Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1503-1506. Photo by C2RMF via the History Blog
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1503-1506. Photo by C2RMF via the History Blog

How the Mona Lisa Escaped Destruction During World War II

Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1503-1506. Photo by C2RMF via the History Blog
Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci, ca 1503-1506. Photo by C2RMF via the History Blog

The debt the world owes the Monuments Men—approximately 350 servicemen and women from 13 countries who worked in the Allied Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program during World War II—has recently become better known thanks to an excellent documentary based on a phenomenal book, plus a highly fictionalized version of the story brought to the big screen by George Clooney. Their dedication in tracking down and repatriating millions of great works from Europe's museums and private collections that had been stolen by the Nazis ensured that many treasures of Western art found their way home at the end of the war, instead of rotting in salt mines and warehouses.

Less well-known is the work done before the war to keep one of the greatest collections of art and artifacts in the world—the Louvre Museum's in Paris—out of Nazi hands in the first place. Hitler and his cronies had a wish list of works they planned to plunder from the countries they invaded, and Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world then and now, was at the top of the list. It was Jacques Jaujard, director of France's National Museums, who thwarted Hitler's scheme, pulled the wool over the eyes of the collaborationist tools of the Vichy government, and kept the Louvre's contents, including the Mona Lisa, safe for the duration of the war.

After Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938, Jaujard, then deputy director of the National Museums, lost whatever small hope he had that war might be avoided. He knew Britain's policy of appeasement wasn't going to keep the Nazi wolf from the door, and an invasion of France was sure to bring destruction of cultural treasures via bombings, looting, and wholesale theft. So, together with the Louvre's curator of paintings René Huyghe, Jaujard crafted a secret plan to evacuate almost all of the Louvre's art, which included 3600 paintings alone.

Aside from modestly sized works like the Mona Lisa, the pieces they were rescuing included delicate artifacts such as the 4000-year-old Seated Scribe, monumental paintings such as Théodore Géricault's 16-by-24-foot The Raft of the Medusa, and massive statues such as the Winged Victory of Samothracewhich weighs 3 metric tons.

© Rijin S via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

On August 25, 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union announced their Nonaggression Pact and Jaujard made his move. That day, he closed the Louvre for three days (ostensibly "for repairs") and his meticulous plan went into action. The Louvre staff, students from the École du Louvre, and workers from the Grands Magasins du Louvre department store took paintings out of their frames (when possible) and moved statues and other objects from their displays into wooden crates. All works were labeled with marks indicating their evacuation priority—yellow dots for most of the collection, green dots for the works of major significance, and red dots for the greatest treasures of global patrimony. The Mona Lisa was placed in a custom poplar case cushioned with red velvet. The box was crated up and the crate marked with three red dots, the only work in the entire collection with that rating.

On August 28, 1939, hundreds of trucks organized into convoys carried 1000 crates of ancient artifacts and 268 crates of paintings and more to the Loire Valley, where the splendid châteaux had room to host the art far from likely bombing targets. In just three days, 200 people packed 3600 paintings—plus many more drawings, sculptures, objets d'art, and antiquities—into crates. Giant paintings like The Raft of the Medusa that were too fragile to be removed from their frames and rolled up had to be transported vertically, for which Jaujard secured scenery trailers from the Comédie-Française. The Mona Lisa was transported in an ambulance, on a stretcher with elastic suspension to keep it as safe as possible from jostling.

To keep the Mona Lisa safe from interception, Jaujard made sure there was no indication on the crate of its contents. He gave the painting a code instead, writing the letters "MN" in black, without the department letters or the red number that was the standard packing notation on other crates. Later, he wrote to the curator newly in charge of the piece to let him know which crate the masterpiece was in, and to add "L.P.0" in red to the code on the crate ("LP" stood for "Louvre Paintings"). The Mona Lisa arrived safely at the Château de Chambord, the largest château in the Loire Valley, along with the rest of the Louvre's collection. There, the works would be triaged and split up for transport to other rural châteaux, museums, and abbeys.

Four days later, on September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland. On September 3, France declared war on Germany, triggering the evacuation of the final work: the Winged Victory of Samothrace, which by the grace of some higher power and the dedication of the Louvre curators and staff, made it down the steps and into a truck to safety.

In November of 1939, the Mona Lisa was transported from Chambord to the château of Louvigny, the northernmost art depot where the large-format paintings were stored, to keep it out of reach of the advancing German army. The crate was on an ambulance stretcher again, this time in an armored van that was sealed shut to keep the humidity constant. A curator sat next to it in a state of cat-like readiness for the entire trip, and later reported the lack of air circulation almost suffocated him.

Safety was a tenuous concept in wartime France. Jaujard and other officials would juggle logistics and arrange additional moves at great personal risk for the duration of the war to keep France's cultural treasures out of Nazi hands, out of Vichy hands and, working directly with the French Resistance, out of range of Allied bombs. The Mona Lisa would be moved five more times to stay ahead of the maelstrom.

In June of 1940, with the surrender of France imminent and floods of refugees from Belgium, Holland, and northern France clogging the roads south, many of the Louvre's works were moved out of the German-occupied north into what would soon become the southern "free zone" of the puppet Vichy government. The Mona Lisa was sent to the former Cistercian Abbey of Loc-Dieu. It had burned down in 1409 during the Hundred Years' War, and when it was rebuilt in 1470, it was fortified against any such future eventualities.

A fortified abbey in the south of France seemed like a solid choice to protect the Mona Lisa and other masterpieces, but within months, conservators became concerned that the humid environment would damage the paintings. Mona Lisa and friends were moved again, this time even further south to the Musée Ingres in Montauban, 35 miles north of Toulouse. There the Mona Lisa arrived on October 3, 1940, and stayed for just over two years in the former residence of the bishops of Montauban. Calamity almost struck twice: once in December of 1941, when a ceiling beam came loose in the room where the Louvre's works were being stored, and once in August of 1942, when a violent thunderstorm caused massive flooding that penetrated the museum and dampened 69 paintings. The Mona Lisa was not one of them.

But by early 1943, Jaujard feared that the Musée Ingres was no longer safe. Germany had invaded the free zone in November of 1942, and the museum was close to a bridge over the Tarn River that Jaujard knew might make an attractive bombing target. In February 1943, the Mona Lisa was moved again to its final wartime hiding space, the Château de Montal in southwestern France.

Paris was liberated by the Allies on August 25, 1944. On May 8, 1945, Germany unconditionally surrendered and the war in Europe was over. Finally, the Louvre's works began to come back home. The museum had seen some rough treatment during the war: The Germans had kept it open, its galleries mainly empty except for some lesser pieces fished out of storage and boxes of looted artworks from Jewish private collections that were stashed in the museum before transport to Germany. The Louvre was extensively renovated between 1945 and 1946, its galleries opened piecemeal as they were completed. The Mona Lisa returned on June 16, 1945.

Mona Lisa rehung at the Louvre October 6, 1947, reopening. Image credit: AFP/Getty Images.

Or did it? Between the chaos of war and Jaujard's probable use of period copies of the Mona Lisa as decoys, there are conflicting reports about where exactly she went and how she made it back. One Austrian museum near the Altaussee salt mine claimed that "the Mona Lisa from Paris" was among "80 wagons of art and cultural objects from across Europe" the Nazis stored in the mine. But the one that returned to the Louvre is far more likely to be real thing, and the one in Altaussee a high-quality copy. Many people worked very hard for six years to keep the painting in France, and today there's little doubt that the Mona Lisa hanging in the Louvre, encased by bullet-proof glass, is the one painted by Leonardo da Vinci 500 years ago.

John MacDougall, Getty Images
Stolpersteine: One Artist's International Memorial to the Holocaust
John MacDougall, Getty Images
John MacDougall, Getty Images

The most startling memorial to victims of the Holocaust may also be the easiest to miss. Embedded in the sidewalks of more than 20 countries, more than 60,000 Stolpersteine—German for “stumbling stones”—mark the spots where victims last resided before they were forced to leave their homes. The modest, nearly 4-by-4-inch brass blocks, each the size of a single cobblestone, are planted outside the doorways of row houses, bakeries, and coffee houses. Each tells a simple yet chilling story: A person lived here. This is what happened to them.

Here lived Hugo Lippers
Born 1878
Arrested 11/9/1938 — Altstrelitzer prison
Deported 1942 Auschwitz

The project is the brainchild of the German artist Gunter Demnig, who first had the idea in the early 1990s as he studied the Nazis' deportation of Sinti and Roma people. His first installations were guerrilla artwork: According to Reuters, Demnig laid his first 41 blocks in Berlin without official approval. The city, however, soon endorsed the idea and granted him permission to install more. Today, Berlin has more than 5000.

Demnig lays a Stolpersteine.
Artist Gunter Demnig lays a Stolpersteine outside a residence in Hamburg, Germany in 2012.
Patrick Lux, Getty Images

The Stolpersteine are unique in their individuality. Too often, the millions of Holocaust victims are spoken of as a nameless mass. And while the powerful memorials and museums in places such as Berlin and Washington, D.C. are an antidote to that, the Stolpersteine are special—they are decentralized, integrated into everyday life. You can walk down a sidewalk, look down, and suddenly find yourself standing where a person's life changed. History becomes unavoidably present.

That's because, unlike gravestones, the stumbling stones mark an important date between a person’s birth and death: the day that person was forced to abandon his or her home. As a result, not every stumbling stone is dedicated to a person who was murdered. Some plaques commemorate people who fled Europe and survived. Others honor people who were deported but managed to escape. The plaques aim to memorialize the moment a person’s life was irrevocably changed—no matter how it ended.

The ordinariness of the surrounding landscape—a buzzing cafe, a quaint bookstore, a tree-lined street—only heightens that effect. As David Crew writes for Not Even Past, “[Demnig] thought the stones would encourage ordinary citizens to realize that Nazi persecution and terror had begun on their very doorsteps."

A man in a shop holding a hammer making a Stolpersteine.
Artisan Michael Friedrichs-Friedlaender hammers inscriptions into the brass plaques at the Stolpersteine manufacturing studio in Berlin.
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

While Demnig installs every single Stolpersteine himself, he does not work alone. His project, which stretches from Germany to Brazil, relies on the research of hundreds of outside volunteers. Their efforts have not only helped Demnig create a striking memorial, but have also helped historians better document the lives of individuals who will never be forgotten.

Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
60 Years Later, a Lost Stanley Kubrick Script Has Been Found
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images
Evening Standard/Stringer, Getty Images

A “lost” screenplay co-written by famed filmmaker Stanley Kubrick has been found after 60 years, Vulture reports.

The screenplay is an adaptation of Stefan Zweig’s novella Burning Secret, which Vulture describes as a reverse Lolita (plot summary for those who forgot high school English class: a man enters a relationship with a woman because of his obsession with her 12-year-old daughter). In Burning Secret, a man befriends an adolescent boy in order to seduce his mother. Zweig’s other works have inspired films like Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (which the director claims he "stole" from Zweig's novels Beware of Pity and The Post-Office Girl).

Kubrick’s screenplay adaptation is co-written by novelist Calder Willingham and dated October 24, 1956. Although the screenplay bears a stamp from MGM’s screenwriting department, Nathan Abrams—the Bangor University professor who discovered the script—thinks it’s likely the studio found it too risqué for mass audiences.

“The child acts as an unwitting go-between for his mother and her would-be lover, making for a disturbing story with sexuality and child abuse churning beneath its surface,” Abrams told The Guardian. It's worth noting, however, that Kubrick directed an adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita in 1962, which MGM distributed, and it was also met with a fair share of controversy.

Abrams said the screenplay for Burning Secret is complete enough that it could be created by filmmakers today. He noted that the discovery is particularly exciting because it confirms speculations Kubrick scholars have had for decades.

“Kubrick aficionados knew he wanted to do it, [but] no one ever thought it was completed,” Abrams told The Guardian.

The Guardian reports that Abrams found the screenplay while researching his book Eyes Wide Shut: Stanley Kubrick and the Making of His Final Film. The screenplay is owned by the family of one of Kubrick’s colleagues.

[h/t Vulture]


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