California Literary Review

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti


June 29th, 2009 at 9:02 am

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Vanished Smile by R.A. Scotti
Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa
by R.A. Scotti
Knopf, 256 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Case of the Missing Mona Lisa: A True Story

Not quite a century ago, on August 29, 1911, thousands of people began flocking to the Louvre (among them, Franz Kafka and his friend Max Brod) to gaze at a blank space on a wall.

The 49-acre Louvre – still the largest museum in the world today – had been closed for most of the preceding week for the investigation of a singular occurrence: the most famous painting in the world had disappeared from that blank spot.

Vanished Smile relates the tale of the theft of the Mona Lisa, after which the painting remained missing for more than two years. Along the way, author Scotti digresses pleasantly into the history of the painting, the antics of two famous suspects (the poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his buddy in mischief Pablo Picasso), and the supposed “real story” of the heist and the reason it was pulled.

Leonardo had known he was doing something special. In general, he had resisted portrait commissions, but for some reason (perhaps partly due to financial straits at the age of 50), he decided to paint the 24-year-old wife of Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo. Contrary to standard practice, he is not known to have made detailed studies beforehand, and X-rays have revealed no underlying drawing and few false starts or adjustments. “Leonardo painted Mona Lisa directly, changing only the placement of the hands and fingers.”

Which is not to say it was a rush job. The artist fussed over the piece for four years, taking as long as a competitor would a little later with the Sistine Chapel ceiling (“For each square yard Michelangelo covered, Leonardo painted about an inch,” Scotti writes), and he only really finished it shortly before his death some 16 years after he had begun.

Scotti writes that the painting was not particularly well known for several centuries, mostly because it was kept hidden away in the bathrooms and bedrooms of French kings and Napoleon. Its value appreciated significantly during the 19th century due to the praises of Romantic poets and critics, and by 1911 it was worth perhaps $5 million (the equivalent of $112.5 million in current dollars).

At the time of its disappearance, security at the Louvre was next to nonexistent. Only retired non-commissioned officers of the French Army could apply to be guards. There was no alarm system, and a hundred passkeys in circulation were capable of opening every door in the place. Though protected by glass, La Gioconda could be moved by anyone to another room for photographing, as paintings often were, and no one signed them in or out. Unconcerned museum staff waited hours to raise the alarm after she turned up missing.

The day the Louvre reopened to the public, the newspaper Paris-Journal began a series of stories in which an art thief confessed to carrying off a number of small sculptures from the museum over the years. It took another week to reveal that the thief, “Baron Ignace d’Ormesan,” was a creation of Apollinaire’s. A shady friend of his had lifted several pieces from the museum, and although it was never shown that Picasso had actively participated in any of the thefts, he was fascinated by a Phoenician statuette that ended up in Apollinaire’s possession and used it as a model for the prostitutes in his revolutionary 1907 painting, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.

Both men were arrested, and in accusing each other, they had a falling-out. This might well have been the end result of their friendship anyway, as Picasso’s mistress Fernande Olivier (whom the insanely jealous painter would lock indoors whenever he went out) later wrote that “There can never have been an artistic circle where mockery, spite and deliberately wounding words were more prevalent.”

Though there were many reported sightings, and copies turned up, after 13 months Mona Lisa was given up as lost forever. It was only in November 1913 that a petty Italian crook and house painter offered it for sale to a Florentine art dealer, whose scruples led to the thief’s arrest. Though Vincenzo Peruggia tried to portray himself as an Italian patriot who had brought a masterpiece home where it belonged (his apartment was only a few blocks from where Leonardo had painted the work 400 years before), he was jailed and the painting returned to France.

Peruggia ended up serving less than a year for the crime, and lived a long and happy, crime-free life after that. But no one seems to believe his story that he acted alone.

But if he didn’t do it all by himself, then who masterminded the theft, and why?

Scotti makes another sizable digression to trace the life of the “Marquès Eduardo de Valfierno” and his plan to make six fake copies of the Mona Lisa for clandestine sale to American millionaires (“Morgan, Mellon, Carnegie, Huntington, Altman”). Their awareness of its widely-reported theft from the Louvre would make them believe they were getting the real thing, and disinclined to report that they had purchased it, the marquis reasoned. Valfierno (“gate of hell”) was the nom de guerre of an Argentinian who acted as front man for a master forger named Yves Chaudron. Together, they made tons of money selling Murillo copies to wealthy widows in Buenos Aires before heading to Europe for bigger game. The forgers managed to unload the Mona Lisa copies for a total of $90 million and intended to return the original to the Louvre with no one the wiser, but one of their simpleton accomplices ran off with it.

Scotti intimates strongly, however, Valfierno and Chaudron (despite turning up in several histories of art forgeries and enjoying their own Wikipedia entries and other Internet references) may have been the pure fabrications of an aging American journalist named Karl Decker. A star reporter for Hearst’s New York Journal, Decker had rescued a beautiful revolutionary damsel in distress from Havana during the Spanish-American War, and was well practiced at embellishing his own journalistic reports.

Decker claimed to have gotten the true story of the Mona Lisa theft from Valfierno himself, in Casablanca, right about the time the painting was recovered … but had sworn to keep the story secret until after the Argentinian mastermind’s death. He broke the story 18 years later, in The Saturday Evening Post.

Whether ultimately concocted by Valfierno or Decker, it makes a rollicking good tale. But it seems a bit disingenuous for Scotti to play out what may in fact be a bald fiction for most of her book – heralding it in the opening pages and then holding off the details until page 191, and finally admitting it may well be a whole-cloth fabrication a dozen pages from the end. We have to assume Chaudron’s six fakes intended to be sold to U.S. tycoons never existed, since Scotti doesn’t even bother to mention whether or not any of them ever turned up.

In the end, despite its diverting perambulations and trivia, and engaging style (the conceit that “Paris saunters through history in the present tense” while “Athens would exist in the past perfect, Rome in the past imperfect, New York in the future imperative” is a lovely one), the book seems a bit slight and still in need of sufficient reason to exist. It boasts a hefty bibliography, but notes are relatively few and index nowhere to be seen.

In sum, Vanished Smile seems to occupy a nonfiction subgenre somewhere between Erik Larson (whose bestsellers uneasily yoke an emerging technology to a horrific crime) and Paul Collins (who writes wonderfully peripatetic texts that meander with careless skill around a given topic). But it’s a little lightweight to stand alongside either type.

  • Upasna Mahapatra

    This is really an unbelieveable story.

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