Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is arguably the most famous painting in the world. Now permanently exhibited in the Louvre in Paris, it is probably one of the best travelled as well. It even had a brief sojourn in southwest France during World War II and probably passed only a couple of kilometres from our front door.
The painting made the journey with Leonardo in the early 16th century from Italy to France, where it hung in various royal châteaux. It found its place in the Louvre after the Revolution. A Louvre employee stole it in 1911. He hung onto it for two years and was caught only when he tried to sell it – not a smart move, that. The Louvre has loaned it to other museums but no longer does so since it has been attacked and damaged several times.
Evacuating priceless works of art
La Joconde, as the Mona Lisa is known in France, was among 3,500 paintings moved from French national museums to protect them as war became inevitable in 1939. You can imagine the logistics involved in packing up that lot.
The paintings were first stored at a château in the Loire. When the Germans invaded France in May 1940 and advanced on Paris, their hiding place was no longer secure, so the convoy moved off again.
It must have been a difficult journey. The roads were swarming with refugees and some of the specially-requisitioned lorries were enormous because of the size of certain paintings – a Veronese was 10 metres wide. One lorry had to carry all the petrol necessary for the whole convoy. La Joconde, being so precious, was transported in a car on her own so she didn’t have to rub shoulders with the inferior works of art.
They all made it in June 1940 to the Abbaye de Loc-Dieu, close to Villefranche de Rouergue. The Cistercians founded the Abbaye in 1123 on a site previously known as Locus Diaboli – the devil’s place.
There are various theories about the origin of its name. Some think it was because of the number of dolmens at or near the site. The Abbaye’s own website speculates that the thick woodland was the ideal hiding place for highwaymen who attacked hapless travellers on the Cahors-Rodez road. Rechristened Locus Dei – the place of God – it eventually became Loc-Dieu. The English burnt down the Abbaye in 1409 and it was later rebuilt and fortified.
The works of art remained in the church at Loc Dieu during the summer of 1940. Around 250 people who had been involved in transporting them, including their families, were housed at the Abbaye or in nearby villages.
On the road again
In September 1940, the convoy moved yet again and took them down to Montauban, where they were housed at the Musée Ingres. Since Montauban was deeper in the zone libre, they were considered safer there. Also, there were fears that the abbey church, where the works were stored, was too damp. This is when La Joconde probably passed close to us since we are not far from the route the convoy is likely to have taken from Loc-Dieu to Montauban.
Once German forces had occupied the zone libre in November 1942, Montauban was no longer a safe place. In 1943, La Joconde was off again, this time to the Château de Montal in the Lot. She remained there until her return to Paris in 1945.
La Joconde is not my favourite painting. I would rather have some by Rembrandt or Vermeer, for example. However, her enigmatic smile – if it is one – has captured people’s imaginations across the centuries. Despite her wartime adventures, it seems she kept her smile throughout.
The Abbaye de Loc-Dieu is open to the public and hosts several concerts every summer. Details on the website.
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