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The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa

Written by R.A. ScottiAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by R.A. Scotti



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Synopsis

On August 21, 1911, the unfathomable happened–Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa vanished from the Louvre. More than twenty-four hours passed before museum officials realized she was gone. The prime suspects were as shocking as the crime: Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, young provocateurs of a new art. As French detectives using the latest methods of criminology, including fingerprinting, tried to trace the thieves, a burgeoning international media hyped news of the heist.

No story captured the imagination of the world quite like this one. Thousands flocked to the Louvre to see the empty space where the painting had hung. They mourned as if Mona Lisa were a lost loved one, left flowers and notes, and set new attendance records. For more than two years, Mona Lisa’s absence haunted the art world, provoking the question: Was she lost forever? A century later, questions still linger.

Part love story, part mystery, Vanished Smile reopens the case of the most audacious and perplexing art theft ever committed. R. A. Scotti’s riveting, ingeniously realized account is itself a masterly portrait of a world in transition. Combining her skills as a historian and a novelist, Scotti turns the tantalizing clues into a story of the painting’s transformation into the most familiar and lasting icon of all time.

Excerpt

2

SUNDAY IN THE LOUVRE WITH LISA.Another scorching day in Paris, ninety- five degrees Fahrenheit, no hint of a breeze, no hope of a shower. The air was close, the sun so blazing that even the carriage horses were wearing straw hats. For more than fifty days, temperatures had rarely dropped below ninety degrees. The country beyond Paris was burning. Thatch- roofed farmhouses and acres of parched forest had become tinder, and spontaneous- combustion fires broke out near Poitiers, Orléans, and Beaumont, Albertville, Dijon, and Fontainebleau.

Within the galleries of the Louvre Museum, even in the late afternoon of August 20, the heat was a physical presence so overwhelming that it trivialized four thousand years of art and history. Maximilien Alphonse Paupardin slumped on his stool in the doorway of the Salon Carré, as sated and overstuffed as a Rembrandt burgher. He was weighed down by the weather and by an unseasonable midday meal. In everything except name, Paupardin was a simple man who felt elevated in a uniform—first in an army uniform and now in the costume of a Louvre guard. A uniform gave him stature, confidence, a defined place in the world. Out of uniform, he felt diminished.

He was ignorant of the history that surrounded him. He knew nothing of the medieval knights in suits of mail who had staved off Anglo- Norman invaders from the parapets of Fortress Louvre or the lusty young kings, François I and Louis XIV, a Valois and a Bourbon respectively, who, imagining Paris as a new Rome, had turned the Louvre fortress into a palace fit for a Caesar. Paupardin knew only one emperor, the cocky little Corsican and epic pillager, Napoleon Bonaparte.

On an average day, several hundred visitors would traipse through the galleries—students, artists, foreign travelers, and Frenchmen from the provinces—but visitors were few on this Sunday afternoon at the end of summer. An occasional tourist had wandered through from the Grande Galerie, not staying long enough to arouse the guard’s interest or register in his memory. He stirred on his stool, his nap arrested.

Had a ripple of gas disturbed him, his midday meal returning? Did he catch a sudden whiff of oleander or hear an alien sound? He raised an eyelid. Three “macaroni” were whispering together. The old guard glanced at them with disdain. They were dressed in their Sunday best, black suits and straw boaters, but no suit could disguise what they were—young working- class men who had immigrated to Paris from the mountain towns of northern Italy looking for work and, more often than not, finding trouble.

There was one other visitor. The boy had returned with flowers. A young Goethe enamored of all things Italian. The guard recognized him, a quintessential German, hair flaxen, eyes ice blue, warmed now by the lust to possess the dark lady. He mooned over her, gazing into her liquid eyes, and she seemed to answer. Eyes are the mirror of the soul, her creator, Leonardo da Vinci, believed.

Men had been coming to court her for years, bearing flowers, notes, and poems that Paupardin scooped up and tossed out at the end of the day. She accepted their attentions democratically but gave nothing in return, just the same half- smile. She conferred it on all equally. A promise, a tease, a warning. No man could be sure. The lovesick boy would return the next day and the day after.

Like rival lovers paying suit, the three olive- skinned men watched the German. Bemused? Mocking? Wary? Their faces gleamed as if in rapture, features shining and dissolving in a heat so oppressive that, if The Victory of Samothrace were sculpted of wax, it would dissolve like the wings of Icarus. The flowers the boy proffered were already wilting.

Paupardin saw the visitors without seeing them, as he saw the paintings without seeing them, the masterpieces of the Louvre collection, each in its place, unchanged for decades. He was anticipating the next day, Monday, his day of rest, when the museum was closed for cleaning and the staff reduced.

The old guard pulled a soiled handkerchief from his pocket to mop his face, and caught her watching him. She was smiling as if she knew he had overindulged at noon and dozed on the job. It was the disconcerting smile of a mother or a mistress. He wiped his face to blot her out and sighed with resignation.

There were no youngsters among the custodians who guarded the patrimony of France. Age and lethargy were job requirements. Only retired noncommissioned officers of the French army could apply to be guards at the Musée du Louvre. The country they had served allowed them one final tour of duty before relegating them to permanent pasture and probable penury. This was their last shuffle, and ambitions rarely if ever strayed beyond a good meal, an afternoon nap, or perhaps a few moments with a grandchild.

The guard shifted his substantial weight on the insubstantial stool and repressed a belch, regretting his choice of cassoulet, a dinner suitable for a winter Sunday, not the doldrums of August. The afternoon meandered in half- time. By four o’clock, when the bell clanged signaling the museum’s closing, the “macaroni” and the young Goethe had disappeared.

Paupardin picked up the oleander and folded his stool. The Grande and Petite Galeries emptied, footsteps echoing, the many doors banging shut. Outside the Louvre, Paris shimmered in the glaze of heat. In the Tuileries Gardens just beyond, a halfhearted game of boule was ending.

Summer is not a popular season in Paris. Average August temperatures chase rich and poor to the vineyards of the Loire valley and the cooling beaches of Normandy. This August was the worst that Parisians forced by one circumstance or another to remain in town could remember in a dozen years. The heat wave had hung on for weeks. Less than one millimeter of rain had fallen in Paris during the entire month, and in a single day, four people had collapsed with sunstroke. At six o’clock, it was still ninety- one degrees. The cafés of Pigalle were deserted. The Seine stood still. Along its banks, the sheltering plane trees and chestnut trees drooped.

Night like liquid velvet settled over the mansard roofs, innocent, if a night is ever innocent. A night is young but never innocent, and as Sunday merged with Monday and the city awakened to a new day, the game that would stun Paris and astound the world was afoot.

No one would notice for more than twenty- four hours.


From the Hardcover edition.
R.A. Scotti|Author Q&A

About R.A. Scotti

R.A. Scotti - Vanished Smile

Photo © Michael Lionstar

R. A. Scotti is the author of Vanished Smile, a 2010 Edgar Award nominee, as well as three previous works of nonfiction, including Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal—Building St. Peter’s and Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, and four novels. She lives in New York City.

Author Q&A

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.

Praise

Praise

“R.A. Scotti’s pen is as deft as Leonardo’s brush. . . . Sublime.” —The Washington Times

“Luminous…. Scotti narrates the investigation with gusto and grace.” —The Washington Post Book World

“A story that La Gioconda herself would have smiled at—enigmatically, of course.” —Time
 
“Beguiling…. An absence of clues meant an abundance of theories, and Scotti advances them all in an arresting…narrative.” —The New York Times Book Review 
 
“Elegant and erudite…. Scotti follows the trail of the missing masterpiece with the same zestful sense of adventure that she brought to Basilica…. An unabashed literary diva, Scotti commands attention from page one.” —The Boston Globe

“The painting was missing for more than two years, and the names of the prime suspects in the case—Pablo Picasso and his friend, the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire—push this story past something even Dan Brown could concoct. . . . A rolling . . . piece of entertainment. . . . Reminds us of the bedrock appeal of the Mona Lisa’s gaze.” —The New York Times
 
“Captivating. . . . Scotti’s sophistication, wit, style, and illuminating research makes this a delightfully suspenseful read.” —Providence Journal
 
“A charming [book] that delves deeper into the mystique of the Mona Lisa herself. . . . Readers hankering for more of da Vinci and his enigmatic sitter, whose smooth smile has been bewitching men for centuries . . . should reach for Vanished Smile.” —St. Petersburg Times  
 
“Equal parts art history and crime caper. . . . This rollicking tale makes for fascinating reading.” —The Christian Science Monitor  
 
“Reads like a prose poem with narrative gallop.” —Time
 
“Superb. . . . An art-heist page-turner that will delight art enthusiasts as well as true-crime buffs. (Note to Hollywood: This may be your best hope for a caper starring Brad Pitt and George Clooney as Picasso and Apollinaire.)” —Richmond Times-Dispatch
 
“As full of twists, turns and suspense as any mystery novel. . . . Makes the Mona Lisa's story even more significant—and her smile even more alluring.” —BookPage
 
“Remarkable. . . . R.A. Scott combines her skills as a historian and novelist to recreate this sensational crime, which has all the twists and turns of a mystery novel, except that it’s true.” —Florida Weekly 
 
“A book that nonfiction lovers, true-crime lovers, and especially art lovers will thoroughly enjoy.” —Curled Up With a Good Book
 
“Who needs The Da Vinci Code when you can have the real thing?” —The Daily Beast
 
“An apt tribute to Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious muse. . . . In Vanished Smile, R.A. Scotti deftly uncovers the mysterious theft of the art world’s prima donna. . . . Thanks to Scotti’s meticulous research and atmospheric writing, a crime that had all the trappings of insanity, national prestige and obsession is brought to light marvelously.” —The Business Standard
 
“A crime caper . . . that convey[s] l’air du temps. . . . Enthralling.” —Financial Times
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

“R.A. Scotti’s pen is as deft as Leonardo’s brush. . . . Sublime.”
The Washington Times
 
The introduction, questions, and suggestions for further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of R. A. Scotti’s fascinating investigation of the most audacious art theft in history.

About the Guide

On a sweltering day in August of 1911, the world’s most famous painting, Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, vanished from the Louvre. It was a crime so skillfully and stealthily executed that the theft would go unnoticed for several days. When it was noticed, all of Paris, and soon the entire world, went into shock, and then into mourning. The painting would be missing for two years. Who orchestrated this crime and for what reason remains shrouded in mystery, much like the painting itself.
           
In Vanished Smile, R. A. Scotti brilliantly reconstructs not only what is known about the theft, and the desperate attempts by Paris investigators to find the thieves, but also paints a fascinating portrait of the period. It was a turning point in the history of art, as young avant-garde painters and poets like Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire sought to destroy the existing aesthetic order and replace it with radical forms of modernism. For Picasso, the Mona Lisa and the Louvre itself represented everything he was rebelling against. Indeed, Picasso and Apollinaire signed a manifesto threatening to burn down the great museum. Scotti shows that such attitudes, as well as harboring an actual art thief, made Apollinaire and Picasso prime suspects in the case, and landed the poet briefly in jail.
           
This period was also a turning point in the history of mass media, with news wires spreading stories around the world much more quickly than ever before and newspapers dramatically increasing their circulations. The theft of Mona Lisa became, almost instantly, a worldwide sensation, grabbing headlines for months and eclipsing stories about the tensions that would erupt in World War I only a few years later.
           
But the most vivid portrait Vanished Smile presents is of the painting itself, its mysterious power of enchantment, and its ability to drive men nearly mad with the longing for possession. Scotti observes that during the Renaissance, Mona Lisa was regarded primarily as a remarkable technical achievement, but that by the early nineteenth-century, the Romantics saw the painting as a tantalizing psychological puzzle—a sublime mixture of the real and the transcendent, Madonna and whore. “She has been derided as a femme fatale, an art fetish, and the queen of kitsch, and she goes on smiling, a picture of contained serenity, her mysteries intact, her secrets secure” [p. 227]. But when that mysterious smile vanished, thousands of Parisians crowded into the Louvre to view the empty space where it had hung. The outpouring of grief at its absence showed how deeply the public still valued the old masters—the Mona Lisa above all—even as the art world, led by Picasso, was moving inexorably beyond them.
           
Part detective story, part cultural history, Vanished Smile brings to life an extraordinary moment in the history of art and culture, casting new light on a mystery that still retains the power to intrigue one hundred years later.

About the Author

R. A. Scotti is the author of three previous works of nonfiction, including Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal–Building St. Peter’s and Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, and four novels. She lives in New York City.

Discussion Guides

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?



(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center enewsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com)

Suggested Readings

Peter Carey, Theft; Tracey Chevalier, Girl With a Pearl Earring; Theodore Dreiser, The Genius; John Fowles, The Ebony Tower; Thomas Hoving, Master Pieces; Jonathan Lopez, The Man Who Made Vermeers; Lynn H. Nicholas, The Rape of Europa; W. Somerset Maugham, The Moon and Sixpence; Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy: A Biographical Novel of Michelangelo;  Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

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