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Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisaby R A Scotti
Synopses & Reviews
In Paris at the start of a radically new century, the most famous face in the history of art stepped out of her frame and into a sensational mystery.
On August 21, 1911, the unfathomable happened—Leonardo da Vincis 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 Lisas 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. Scottis 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 paintings transformation into the most familiar and lasting icon of all time.
"In this charming account of the brazen 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre and the two-year quest to bring her home, Scotti (Basilica) explores not only the puzzling crime but also the source of the painting's universal appeal and its provenance. On the morning of Tuesday, August 22, La Joconde was found missing from the Salon Carr. Even with help of renowned French criminologist Alphonse Bertillon, the trail was cold from the start. Rumors abounded about greedy, wealthy American collectors and the Louvre's lax security. No one in Paris was above suspicion, not even the young Pablo Picasso. While the portrait was finally recovered in Florence in 1913, its theft apparently the result of a young Italian's misguided patriotism (the painting's probable subject is a young Florentine, Lisa del Giocondo), Scotti is eager to remind readers that the mystery is far from over. The true motive for the theft — and the possible connection to a larger ring of art thieves — remains tantalizingly unknown by the end of this lively recounting. Photos." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
To Walter Pater, she was Leda and Saint Anne in one, "older than the rocks among which she sits — like the vampire, she has been dead many times and learned the secrets of the grave." George Sand vowed that "no one who has set eyes upon her for a moment can ever forget her." She obsessed Napoleon, who nicknamed her the Sphinx of the Occident. She piqued Oscar Wilde: The lady "becomes more wonderful... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) to us than (she) really is," he marveled, "and reveals to us a secret of which, in truth, (she) knows nothing." She is a virgin, a whore, a muse, a witch, her creator in drag. And on August 21, 1911, a blazing Monday in Paris, she disappeared. As detailed in R.A. Scotti's luminous new history, "Vanished Smile," Mona Lisa proved astonishingly easy to abduct. The woman known to her foster country as La Joconde — a nod both to her amused expression and to her surname, del Giocondo — was affixed by four iron hooks to the walls of the Louvre's Salon Carre and encased in a simple glass box, which investigators later found discarded and jumbled with her gilt frame at the foot of a nearby staircase. But if the heist of the world's most iconic portrait demanded little in the way of technical ingenuity, the motives of her captors remained inscrutable for years, as the metropolitan police braced themselves for a ransom demand that never came. Meanwhile, Scotti writes, Mona Lisa "was nowhere in the Louvre, but she was everywhere else, smiling from kiosks, advertisements and magazine covers." Across the globe, "each development — and each disappointment — in the unfolding case made news." Scotti narrates the investigation with gusto and grace, eliding its more fitful passages and smoothly negotiating its swerves and detours. As the dragnet snares two of Europe's most incandescent modernist luminaries — Pablo Picasso, the precocious Spaniard, and Guillaume Apollinaire, a "flamboyant poet and cultural provocateur" — "Vanished Smile" plunges into the vibrant Parisian art scene of 1905-11. Picasso and Apollinaire, renowned citywide as "the Wild Men of Paris," had befriended an impudent, imprudent young Frenchman who publicly boasted of plundering the Louvre's collection of Iberian statuary; their red-herring arrests signaled the uneasy rapport between high culture and the law. Whether visiting Gertrude Stein's salon on the Rue de Fleurus or Leonardo's Florentine studio, this stylish volume exhales fragrant period detail. L'Apartment des Bains, the lavish bathroom where King Francois I had once displayed Lisa, "included a bathing pool, steam room, gambling room, and lounge, all elaborately frescoed" to deleterious effect: As Scotti observes, "Steam and oil paint do not mix well." The Seine in which Picasso and Apollinaire sought to drown some incriminating statuary "was dark, the lamplight picking out the ripples and undulations." Ultimately, she implicates the mustachioed Marques de Valfierno, who enters the story in a swirl of cloak and a blast of stage fog. His involvement — indeed his very existence — seems "highly improbable," Scotti admits, but makes for "a fine, romantic tale" nonetheless. This "stock character" reappears in another chronicle of the theft, "The Crimes of Paris," which likewise documents what one thief termed the "strange, almost voluptuous charm about stealing works of art." But Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler's engrossing forensic history casts a wider net. Their lively portraits include legendary mistress-about-town Marguerite "Meg" Steinheil, whose head was in President Felix Faure's lap when he abruptly died in 1899; Henriette Caillaux, the politician's wife who with connubial sangfroid executed the journalist responsible for smearing her spouse in print; and the Bonnot Gang, the original getaway-car bandits. Furled amidst these vignettes are disquisitions on bertillonage (the science of anatomical measurement for purposes of identification), 19th-century detective novels and the lethal chemistry of poisons. The anecdotes buzz with energy; too bad that the Hooblers write such lackluster prose. "The Crimes of Paris" evokes a Belle Epoque in which singers "sing" and paintings are "done"; where Scotti's Paris radiates outward "in concentric circles like a snail shell," the Hooblers' is "a city of narrow, maze-like streets that were dark and dangerous, twisted alleys and dead ends where bodies were dumped." When a scientist inspects an exhumed corpse, "The skeleton told him a lot." What it lacks in style, however, "The Crimes of Paris" makes up for in breadth of research and depth of insight. The Hooblers argue that the cultural transgressions of modernist Paris — cubism, cabaret, crime fiction — found their evil counterparts in crime: murder, theft and political unrest. After all, a mere eight months after Mona Lisa's return to the Louvre she was once again displaced, this time as the French government hurriedly relocated to Bordeaux after the German invasion. And there her smile — that maddening, depthless, immortal smirk — seemed no longer to stopper four centuries of secrets, but instead to greet, with rectitude and reserve, the bloody years ahead. Daniel Mallory researches modernist literature at New College, Oxford. Reviewed by Daniel Mallory, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Scotti's riveting, ingeniously realized account of the 1911 theft of the "Mona Lisa" and its aftermath is a masterful portrait of a world in transition, transforming itself into the modern while enjoying a last carefree fling before the onset of war.
The astonishing story of the still unsolved mystery of Mona Lisa’s disappearance in 1911 told with dramatic freshness and imagination.
On August 21, 1911, the unfathomable happened— Mona Lisa vanished from the Louvre. More than twenty-four hours passed before museum officials realized she was gone. The prime suspects in the case were as shocking as the crime—the young avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his friend Pablo Picasso. R. A. Scotti’s riveting, ingeniously realized account of the theft and its aftermath (the painting would not be recovered for more than two years) is itself a masterful portrait of a world in transition, transforming itself into the modern while enjoying a last carefree fling before the onset of war. As French detectives using new methods of criminology, including fingerprinting, tried to trace the thief, a burgeoning international media spread news of the theft around the world. In Paris, thousands flocked to the Louvre to see the empty space where the painting had hung. Some brought flowers and love letters and mourned as if for an actual death. Others spun theories about the disappearance.
Mona Lisa’s loss only compounded her mystery. In Scotti’s deft hands, the tale of this great art heist becomes a story of the painting’s transformation into perhaps the most familiar and lasting icon of all time.
About the Author
R. A. Scotti is the author of three previous works of nonfiction, including Basilica: The Splendor and the Scandal—Building St. Peters and Sudden Sea: The Great Hurricane of 1938, and four novels. She lives in New York City.
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