Vincenzo Peruggia: Mona Lisa

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Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy by Robert H. Frank


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If any of those earlier steps had been different, the entire trajectory would almost surely be different, too. Watts illustrates his point with the interesting history of the Mona Lisa, easily the most famous painting in the world. During a visit to the Louvre, he noticed the ubiquitous throngs jostling for a closer look at the painting, even as several other canvases by Leonardo da Vinci from the same era went almost completely ignored in an adjacent gallery. To Watts, the Mona Lisa seemed no better than those other paintings. Curious, he did a little digging and discovered that it had languished in obscurity for most of its early life. What pushed the painting into the spotlight was apparently its theft in 1911 by Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian maintenance worker at the Louvre who tucked it under his smock before leaving work one evening. The theft, which was widely publicized, remained unsolved until Peruggia was apprehended two years later for attempting to sell the painting to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

In Ian Leslie’s account of the episode, The French public was electrified. The Italians hailed Peruggia as a patriot who wanted to return the painting home. Newspapers around the world reproduced it, making it the first work of art to achieve global fame. From then on, the “Mona Lisa” came to represent Western culture itself.3 As Watts writes, “We claim to be saying that the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it has attributes X, Y and Z. But really what we’re saying is that the Mona Lisa is famous because it’s more like the Mona Lisa than anything else.”4 Consider also the career of Al Pacino, one of the most celebrated actors of the past forty years. Fans may find it difficult to imagine an alternative version of history in which he did not succeed as an actor. Yet his storied career owes much to one highly improbable early casting decision.5 Studio executives at Paramount wanted to cast Robert Red-ford, Warren Beatty, or Ryan O’Neal to play Michael Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola’s film adaptation of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather.

Having cheated death on at least two occasions obviously does not, by itself, make me an authority on luck. But it has instilled in me a keen interest in the subject and has stimulated me to learn much more about it than I otherwise would have. My personal experiences with chance events in the labor market have also spurred me to learn more about how such events shape career trajectories. The influence of even seemingly minor random events is often profound. Is the Mona Lisa special? Is Kim Kardashian? They’re both famous, but sometimes things are famous just for being famous. Although we often try to explain their success by scrutinizing their objective qualities, they are in fact often no more special than many of their less renowned counterparts. Ahead I’ll describe how success often results from positive feedback loops that amplify tiny initial variations into enormous differences in final outcomes.


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Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts


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In fact, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the Mona Lisa began its meteoric rise to global brand name. And even then it wasn’t the result of art critics suddenly appreciating the genius that had sat among them for so long, nor was it due to the efforts of museum curators, socialites, wealthy patrons, politicians, or kings. Rather, it all began with a burglary. On August 21, 1911, a disgruntled Louvre employee named Vincenzo Peruggia hid in a broom closet until closing time and then walked out of the museum with the Mona Lisa tucked under his coat. A proud Italian, Peruggia apparently believed that the Mona Lisa ought rightly to be displayed in Italy, not France, and he was determined to repatriate the long-lost treasure personally. Like many art thieves, however, Peruggia discovered that it was much easier to steal a famous work of art than to dispose of it.

As Sassoon points out, all these different people—thieves, vandals, artists, and advertisers, not to mention musicians, moviemakers, and even NASA (remember the crater on Venus?)—were using the Mona Lisa for their own purposes: to make a point, to increase their own fame, or simply to use a label they felt would convey meaning to other people. But every time they used the Mona Lisa, it used them back, insinuating itself deeper into the fabric of Western culture and the awareness of billions of people. It is impossible now to imagine the history of Western art without the Mona Lisa, and in that sense it truly is the greatest of paintings. But it is also impossible to attribute its unique status to anything about the painting itself. This last point presents a problem because when we try to explain the success of the Mona Lisa, it is precisely its attributes on which we focus our attention. If you’re Kenneth Clark, you don’t need to know anything about the circumstances of the Mona Lisa’s rise to fame to know why it happened—everything you need to know is right there in front of you.

And yet, as the historian Donald Sassoon relates in his illuminating biography of the Mona Lisa, nothing could be further from the case.3 For centuries, the Mona Lisa was a relatively obscure painting languishing in the private residences of kings—still a masterpiece, to be sure, but only one among many. Even when it was moved to the Louvre, after the French Revolution, it did not attract as much attention as the works of other artists, like Esteban Murillo, Antonio da Correggio, Paolo Veronese, Jean-Baptiste Greuze, and Pierre Paul Prud’hon, names that for the most part are virtually unheard of today outside of art history classes. And admired as he was, up until the 1850s, da Vinci was considered no match for the true greats of painting, like Titian and Rafael, some of whose works were worth almost ten times as much as the Mona Lisa. In fact, it wasn’t until the twentieth century that the Mona Lisa began its meteoric rise to global brand name.