On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa, known as La Joconde in France, was stolen from the Louvre. What’s even more amazing is that the theft wasn’t noticed for a full day. If you’ve been to the Louvre in recent years, you know that La Joconde is protected by a special case and always surrounded by a dense crowd of camera-toting tourists. Even one hundred years ago, La Joconde had a sheet of protective glass in front of her. The museum director had earlier averred that it would be as easy to steal the two towers of Notre Dame as to steal La Joconde. He resigned after the scandal broke.
With over a day’s delay in noticing the greatest art theft in modern history coupled with the lack of solid evidence, the case remained unsolved for over two years. Finally, a man referring to himself as “Leonardo” approached an Italian art dealer offering to sell La Joconde to be hung in the Uffizi museum. He claimed he was restoring La Joconde to make up for all of Napoleon’s thefts from Italy. (By the way, François I was Leonardo da Vinci’s patron at the end of the artist’s life and he bought the painting – Napoleon had nothing to do with its acquisition by France.) Fortunately the art dealer was both honest and intelligent and he strung “Leonardo” along in order to get his hands on the painting and lead the police to the thief.
“Leonardo” was actually Vincenzo Perrugia. He had worked at the Louvre in 1908 and stopped in for a visit with his old friends on that fateful day in August. It was a Monday and the Louvre was closed to the public for its weekly cleaning day. As he passed by the room where La Joconde was hung, Perrugia saw that the room was empty. He grabbed the painting and the protective glass, ran to a stairwell where he ditched the glass and frame and made off with the painting. Apparently all totally on impulse.
Today’s expression, se jeter dans l’eau (suh shjetay dahn low) literally means “to throw oneself into the water,” Figuratively, it refers to someone who throws himself precipitately into a situation, the way Perrugia did.