France rejects Italian plea to borrow Mona Lisa

France has turned down a request from the Italian city of Florence to borrow the Louvre's famous Mona Lisa painting, by Leonardo da Vinci. Authorities in Italy wanted to bring the artwork back to the country in which it was painted, for an exhibition.

France rejects Italian plea to borrow Mona Lisa
The painting would have been exhibited in celebration of the centenary of the dramatic recovery of the masterpiece following its theft in 1911. Photo: Wikicommons

For over 200 years, France has jealously guarded Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa in the Louvre museum – and it doesn’t look like it will be returning to Italy any time soon.

Florence has lost its battle to bring the masterpiece – known as the “Giaconde” in French – back to its native Italy for an exhibition, Italian newspaper La Stampa reported on Tuesday.

The painting would have been exhibited in the city in celebration of the centenary of the dramatic recovery of the masterpiece following its theft in 1911. The proposal to return the painting had been supported by around 150,000 signatures.

In response to the request from Silvano Vinceti, President of the National Committee for the Appreciation of Cultural and Environmental Property, Vincent Berjot, France’s Director General of Heritage said that lending the work would present “many technical difficulties”.

Moreover, he added, “this painting is indissolubly linked to the image and international reputation of the Louvre Museum, which each year draws over eight million visitors from France and the whole world, who would never be able to accept the absence of this work.”

Acclaimed as "the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world", the Mona Lisa is estimated to have been painted between 1503 and 1506.

Believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gheradini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo (from whom it takes its name), it was acquired by King Francis I of France in the 16th century and has remained the property of France ever since.

It has been on display at the Louvre museum in Paris since 1797 – but it’s been a battle to keep it there.

The painting was stolen from the museum on August 21st 1911. Avant-garde French poet Guillaume Apollinaire came under suspicion, and was even arrested in connection with the theft. He tried to implicate his friend, fellow artist Pablo Picasso, but both were later exonerated.

It was not until two years later that the real culprit – a museum employee and Italian citizen called Vincenzo Peruggia – was tracked down. According to reports at the time, Peruggia believed that the painting should be displayed in an Italian museum.

He was finally caught in 1913 when attempting to sell the Mona Lisa to directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The masterpiece was returned to France later that year and Peruggia was jailed for six months.

The Louvre declined to comment when contacted by The Local on Tuesday morning. 

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Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles

Rising high beyond an ancient Roman arena in Arles, a tall, twisted tower created by Frank Gehry shimmers in the sun, the latest futuristic addition to this southern French city known for its World Heritage sites.

Futuristic Gehry tower opens in World Heritage Arles
Gehry's Luma Tower opens in Arles, France. Photo: H I / Pixabay

The tower, which opens to the public on Saturday, is the flagship attraction of a new “creative campus” conceived by the Swiss Luma arts foundation that wants to offer artists a space to create, collaborate and showcase their work.

Gehry, the 92-year-old brain behind Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum and Los Angeles’ Walt Disney Concert Hall, wrapped 11,000 stainless steel panels around his tower above a huge glass round base.

It will house contemporary art exhibitions, a library, and offices, while the Luma Arles campus as a whole will host conferences and live performances.

From a distance, the structure reflects the changing lights of this town that inspired Van Gogh, capturing the whiteness of the limestone Alpilles mountain range nearby which glows a fierce orange when the sun sets.

Mustapha Bouhayati, the head of Luma Arles, says the town is no stranger to
imposing monuments; its ancient Roman arena and theatre have long drawn the

The tower is just the latest addition, he says. “We’re building the heritage of tomorrow.”

Luma Arles spreads out over a huge former industrial wasteland.

Maja Hoffmann, a Swiss patron of the arts who created the foundation, says
the site took seven years to build and many more years to conceive.

Maja Hoffmann, founder and president of the Luma Foundation. Photo: Pascal GUYOT / AFP

Aside from the tower, Luma Arles also has exhibition and performance spaces in former industrial buildings, a phosphorescent skatepark created by South Korean artist Koo Jeong A and a sprawling public park conceived by Belgian landscape architect Bas Smets.

‘Arles chose me’

The wealthy great-granddaughter of a founder of Swiss drug giant Roche, Hoffmann has for years been involved in the world of contemporary art, like her grandmother before her.

A documentary producer and arts collector, she owns photos by Annie Leibovitz and Diane Arbus and says she hung out with Jean-Michel Basquiat in New York.

Her foundation’s stated aim is to promote artists and their work, with a special interest in environmental issues, human rights, education and culture.

She refuses to answer a question on how much the project in Arles cost. But as to why she chose the 53,000-strong town, Hoffmann responds: “I did not choose Arles, Arles chose me.”

She moved there as a baby when her father Luc Hoffmann, who co-founded WWF,
created a reserve to preserve the biodiversity of the Camargue, a region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Rhone river delta known for its pink flamingos.

The tower reflects that, with Camargue salt used as mural panels and the
delta’s algae as textile dye.

Hoffmann says she wants her project to attract more visitors in the winter, in a town where nearly a quarter of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some 190 people will be working at the Luma project over the summer, Bouhayati says, adding that Hoffman has created an “ecosystem for creation”.