Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa
by R. A. Scotti
By Sharon Anderson
Nearly 100 years have passed since the most brazen heist in the history of art. R. A. Scotti’s new book takes us to the morning of Monday, Aug. 21, 1911 when a man dressed like a museum employee walked out of the Louvre with the most famous painting in the world, Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
This was the dawn of the 20th century. Anyone who has recently attempted to carry a bottle of shampoo onto an airplane will marvel at Scotti’s accounts of the Louvre’s free and easy approach to caring for their multitude of treasures. Strangely, the painting was missing a full 24 hours before anyone became alarmed over its absence. Newly instated museum photographers were known to borrow art to create reproductions for the archives, so the guards were not immediately alarmed, and assumed Mona Lisa was merely having her picture taken.
The theft created a national scandal. The museum was closed for several days during the initial investigation, after which the Louvre set new attendance records when museum-goers lined up for four city blocks just to see the empty space the painting once occupied. They cried, left flowers, delivered notes with wishes for her speedy return.
As the media frenzy concerning the whereabouts of the painting continued, an anonymous individual writing to the Parisian newspapers lamented that the heightened security in the Louvre after the heist prevented him from pilfering the occasional small artwork. Apparently theft was more common than anyone knew. Police discovered that the petty thief was the roommate of poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Furthermore, Apollinaire sold these stolen artworks from the Louvre to Pablo Picasso.
Apollinaire was jailed for a time, and during this interval he was tried in the media for his antiestablishment writings, including an essay where he called for the Louvre to be burned down. Picasso, in a famous moment of betrayal, said in court of his friend Apollinaire, “I have never seen this man before.” After being exonerated, the stigma remained. Apollinaire joined the military during World War I partially to prove his loyalty to France.
The search for Mona Lisa extended from months to years. When the Italian police recovered the painting in an elaborate sting operation, the French investigators were humiliated. The thief was a former Louvre employee, an obvious demographic, especially when considering the manner in which the glass case and heavy frame surrounding the painting had been quickly dismantled during the execution of the crime. The former employee, an Italian named Peruggia, pleaded in court that he was a noble fellow who merely wanted Mona Lisa returned to her homeland, although he had tried to sell the masterpiece several times in several countries during the two-year period he had held her hostage.
Scotti‘s book details the history of Mona Lisa from the painting’s inception to modern times. Returned to the Louvre in 1913, Mona Lisa doesn’t get out too much these days. Set in concrete behind two sheets of bullet-proof glass, it seems likely that she’ll be around for years to come to entertain the more than six million visitors she receives each year.
Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by R. A. Scotti, 256 pages, Knopf, 2009, $24.95.
Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She currently has exhibits in New York City and Tallin, Estonia and can be reached at www.mindtheimage.com