The Mona Lisa: 100 Year Anniversary of Its Theft

One hundred years ago today (August 21, 1911), it was a quiet Monday morning in Paris, France. The Louvre, arguably the world’s most famous art museum, was closed for the day. But three men were running away from the Louvre: Vincenzo Perugia and the brothers Vincenzo Lancelotti and Michele Lancelotti.

They had arrived to the Louvre on Sunday afternoon and managed to find a hiding space in a small storeroom near the Salon Carré, a gallery stuffed with Renaissance paintings. They spent the night. In the morning, wearing white workmen’s smocks, they had gone into the Salon Carré. They seized a small painting off the wall. Quickly, they ripped off its glass shadow box and frame and Perugia hid it under his clothes.

And so The Mona Lisa was stolen.

Remarkably, it took more than 24 hours for anyone to notice that the painting had been stolen. Granted, at the time, the Louvre had lax security and The Mona Lisa wasn’t even the most famous item in the museum.

My favourite piece of trivia about the theft: the artist Pablo Picasso was considered a suspect in the theft of the Mona Lisa; he was brought in for questioning but promptly released.

The Mona Lisa would not be found for 28 months. The best account I’ve read recounting the story of Mona Lisa’s theft is this brilliant, must-read piece in Vanity Fair.

Readings: Camera Head, Brain on Metaphors

Here are two excellent reads from this week:

1) “Sir, There’s a Camera in Your Head” [Wall Street Journal] – An Iraqi assistant professor in the photography and imaging department of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Wafaa Bilal, intends to undergo surgery in coming weeks to install a camera on the back of his head. Why? It’s a commission by a museum in Qatar:

For one year, Mr. Bilal’s camera will take still pictures at one-minute intervals, then feed the photos to monitors at the museum. The thumbnail-sized camera will be affixed to his head through a piercing-like attachment.

Mr. Bilal’s camera-based work will be overseen by the Qatar Museums Authority where:

For one year, Mr. Bilal’s camera will take still pictures at one-minute intervals, then feed the photos to monitors at the museum. The thumbnail-sized camera will be affixed to his head through a piercing-like attachment.

It remains to be seen whether this project will see the light of day, as NYU administrators have raised privacy concerns (students being filmed without their consent/knowledge). Of course, Mr. Bilal isn’t new to controversial projects. In a 2008 project, Virtual Jihadi, Mr. Bilal hacked a video game to insert an avatar of himself as a suicide-bomber hunting President George W. Bush. In his 2007 work, Domestic Tension, Mr. Bilal trapped himself in a Chicago museum for a month, inviting the public to go to a website where they could “shoot” the artist remotely by firing a paintball gun at him. His other projects are interesting as well: Mona Lisa (the exploration of that enigmatic smile) and One Chair, based on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

2) “This is Your Brain on Metaphors” [New York Times] – this is a brilliant piece by Robert Sapolsky, a professor of Biology, Neurology and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. In this piece, Sapolsky explains how human brains are wired to understand metaphors surprisingly well. He explains:

Symbols, metaphors, analogies, parables, synecdoche, figures of speech: we understand them. We understand that a captain wants more than just hands when he orders all of them on deck. We understand that Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” isn’t really about a cockroach. If we are of a certain theological ilk, we see bread and wine intertwined with body and blood. We grasp that the right piece of cloth can represent a nation and its values, and that setting fire to such a flag is a highly charged act.

It’s interesting how our brains can be primed with sensory inputs, such as touch. For instance, I found this remarkable:

Volunteers were asked to evaluate the resumes of supposed job applicants where, as the critical variable, the resume was attached to a clipboard of one of two different weights. Subjects who evaluated the candidate while holding the heavier clipboard tended to judge candidates to be more serious, with the weight of the clipboard having no effect on how congenial the applicant was judged. After all, we say things like “weighty matter” or “gravity of a situation.”

The question is: knowing this information, how can you use it to your advantage in daily life? Next time you want someone to consider your question or idea, perhaps give them a cup of coffee or some item to hold while explaining yourself. Of course, now that you’ve read about this effect, you may be more attuned to it so that it doesn’t play as large a factor in your future decisions (I hope).

Perhaps the most interesting study profiled is that on cleanliness:

Another truly interesting domain in which the brain confuses the literal and metaphorical is cleanliness. In a remarkable study, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto and Katie Liljenquist of Northwestern University demonstrated how the brain has trouble distinguishing between being a dirty scoundrel and being in need of a bath. Volunteers were asked to recall either a moral or immoral act in their past. Afterward, as a token of appreciation, Zhong and Liljenquist offered the volunteers a choice between the gift of a pencil or of a package of antiseptic wipes. And the folks who had just wallowed in their ethical failures were more likely to go for the wipes.

Sapolsky’s piece is one of the best short expositions I’ve read explaining how our brains are wired; the references to every day situations are particularly interesting. If you’re into neuroscience and want to learn more about the forces in our lives that shape our decisions, I cannot recommend Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational enough. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Readings: Goldman, Tweeting Library, Mona Lisa, Jefferson County, Billionaire’s Yacht

Here’s what caught my attention over the last few days…

(1) “S.E.C. Accuses Goldman of Fraud in Housing Deal” [New York Times] – this was the biggest bombshell of the day, and it sent the markets tumbling. GS stock finished $23.57 lower than it started at the beginning of the day, a drop of nearly 13%.

(2) “How Tweet It Is! Library Acquires Entire Twitter Archive” [Library of Congress] – in what appears to be a belated April Fools’ joke, the blog of Library of Congress announced that every single public tweet since Twitter’s inception in 2006 will be archived. The announcement was posted on Twitter and the news spread like wildfire through the Twitterverse. I understand that there is a benefit to archiving public tweets, but it remains to be seen what the Library of Congress will do in order to allow filtering the tweets. Something else I’m curious about is how the Library of Congress (or whoever manages this overwhelming project) will differentiate the public vs. non-public tweets: Twitter users can set their accounts to public or private at will, so it’s unclear what will happen to those tweets which used to be private but are now public or vice versa.

(3) “Stealing Mona Lisa” [Vanity Fair] – a fascinating piece about the world’s most famous painting. Did you know that Pablo Picasso was brought in for questioning after the Mona Lisa was stolen in the early 1900s? It’s true! And in case you’ve ever wondered what it’s like seeing the world’s most famous painting, here’s what the scene looks like at the Louvre Museum.

(4) “Looting Main Street” [Rolling Stone] – a provocative piece by Matt Taibi, exploring the rise and fall of Jefferson County, Alabama. [via]

(5) “Baccarat Meets Bomb-Proof Glass on the High Seas” [Wall Street Journal] – it’s simply known as the “A,” but this $300 million yacht, owned by Russian billionaire Andrey Melnichenko, defies definition. It’s extravagance unparalleled.