Synopses & Reviews
On August 21, 1911, Leonardo da Vinci’s most celebrated painting vanished from the Louvre. The prime suspects were as shocking as the crime: Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, young provocateurs of a new art.
The sensational disappearing act captured the world’s imagination. Crowds stood in line to view the empty space on the museum wall. Thousands more waited, as concerned as if Mona Lisa were a missing person, for news of the lost painting. Almost a century later, questions still linger: Who really pinched Mona Lisa, and why? Part love story, part mystery, Vanished Smile reopens the puzzling case that transformed a Renaissance portrait into the most enduring icon of all time.
In 1911, Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" vanished from the Louvre. As French detectives traced the thieves, a burgeoning international media hyped news of the heist. "Vanished Smile" reopens the case of the most audacious and perplexing art theft ever committed.
About the Author
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.
Reading Group Guide
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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“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.