His daughter Celestina doesn’t remember him. He died when she was still a toddler – he was 45 – and was only told part of the story when she was twenty.

All she knew was that she was “the daughter of the Mona Lisa’s thief.”

“I couldn’t believe such a simple man could pulled it off.”

Thanks to Medeiros’s meticulous digging into French and Italian police and museums archives, Celestina learned how and why her father kept the painting in his one-room apartment, at 5 rue de l’Hôpital Saint-Louis, in the 10th arrondissement.

For two years, three months and 17 days Peruggia kept for himself a painting that today has 8.8 million visitors each year.

Medeiros wanted to tell this story since he first learned about it decades ago. “I couldn’t believe such a simple man could pulled it off.”

Medeiros worked for more than 20 years as the head writer for Jay Leno’s show. He knows how comedy works, and succeeded with this documentary in making it a funny and intriguing film filled with entertaining animations.

But he also looked at the story from a more personal point of view, especially after meeting with Celestina, “the heart and soul our film,” as he wrote on his website.

“It’s a very human story,” Medeiros said.

“Mona Lisa Is Missing” is the story of the most famous painting’s theft, but it’s also the story of thousands of anonymous Italian immigrants who left their country at the beginning of the last century leaving their families behind.

“This is kind of old tradition guerrilla style documentary,” producer Justine Mestichelli Medeiros. “It’s unscripted, it’s one of those documentaries where the story comes to you, not the opposite.”

Celestina didn’t know what she was going to find out letting Medeiros and his film crew into her life, but in her 80s, she wanted to know more about her father. She knew what they might find could mean a less romanticized idea of her father.

Documents show that Peruggia knew his way into the Louvre. Ironically, eight months before the theft he worked inside the museum as a handyman, securing paintings from being vandalized.

He got in from the main door on Aug. 21 wearing his workman’s smock and blending easily with the other few workers.

He walked into the Salon Carré where the “Mona Lisa” hanged on the wall. From his trial’s documents we know he hadn’t decided yet which painting he was going to steal.

“I made that choice at the moment,” Peruggia testified in 1914.

It was a good choice. The “Mona Lisa” painting is 30 by 21 inches, easy enough for one person to carry. He removed the frame and most likely, according to Medeiros, took off his smock and wrapped it around the painting.

Peruggia needed to get out of the Louvre as quickly as possible. He went down a small staircase, but at the bottom he found the door locked. He broke the doorknob–it was later found on the street–but couldn’t open it and ended up going out the same way he got in.

It wasn’t until Tuesday, the day after, when the frame from the “Mona Lisa” was found on the floor in the staircase, that the museum’s curators realized what had happened.

The painting had been stolen and 60 French inspectors arrived to the scene to look for clues.

A fingerprint was found. Today we know it’s Peruggia’s, but back then the inspector Alphonse Bertillon, a famous criminologist who was leading the case, could not find any match in his database.

The police briefly accused and arrested the poet Guillaume Apollinaire for the theft. Then they brought in his friend Pablo Picasso for questioning. People in Paris were saying the “Mona Lisa” was stolen by some wealthy American art collectors like John Pierpont “J. P.” Morgan.  And why not the Germans, someone else suggested–Germany was about to go to war against France.

Peruggia transported the painting to Italy by train hiding it in a false bottom of a wooden trunk he built himself.

He got arrested in Florence after meeting at the Tripoli Hote–today called after the “Mona Lisa” painting–with an antique dealer, Alfredo Geri, and the superintendent of the Uffizi Gallery, Giovanni Poggi.

Peruggia stated in court that he wanted the give back the painting to Italy and that he acted patriotically. But he was not going to give it back for free, and asked for money. Also, the “Mona Lisa” never belonged to Italy. It was legally sold by Da Vinci to his patron, the French King François I.

The “Mona Lisa” returned to the Louvre in January 1914 with only an abrasion on her cheek and a scratch on her left shoulder. Peruggia spent seven months in jail and was set free in July 2014.

That month World War I started. Peruggia served in the Italian army and was taken prisoner by the Austrians for two years. After being released he went back to Paris where he lived with a different name, Pietro instead of Vincenzo, until he died in 1925.

It’s funny to think that in one of his outings he decided to take his wife Annunciata, Celestina’s future mother, to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. According to Medeiros, Annunciata that day was a little bit “worried.”

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