Florence Hotel La Gioconda News & Press
"The Gioconda" taken from the "Corriere Fiorentino" newspaper on Sunday March 23rd, 2008
Even the King of England wished to see it.
It's a strange feeling to find yourself in a little room, that overlooks a courtyard just as small, where, on the 11th of December, 1913, the most famous work of art of all times was retrieved.
The feeling is even stronger because here with us, on this rainy Spring afternoon, together with the young owner of the hotel "La Gioconda", is Engineer Silvio Peruggia, grandson of the man who for over two years possessed, as if a well hidden young loved one, or rather, like a strange plaything or hostage, nothing less than the same Mona Lisa that, just behind us only a short walk away, lived its earthly adventure in Via della Stufa, as told by recent discoveries made by historian and friend Giuseppe Pallanti.
Silvio extraordinarily resembles his grandfather, an ironic smile under his mustache, wittingly reacting by easily taking the copy of the celebrated portrait from the nail for it to be photographed in the famous room n. 20, where a plaque still reminds us that it was right here, in a box hidden under the bed among old clothes and worn out shoes, wrapped in a cloth and well tied, was the Gioconda.
Many are the engaged couples, tells me Tanja Li Pira, owner of the hotel, who ask to sleep in this room. As a matter of fact, a young woman expected it for the first night of her honeymoon. Fetishism? Maybe ill-concealed sentimentalism.
And then the flocks of Japanese, photographs, school field trips, all wanting to know something more.
And that "something" more is told to me my Silvio Peruggia himself, starting with the incredible and freshly told episode of the American Ambassador in Paris.
But let's proceed in order.
"When my grandfather Vincenzo died- says Silvio- still young and in France where he returned, changing his name to Pietro Peruggia, so as not to be recognized, my mother was still a child. My grandmother then married my grandfather's brother and they relocated to the high Alps. No one ever told my mother the story about her father. Then, after coming back to her native land, Dumenza in Luino, at the beginning of World War II, my mother incredibly found that those in the town called her "Giocondina". Asking for an explanation, she was told, with a certain reserve, all that had happened thirty years earlier". And again, after many years, a very old work associate of Peruggia's in Paris decided to talk.
Here is the story.
There were many English gentlemen, odd for that time, that wanted to meet Vincenzo, around 1912, in the French capital. Even though in reality nothing was known for certain, a story was spread among the art restorers present at the Louvre that fateful 21st of August in 1911, day of the theft, that someone could have talkedand someone probably did.
A voice was spread among the English, who, as we know, are very clever in resolving these kinds of cases, that Vincenzo Peruggia was the one who knew the most.
Assembled in great secrecy at the English Embassy in Paris, he was made a proposal, that to him and to us still today, if it weren't for his grandson here to tell us, was unbelievable.
In a few words, the incredulous painter from Dumenza, immigrated to France, was asked frankly to bring "that which he had to show" to Buckingham Palace. King George V and the Queen Mary, graciously deigned to receive, in a very private, or rather, secretive manner, the Ambassador together with this small, embarrassing and almost terrified Italian, who, from the famous box from which he never separated, would have extracted what was in it, demonstrating to the royalty, also unbelieving, but curious and at the end with mysteriously dazzling eyes where, in that salon in the Royal Palace, Peruggia exposed his "treasure". The king and Queen would have then had, how do you say, a private viewing, and very secretive, that which the rest of the world would have found only a year later. Absurd? Incredible? Sentimental or romanticized? Perhaps.
But an old painter friend of Peruggia was witness at the time; a fact that Vincenzo himself had never told, not even to his family or wife, keeping it instead to himself which gave him a halo of veracity, making him believable.
Imagine the scene: the young artisan in the austere salons of the palace in front of the even more austere English sovereigns, who at the time were not glowing with trust, and then the even stiffer Ambassador, and finally, the white box of soiled clothes never removed, not even on this occasion. And the Gioconda.
More than the "Codice da Vinci", fiction by Dan Brown. These are memories of an old painter told to the grandson of a friend.
Then, the story that everyone knows.
Peruggia, who signed his name as Leonard, writes to the antique dealer Geri in Florence.
He wants to take home, back to the art capital, what was created, married, retracted, lived, and died there.
In 1913, with what was called fervor patriotism, and what might have been only a pretense to play down the theft, he wanted to reassure Italy what he had thought, that it was Napoleon who had taken it away.
He didn't know that the grand Corsican, who in reality found the portrait as a legacy in the old royal palace in France, had loved and wanted it in his own bedroom, as did King Sole and many other French sovereigns before him. Finally, the finding, but this, as said, is a story that we all know.
The white box in room n. 20 in the Hotel Tripoli Italy. "Tripoli bel sol d'amore" (Tripoli, beautiful sun of love) was sung that day in the streets of Florence, and on the third floor, the little painter was separated forever from the image of the Florentine woman that he, more than anyone else, even more than Napoleon, than the King of France, than Francesco I, who had had it first, more than Francesco del Giocondo who would have liked to have had it, more than Leonardo himself, he, Leonard, nave petty theft of the twentieth century, more than absolutely anyone else, had had it near.
I don't want to reassess Vincenzo Peruggia, if not only for the great friendliness of his grandson Silvio, who doesn't justify him either.
I'll limit myself to two conclusive considerations. He wasn't a real thief, he acted ingenuously, not like a professional thief, maybe a bit thoughtless and even though he could have bragged about the episode later, with memoirs and interviews, he never did.
And finally, he could have used his hostage for ransom as one would do today. After all, finding himself with the unsellable and, excuse the term, "hot potato", couldn't he have destroyed it? With consequences in the art world, and the world itself that we can only imagine.
Maybe affected by a reversed Stockholm syndrome, this uncultured and perhaps somewhat romantic young man from Dumenza, fell in love with his hostage.
It is nice to think that to save his prisoner he had almost put himself in a position of sacrificing himself. It is however nice to think it, on the eve of Easter in room n.20 of the hotel that takes its name from the illustrious prisoner.
Still one thing is sure; if at first the Gioconda was the most famous painting in the world, after the theft it became an absolute global icon.
As always, it only took a chronicle to elevate the masterpiece of art to an object of curiosity, morbid attention, cult. From that time, the Mona Lisa, work of art, was elevated to idol.
The young painter, after all, had served it well. Here, in Via Panzani, its story ended. From that time a legend began.
Domenico Savini - from the Hotel La Gioconda in Florence.