It all started out like a normal Saturday visit to an art museum in mid-2015. A twelve-year-old boy and his family were enjoying an exhibition called “Face of Leonardo: Images of a Genius” in Taipei, Taiwan. The child, with a drink in one hand, walked by a painting by the Italian baroque artist Paolo Porpora, possibly admiring the artist’s use of color in his floral still life. Suddenly, though, the boy lurched forward-- apparently, he wasn't watching where he was going, and instead of walking by the painting, he tripped over its low guard railing and slammed his hands directly into the 350-year old canvas. Horrified, onlookers quickly realized that the boy had punched a fist-sized hole in the artwork, which was valued at over $1 million dollars. Well, at least he didn't spill his drink on it, am I right? But really-- even though the artwork could be restored and repaired, it was destroyed in one fast but accidental swoop.
And by the way, what art institution in their right mind would allow anyone to take food or drink into an exhibition? But I digress. Kind of.
Regardless, I do feel sorry for the poor boy. Sure, he could have and should have been more careful. And that baroque painting would have been better protected if it had been properly glazed with museum-quality glass. Ultimately, though, it was an accident. The boy never intended to harm the painting, nor to do so in such a hapless and undoubtedly embarrassing way. But it turns out that throughout art history, there have been multiple occasions where people have entered into a museum or gallery with the explicit intention of harming or outrightly destroying a work of art. And some of the most iconic and greatest works of art in the world have been the targets of these disastrous missions. The big question, though, is why? What motivates people into a full blown art-attack?
Sometimes people think that visual art is dry, boring, lifeless. They might remember childhood field trips to museums stuffed with cranky old women, deathly silent galleries, and dusty golden frames hanging on the wall. But sometimes, the stories behind those paintings, sculptures, drawings and photographs are weirder, crazier, or more fun than you can imagine. Art History is full of murder, intrigue, feisty women, rebellious men, crime, insanity, and so much more. And today, as part of a new series of episodes featuring bigger topics in art history, we are going to examine some of the biggest attacks on art masterpieces in history, as well as some of the theories behind this strange action. Exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in Art History, this is the ArtCurious Podcast. I'm Jennifer Dasal.
I want to start the show today by thanking our Twitter followers, who were kind enough to share their opinions with me last fall when I posted a poll on our twitter account. I had a slough of ideas that weren't specific to any artist, period, or work of art, and I had a simple question for you: should I do a season devoted specifically to these topics, or should I spread them out in between our traditional episodes? I kept this poll alive for about 5 days, and it was nearly split 50/50 between votes for the entire time, but at the very last minute, those in favor of spreading the shows out won by a narrow margin. So here you go, friends: based on your input, here’s the first episode of our new little series, which I’m calling The Bigger Picture. I’ll bring you another Bigger Picture episodes in a few weeks. Now, on with the show.
Attacks on art are, in the most basic sense, acts of vandalism. It’s not an accident, and it isn't a theft or an outright removal of a work of art from its rightful home. It is an intentional damaging of a piece, typically with the hope of a permanent marring or destruction of it entirely. For the vast majority of vandals, their actions it are premeditated, though not always-- and usually the complexity of the defilement as well as the materials used speak to the amount of planning involved. I want to take a moment to pinpoint more exactly my aim in the discussion today, which is more about small-scale attacks-- meaning ones committed by a single individual or a small coterie of people on one very specific artwork and usually for more personal reasons, which we’ll get into shortly. For this reason, I will not be discussing large-scale politically-motivated attacks or destruction of artworks or world monuments, such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan, that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. Those terrible events are horrific and sad, but for the most part, we understand the misguided reasons behind their destruction. But what happens when someone pulls a butcher knife not on another human being, but on a marble sculpture? And why would someone take a sawed-off shotgun and aim it at a canvas painted over five hundred years ago?
Believe it or not, art vandalism happens all the time. But most of these undertakings are so small and the damage is so limited that, in general, the vast majority of us don't ever hear about it. Unless it is ridiculously blatant and done with a flourish, we don't usually hear about the sullen teenager who sticks chewing gum onto a painting, or about the woman who scribbles some pencil markings onto a Greek Krater vase. What we do hear about are the big guns-- literally and figuratively. The greater the damage, the more intense the harm-inducing implement, and the higher value the piece of art-- all combined, these elements form the trifecta of art attacks.
But even the biggest art attacks, afflictions on masterpieces by some of the greatest artists of all time, such as Velasquez, Rembrandt, Rothko, Van Gogh, Monet, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci, just to name a few examples--even these incidents might very well surprise the everyday viewer. For example, the Mona Lisa herself, as we alluded to in episode 1 of the ArtCurious Podcast, has been attacked at least four times in the past century alone-- how many people look at the Mona Lisa today and even think that such a thing would be possible? The most recent attack was in 2009, when a Russian woman purchased a ceramic mug from one of the Louvre’s gift shops, concealed it among her possessions, and then hurled it at Leonardo’s masterpiece. Why? Well, apparently she did it in reaction to being denied French citizenship. In her mind, I suppose the connection must have made some sense: La Joconde herself has historically been tied more closely to France, her adopted home country, than Italy, where she was originally conceived in the 16th century. And since the bureaucracy who denied her was undoubtedly faceless, who better to symbolize the unwelcoming French nation than its most priceless symbol?
The story of the Mona Lisa Mugging made international headlines after the 2009 attack, but the story died away quickly after that. Why did it go away so fast? Well, there are two big reasons-- one obvious, and one maybe not so obvious, but both provide us with a glimpse as to why the general public might not be privy to these events for very long. The first is because the artwork-- here, the Mona Lisa itself-- wasn't actually damaged. It is far more difficult to actually harm a work of art now than it was a hundred years ago. Not that it is apparently stopping anybody from trying, really, but the fact that most large-scale institutions have so many more security mechanisms at their disposal means that major mistreatment to a work of art isn't impossible, but it is far more improbable. When a painting is shielded by bulletproof glass, separated by a partition, guarded by two security specialists and under 24/7 video surveillance, like the Mona Lisa is today? Well, that baby’s probably going to be just fine under most circumstances.
All that being said, there is a secondary reason why we might not hear too many details about an attempted vandalism or an art attack-- and that's because of a fear of copycats. Just because a museum or gallery has a state-of-the-art doesn't mean that they are going to welcome an attack. And a museum certainly wouldn't want to publicize such exploits just in case they themselves should come under scrutiny. You can almost hear an outraged general public screaming, “HOW could you let something like this happen?” It might not be a fair response, but it would probably occur, so it makes sense that an institution would prefer not to have to even address it widely in the first place.
Like it or not, though, the fact remains that some of the most famous works of art in the entire history of the world have been defaced, marred, or assaulted. And when this happens, the event not only directly affects the artwork itself and the institution it is housed in, but it also has wide-reaching consequences for other art establishments around the world. Let’s take two specific artworks as examples. First, there’s our old friend, the Mona Lisa. In 1910, Louvre officials received a letter in which an anonymous individual threatened to harm the Leonardo panel. Distressed but obviously forward-thinking, the Louvre ordered a local glazing firm in Paris to construct protective glass coverings for Mona, as well as for a select few of their other most prized possessions. But this didn't go over well with the Louvre’s old-school clientele. There was a vast outcry about the glass-- it corrupted the work of art, it was said; the reflection from the glazing kept it from being properly seen by visitors; it was called a quote ‘black mirror’ and was compared unfavorably to a shopkeeper's window; and finally, worst of all, the glass was denounced as being quote ‘an affront to Gallic good sense.’ So yes, it was an adjustment for museum-goers, but ultimately, the glass became one of the first lines of defense for works of art like the Mona Lisa, covering up surfaces that could easily be damaged by fingerprints, let alone by anything else more caustic. And even today, proper framing and glazing is still one of the very basic steps towards protection of a two-dimensional work of art in nearly every professional art institution, galleries and museums alike.
Oh, about that glazing company that the Louvre hired to protect the Mona Lisa. One of their employees was a man named Vicenzo Peruggia. That name is sure to ring some bells for longtime listeners of this show-- so that's a little Easter egg for you.
Another event that has had similar repercussions for artwork protection, care, and display occurred in 1972 to one of the most precious works of art in the world, and certainly one that is a personal favorite of mine: Michelangelo’s Vatican Pieta, on display at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The Pieta, a monumental image of the sorrowful virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of her crucified son, Jesus, is one of the most beautiful works of art, and one that has been hugely popular since its creation in 1499. Over 450 years later, in May of 1972, an Australian man of Hungarian origin named Laszlo Toth jumped over the altar at St. Peter's and ran directly to the Pieta, striking it with a rock hammer around 15 times. As he attacked the marble sculpture, he screamed, “I am Jesus Christ, risen from the dead!” Before he was tackled by other visitors and Vatican officials, Toth had done significant damage: He broke off Mary’s left arm below the elbow, fractured her nose and removed her eyelids. Toth, of course, was certifiably insane, so instead of being brought to trial for his vandalism, he was committed to an Italian psychiatric hospital for two years before being released and deported back to Australia. And it turns out his actions were never persecuted, and he died in Australia in 2012 after living the remainder of his life out of the spotlight. Luckily for us, the Pieta has been reconstructed-- using the fragments of marble chipped off at the scene of the crime, as well as small pieces removed from the back of the sculpture and typically hidden from public view. But traces of the damage remain, and if one was granted access to examine the work in close detail, these changes might be noticeable. After the attack, the Pieta, when it went back on view ten months later, was relocated to a small side chapel off the entrance to St Peter’s, placed at a distance and behind- yet again-- a solid sheet of bulletproof glass. And it is here, in this safer yet more remote viewing space, that tens of millions of visitors make pilgrimages to see the work of art every year. Previous to this attack, many three-dimensional works of art-- particularly sculpture as monumental as the Pieta-- were considered fairly indestructible. The logic went, hey, it’s big and made of stone. It’s going to be fine, right? But the 1972 incident changed all that, and even these works of art began being placed behind glass.
The fact that Laszlo Toth was certifiably mentally disabled brings up an interesting explanation for art vandalism. From most accounts, it appears that Toth was a religious fanatic who did see himself as the real Jesus Christ, so he may have been inspired to let loose on Michelangelo’s creation in order to decimate his portrayal of Christ (and the poor Virgin Mary just happened to be in the line of fire). The line between reality and fantasy somehow blurred for Toth. And why did he pick the Pieta? Well, two explanations help us here: first is that Toth happened to be living in Rome at the time, so geographically, it worked. But in a Catholic country with a serious amount of great religious masterpieces, there was certainly no shortage of depictions of Jesus to choose from. So why the Pieta? It’s actually pretty straightforward: it’s probably because the Pieta was the most famous, most well-loved, and most iconic. The damage he could have done to it would be the most noticeable.
For the most part, it seems like there is one singular underlying characteristic that defines why certain works of art are attacked. And I am going to use one more example to illustrate it. In 2007, a Cambodian born artist named Rindy Sam was apparently so overcome by viewing an all-white canvas by Cy Twombly that she leaned forward and kissed it, leaving a smear of red lipstick behind. And as Sam told reporters, QUOTE, ‘I stepped back and I found the painting even more beautiful. The artist left it white for me.’ Twombly’s painting was worth nearly 3 million dollars, and with a purported act of love and possible artistic collaboration, Sam changed it forever. Why? One word: Power. This is the bottom line that draws all of these art attacks together.
The works of art that are singled out for defacement and destruction tend to be the ones that are the most striking and stirring-- the most memorable, the most expensive, the most iconic, the most symbolic. If you're going to make a big statement, you’re going to want to get the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak, and so you choose the splashiest target available. But there’s also a psychological power that takes this argument even deeper and further. As U.K. arts journalist Jonathan Jones writes, truly great artworks QUOTE “have a power that expands your mind's eye as you gaze at them. To deface one of these is to deface something with life and magic. It is a horrible fact that people who for whatever reason feel compelled, in an art gallery, not to stand and look but to scribble, or throw acid, or pull out a hammer, tend to pick the most potent and authoritative works of art for their assaults. It seems there is a psychic force in truly great art that draws the attacker.”
One word that art critics and art lovers frequently use is transcendent. There are some works that are so incredible that they seem to plumb the depths of what it means to be human, what it means to love and be loved, what grief feels like, what beauty is, and how we can reach beyond ourselves, to the infinite or to the divine. That's true power. And for some people, that’s just too much. It causes its own type of madness. And when I say this, I am talking about an actual psychologically-verified madness, an unusual disorder called Stendhal Syndrome, which also goes by the names of Florence Syndrome or hyperkulturemia. Those are fancy ways of saying that works of art-- especially multiple works of art viewed in one contained place, like a museum, cathedral or art gallery-- can cause sensory overload. For most people, the effects of Stendhal Syndrome are mild and only temporary, consisting mainly of anxiety, dizziness, nausea and disorientation. But in more extreme cases, it can culminate in paranoia, hallucinations, and fits of insanity, wherein an individual might be so overwrought that the only way to recover is to lash out at the supposed antagonist: the work of art. Psychologist Mark Griffiths at the U.K.’s Nottingham Trent University has written about the syndrome, noting that the term was named after the 19th century French author Henri-Marie Beyle, better known as ‘Stendhal’ – who had a memorably negative experience while viewing Giotto frescoes in Florence’s Santa Croce Cathedral in 1817. Stendhal wrote, quote,
“I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty…I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations … Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call ‘nerves.’ Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling.”
Over the past two hundred years, there have been countless cases of individuals suffering from both physical and psychological symptoms associated with art viewing. Some researchers have even noted that other famed individuals besides Stendhal have written about their own temporary art madness, including Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, Marcel Proust, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But as Griffiths noted, it wasn’t until 1979 that the condition was considered viable and officially named by a Florentine doctor named Graziella Magherini who noticed more and more individuals suffering from what she originally called “the tourist disease.” In her 1989 book, titled Stendahl’s Syndrome, Magherini details over one hundred cases of the disorder in which individuals had severe emotional or mental reactions after viewing particularly famous works of art, leading in some cases to breakdowns and psychotic episodes. She believed the psychological disturbances were typically associated with QUOTE “latent mental or psychiatric disturbance that manifests itself as a reaction to paintings of battles or other masterpieces.” In other words, the majority of those suffering from Stendhal Syndrome were probably already prone to some kind of psychological disorder, but the artwork somehow unhinged it and brought it to the forefront.
By the way, are you noticing a pattern here? It’s not a coincidence that the alternative name for this disorder is Florence Syndrome. That city has some kind of crazy effect, excuse the pun, on people. And Mark Griffiths writes that Florence is still the epicenter for attacks of Stendhal Syndrome. He notes that a team of British doctors followed a specifically long-lasting case of an elderly tourist who fell ill while visiting the city in 2009. According to doctors, quote, “While standing on the Ponte Vecchio bridge, the part of Florence he was most eager to visit, the man experienced a panic attack and was also observed to have become disorientated in time. This lasted several minutes and was followed by florid persecutory ideation, [i.e., paranoid hallucinations] involving him being monitored by international airlines and the bugging of his hotel room. These symptoms resolved gradually over the following 3 weeks.”
Who knew that one specific city could be so dangerous?
So let’s just end today with a little PSA. If you have some great art-related travel plans in this new year, do yourself a favor. If you feel overwhelmed, anxious, or inexplicably strange while viewing some incredible masterpiece, step back, take some breaths, and remove yourself temporarily from the gallery. It’s better for your health. And you know what? It might just be safer for the work of art, too.
Thank you for listening to this episode of the ArtCurious Podcast. This episode was written, produced, and narrated by me, Jennifer Dasal, Production assistance for the show is provided by Kaboonki Creative. K-A-B-Double O-N-K-I dot com. For images, information, and links to our previous episodes,, please visit our website at artcuriouspodcast.com. If you liked this show, let us know! Contact us via the website, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org, or find us on Twitter and Instagram at artcuriouspod. Most importantly, remember to rate and review our show on itunes or wherever else you get your podcasts. You wouldn't believe how much it helps us to find new listeners. Please check back in three weeks, when we’ll post a new episode exploring the unexpected, the slightly odd, and the strangely wonderful in art history.