Excerpted from Vanished Smile by R.A. Scotti. Copyright © 2009 by R.A. Scotti. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Q:What brought you to write the story of the theft of the Mona Lisa?
A: When I was researching my last book, Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal—Building St. Peter’s (Viking, 2006), I stumbled on a reference to the greatest art theft of all time. As I read on, I was stunned. I never knew that the Mona Lisa had been stolen. The most famous painting in the world had been missing for two years and assumed lost forever. The prime suspects in the case were Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire. Two subjects that have always interested me—art and crime—together in a rollicking, long forgotten caper: How could I resist?
Q:What about theMona Lisa makes it such a unique and special painting?
A: I think it is the immediacy of the image, caught in a moment like the frame of a film, which enthralls. The first description ever written of her said, “She does not appear to be painted, but truly of flesh and blood.” Although the enigmatic smile is her most famous feature, it is the eyes that captivate. They are warm, brown, and inescapable. Each person who looks at her becomes the only person in her world. If a dozen people crowded into a room with her, each would feel as if she only had eyes for him. The attention is flattering and, at the same time, maddening, because she gives away nothing of herself.
Q: You include a history of the Mona Lisa in VANISHED SMILE, noting that she’s always been the subject of adoration – even causing men to claim they’d fallen in love with her. What acts of adoration have men performed for her over the years?
A: Mona Lisa has always made men do strange things. Leonardo clung to her, carrying her with him wherever he went. Raphael copied her. The French king Francois I paid a fortune to possess her. Louis XIV and Napoleon brought her into their bedrooms. In the 19th century, Romantic writers wrote passionate dissertation on her charms. Sigmund Freud went off on a flight of psychoanalytic fancy to understand and interpret her. Even a libertine as calloused as the Marquis de Sade was not immune to her charms. He called her “the very essence of femininity” poised between seduction and devoted tenderness. There are more than a million artworks in the Louvre. Only Mona Lisa receives her own mail. It is mostly love letters. For a time in the early 1900s, the letters were so ardent she was placed under police protection. Visitors often came to the Louvre to court her. Some left flowers, poems and notes. In 1910, a hopeless admirer, facing a lifetime of unrequited love, shot himself in front of her.
Q: Why do you think she has had this hypnotic effect throughout the ages?
A: When he began the portrait, Leonardo was experiencing an uncertain time in his life. The aging painter no longer had a specific patron or a secure income. Donato Bramante, an old friend and collaborator, was in Rome building the monumental new Basilica of St. Peter. Leonardo’s young challengers, Michelangelo and Raphael, were also being called to the Vatican to work for Pope Julius. While they were in Rome becoming immortal, Leonardo was painting the young Signora del Giocondo. Financial records suggest that he agreed to paint the silk merchant’s wife solely for financial gain, but he would not make it a simple portrait. He believed, “If the painter wishes to see beauties to fall in love with, it is in his power to bring them forth. . . . The painter can so subdue the minds of men that they will fall in love with a painting that does not represent a real woman.” Some believe that Leonardo succeeded so well, he seduced himself. Whatever his intention, Mona Lisa is a continuum of desire. As one French Romantic wrote: “If Don Juan had met Mona Lisa, he would have been saved writing on his list the names of three thousand women. He would have written but one.”
Q: Many mysteries have surrounded the Mona Lisa, almost since Da Vinci painted the portrait. One of them is over who the woman in the portrait was. What is the general consensus as to her identity, and how accurate to you deem this to be? Think we’ll ever find out definitively?
A: In 1550, in his book Lives of the Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, Giorgio Vasari, the richest but not always the most reliable contemporary source on the Renaissance art world, identified the sitter as Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a wealthy silk merchant in Florence. She was born Lisa Gherardini on the fifteenth of June, 1479, in the vineyards of Chianti. Through the centuries, art historians have disputed Vasari’s claim and suggested many other candidates: Isabella of Aragon; Beatrice d’Este, the Duchess of Milan; one of Giuliano de’Medici’s many mistresses, probably Pacifica Brandano or Costanza d’Avalos, or maybe his wife, Philippa of Savoy, aunt of Francois I, which could explain why the king was so eager to own her. Others have contended that she is an idealization, a self-portrait of the artist, even a man in drag.
In spite of the many theories to the contrary, Vasari’s identification is the most credible. Last year while I was writing Vanished Smile, some German scholars happened upon a note in a book belonging to a city official in Florence named Agostino Vespucci. The book was a collection of Cicero’s letters. Vespucci had jotted a note in the margin that Leonardo da Vinci was working on a portrait of Lisa Gherardini del Giocondo, the wife of a local silk merchant. Vespucci must have been a punctilious bureaucrat because he dated his note 1503. What is indisputable truth to one expert is dubious evidence to another, and some da Vinci scholars are still not convinced.
Q:What kind of research did you do as you wrote VANISHED SMILE, and where did you do it?
A: Vanished Smile brought me to Paris, where Mona Lisa was lost and where she lives again; to Florence, where she was found and where Leonardo began painting; to his home town of Vinci, which has a museum devoted entirely to him, and to a number of libraries here, among them the Library of Congress, the Watson Library of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Frick Museum library. But for Vanished Smile, as for every book that I have written, my research began at the New York Public Library, one of the great research libraries in the world. It is continually expanding its resources and adding new databanks. Today you can sit on Fifth Avenue and read, for example, the Paris Herald or the London Times of August 1911. In its Frederick Lewis Allen room, the NYPL offers a sanctuary where authors can research and write undisturbed.
Q: Why do you think Mona Lisa was stolen? The theft made the painting more famous than ever, but even at the time it was taken, the painting was too well-known to be sold openly or even hung in someone’s home. What would the payoff be?
A: Mona Lisa was not stolen for money. She was much too famous to ever sell, and the thief (or thieves) never demanded a ransom for her safe return. If we rule out money, unrequited love, and compulsive collecting, the most plausible motive left is politics. From the first, there were rumors of politics at play. The theft coincided with the flare-up in the tensions between France and Germany that would lead to the first World War. Mona Lisa’s disappearance was a conveniently timed distraction, buying time for tempers to cool and war to be postponed. “The news has caused such a sensation that Parisians for the time being have forgotten the rumors of war,” reported the New York Times. An American in Paris, well-connected in art circles, wrote home to his son: “One ingenious French friend told me confidentially that Mona Lisa was not stolen but it was an arrangement to serve as a new sensation for the public and press to divert attention from the German war scare and that the painting in time would turn up safe and sound.” Pro-Germans suspected that the devious French had faked the theft, not to distract from the war threat, but to rouse sentiment against the Kaiser. Francophiles countered that Kaiser Wilhelm and his government had abducted a national treasure to humiliate France. Whichever the case, the timing seemed too perfect to be coincidence.
Q: As far as who perpetrated the crime—do you think it was someone in Picasso’s circle, or do you buy the tale of the Marques that was brought out in 1932, 21 years after the theft?
A: I don’t subscribe to either theory. When I began to research the case, I assumed that the tale of a suave international scam artist executing a brilliant sting, then making his stunning confession in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post was true. Six millionaire art collectors, very likely J. P. Morgan and Benjamin Altman among them, had each bought a copy of Mona Lisa believing it was the original. As I delved into the subject, though, the tale began to unravel. It was a perfect story, but probably not the true story. And there never was any credible evidence that anyone in Picasso’s much maligned “gang” was involved. I soon discovered that, like Mona Lisa herself, very little was certain about the case. To separate indisputable facts from fancy: the person who removed Mona Lisa from her frames on Monday, August 21, 1911, was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian-born glazier who had helped to build a glass-enclosed frame for the painting. There is no question that Peruggia—a.k.a. “Leonardo”—performed the actual theft. He left his calling card. The left thumbprint on the frame was his, and examinations by French and Italian experts proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the Mona Lisa he returned was the same painting that he stole. But the idea that Peruggia was the lone thief is implausible. Although I don’t believe he acted alone, I could not crack the case. Who was behind the theft and, even more puzzling, why, remains a baffling mystery that will probably never be solved.
Q: You write that this was really the first global media event outside of war. What about this story captivated the world? Do you think it would have been as well-followed had it not involved somewhat well-known personalities like Picasso and Appollinaire?
A: In 1911, Picasso and Apollinaire were not the famous personalities that they are today. They were young Turks just beginning to be noticed. What drove the case to a significant extent was new technologies—photo reproduction and Marconi’s wireless. The story traveled around the world as swiftly as telegraph and cable could carry it. The New York Times reported, "Nothing like the theft of the Mona Lisa had ever been perpetrated before in the world’s history.” This was the golden age of popular journalism, when wars were reported as glorious adventures and crimes of passion were rewritten as Romeo and Juliet romances with a salaciously sinister edge. L’Affaire de la Joconde combined beauty and loss, mystery and money, with hints of lust and romantic obsession. When Mona Lisa slipped out of her frames, she seemed to change from a missing masterpiece to a missing person. She came alive in the popular imagination. Captivated by her mystery and romance, the public felt her loss as emotionally as an abduction or a kidnapping. Global attention lifted Mona Lisa out of the museum, the preserve of the elite, and brought her to a mass audience. The Renaissance masterwork became the people’s painting—the lost love of the nation and the world. Millions of readers who had never heard of her seven days before were glued to every installment of the missing person story.
Q: Reading the tale of the theft, it is surprising to hear how little security there was around the Louvre and the Mona Lisa at the time. How is the state of museum security today? (Considering that theft of Munch’s The Scream in broad daylight from a Norwegian museum in 2004, is it that much better?)
A: When Mona Lisa disappeared, the porous security at the Louvre became a national scandal, and the museum director was fired. Today, Mona Lisa has her own personal room in the Louvre, constructed at a price tag of $6.2 million and paid for by a Japanese television company. It is a virtual bunker. Mona Lisa is set in concrete behind two sheets of bulletproof triple-laminated, nonreflective glass, separated by 9.5 inches (25 centimeters). Her own personal bodyguards protect her from a repeat of the theft of 1911. Beyond her personal protection, though, museum security remains a concern. Although significant improvements have been made, devising and paying for a foolproof system is impossible. Millions of dollars are hanging on walls in museums around the world, presenting an irresistible temptation to thieves. And the problem is compounded by the failure to hold art thieves accountable. Vincenzo Peruggia served less than a year for pulling off the most audacious art theft in history. A soaring art market and the continuing problem of museum security have made art theft the third most prevalent crime in the world, surpassed only by international smuggling and drug trafficking. The risk is small, the potential gain is tremendous, and, if the thief is caught, the punishment is still minimal.
From the Hardcover edition.
1. What does Vanished Smile reveal about the art world in Europe in the early decades of the twentieth-century? In what ways was that world in the midst of momentous changes?
2. What are some of the most surprising facts about the Mona Lisa revealed in Vanished Smile? How does the painting’s remarkable history contribute to its current status?
3. How did Picasso, Apollinaire, and other avant-garde artists regard the Mona Lisa? Why were they so passionately opposed to museums like the Louvre? Does their critique of museums have merit today?
4. Scotti writes that “Apollinaire would call it ‘strange, incredible, tragic, and amusing all at once’ that he was the only person ever arrested in France for the theft of the Mona Lisa” [p.109]. Why was the poet/provocateur considered a prime suspect in the Mona Lisa's theft? How did public perceptions of his character, and his own radical views about art, help to implicate him? What effect did his arrest have on him?
5. Scotti shows that Peruggia’s stated motive for stealing the Mona Lisa—to restore her to her rightful place in Italy from which, he wrongly assumed, Napoleon had stolen her—was merely a cover for a money-making scheme. But the Louvre is filled with many great works that were plundered by Napoleon, and indeed many museums exhibit works of art that were either stolen or acquired in suspect transactions. Should museums be allowed to show and profit from works that were illegally or unethically acquired?
6. Why would thousands flock to the Louvre to view the empty space where the Mona Lisa had hung? How could the loss of a painting, even one as great as Mona Lisa, arouse such collective public grieving?
7. What are some of the more outlandish theories that have been advanced to explain the Mona Lisa’s strange power to enchant? What are some of the more poetic responses to her that Scotti includes in her narrative?
8. “If Mona Lisa is not the most beautiful, fashionable, or glamorous woman,” Scotti writes, “She is the most beguiling. . . . She touches without words, offering not a kiss or a caress but the anticipation. . . . If we try to look away, she follows us and will not let go” [p. 129-130]. What is it that makes the painting so “beguiling”?
9. Scotti writes that “To Renaissance artists, Mona Lisa represented an extraordinary technical achievement. To the Romantics she posed a tantalizing psychological puzzle” [p. 67]. What might account for this dramatic change in how the Mona Lisa was viewed? Which is the more remarkable aspect of the painting, its technical mastery or its psychological depth?
10. Does Karl Decker’s story of how and why the Mona Lisa was stolen seem plausible? If not, what would motivate him to concoct such a story?
11. Why was the story of Mona Lisa’s theft such an international sensation? Why did it capture headlines around the world for so long?
12. What surprising aspects of Picasso’s character and aesthetic vision emerge from Vanished Smile?
13. Scotti writes that Mona Lisa is “both disconcertingly real and transcendent” [p. 127]. What other dichotomies does the painting seem to embody or reflect?
14. Near the end of the book, Scotti asks, “If Peruggia was not the lone thief and the marqués and his expert forger were fictions, the mystery remains: Who masterminded the theft and, even more puzzling, why?” [p. 212]. What are some possible answers to this intriguing question?
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