Vincenzo loved art. Ask anyone who knew the man. He was a fair painter himself as well. Such was his love for fine art that the Italian moved to Paris to study his chosen craft and to be near some of the world’s greatest art exhibitions. He even got a job at the Louvre Museum in order to surround himself with his beloved passion.
Part of what Vincenzo liked about art was that Italy had such a rich and varied history of the arts for hundreds of years. He took great pride in his nation and felt that art was, in some large part, his birthright. He loved all things Italian. Such was his feeling of patriotism for his nation that he did not even wait to be drafted into the Italian Army during World War I–he was one of the first to enlist. But we’re getting ahead of our story.
In Paris, Vincenzo often tried to track down paintings by Italian painters to, in effect, “rescue” them from the foreign French and return them to his native land. In 1911, he managed to lay his hands on a work by one of the great Italian masters. He felt that all Italian art should be displayed in Italy. Returning this painting to its artistic “homeland” would be an act of national pride for Vincenzo. He lamented that works of art by Italian artists had been taken (“looted,” Vincenzo said) during wars in the past and were now on display in other nations. It wasn’t right, he said.
This particular work that Vincenzo managed to get was certainly worth more than it cost him. In his mind, the work should be hanging in the greatest museums in Italy or taken on display around the country. However, when he brought the work to the attention of a museum director in Florence in 1913, his motives began to be questioned. The reason that his intentions began to be scrutinized was that Vincenzo told the director that he felt owed a reward for bringing the work back to the land of its origin. The director said that if he really was interested in returning art to Italy then he should be doing that for free.
The museum director was nonetheless interested in the work Vincenzo presented him, and he asked to be able to inspect the work in order to authenticate it. Vincenzo agreed, and he presented the work to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Sure enough, the director was thrilled to announce that, indeed, the work was by one of the great Renaissance Italian masters. He congratulated Vincenzo on the success of bringing this work home to Italy. He then immediately called the police and had Vincenzo arrested.
You see, the painting that Vincenzo Peruggia presented to the Uffizi director had been stolen two years before.
You know it as the Mona Lisa.