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

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The dawning of the 20th century marked a time of radical change. Rippling rivers of discontent with the past surged into a tidal pool of technological optimism for the future. The culmination would come in the year 1911–after that year the ideologies of class would never be the same. Marconi's invention of the telegraph at the birth of the century had bridged the gap in global communications.

By the year 1911, Marie Curie had twice received Nobel recognition for her research in radioactivity; President William McKinley had been assassinated, and Captain Robert Falcon Scott was preparing to set out upon the frozen plateau of Antarctica in a doomed, quixotic attempt to reach the South Pole.

The world would be awed by the construction of the first unsinkable ship, and then doubly so by its sinking on its maiden voyage. Investigations would reveal that immigrants and third class passengers had been locked below decks, intentionally murdered, as Titanic sank. The world would unite in anger with an international castigation of this perverse devaluation of human life over social status.

In France the bohemian revolution had reached a fevered peak as gangs of artists, poets, and writers filled the taverns of Paris and skulked away in bistros beneath the giant windmill that marked the stone cliff of Montmartre. Pablo Picasso had taken up residence in Renoir's former Montmartre home at 13 Rue Ravignan where he and his gang, la bande de Picasso, using the fame and influence of writer, poet, and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire, excoriated the artists of the Renaissance and the museums which they considered to be the graveyards of dead art.

One of several "gangs" who unleashed their wrath upon an already disjointed art world by stealing the works of the masters right out from under the noses of museum officials, The Picasso Gang would find themselves the central focus in what would become the art crime of the century–The theft of the Mona Lisa from France's most guarded museum, the Louvre.

On August 21, 1911, visitors bustling into Salon Carre, where La Gioconda looked out upon the world with her vague smile, would alert the guard to her theft. The police would close down the city and the harbors; no ships could depart France without a thorough search, but it was too late, Mona Lisa had already been gone for two days when her kidnapping was discovered. All that was found were her frames, handled with care and stashed in a service stairway off the gallery.

Many would claim to have taken her; confessions that were first reported were discounted. Accusations and arrests would abound. Newspapers would falsely report hearsay and gossip, bringing a lynch mob mentality to the streets of Paris. The stories would be retracted, but reputations would not recover from public suspicion. The Italians would use Mona Lisa's theft to decry France's withholding of their national masterpieces stolen under the marauding reign of Napoleon Bonaparte.

In garrisons around Montmartre those gangs of artists would be put under heavy scrutiny in her theft. Picasso, who had criticized Mona Lisa and her artist, Leonardo da Vinci, as another nail in the coffin of living art, would push modern art, Cubism, and bring to an abrupt end the halcyon days of the Renaissance.

In September 1911, Apollinaire, and then Picasso, were arrested for the theft of Iberian statuettes from the Louvre, with the assumption that they, by default, must also be responsible for the theft of Mona Lisa. Picasso himself would later point out that Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, his response to the obverse purity of Mona Lisa, was inspired by the stolen statuettes which were in his possession, though at trial he would deny knowledge, and be acquitted of, having any part in their taking.

Instead he would let his best friend and comrade-in-arms, Apollinaire, take the fall, ruining his reputation forever and ultimately ending the artistic revolution. Apollinaire, the once dandy star of the Parisian art world, had supported the charismatic artiste in all of his endeavors. The most famous and respected member of la bande de Picasso, he had brought Picasso into the spotlight through his articles denouncing the Renaissance and declaring Picasso and Cubism, the future of modern art.

Picasso would turn his back on Apollinaire in his friend's time of need, leading to his eventual depression and death. In the words of the author, "For years, Picasso never spoke of Apollinaire and the Mona Lisa arrest. He continued becoming Picasso, the most extraordinary, the wealthiest, and ironically, the most stolen artist of the twentieth century."

r_a_scotti_authorIn Vanished Smile, R.A. Scotti has done a spectacular job of telling the story of the most mysterious art heist in history. The author opens the book by recounting the personal trips that first inspired her curiosity, then builds the story from years of in-depth research; poring over historical documentation; police and court reports, personal diaries, newspaper articles, witness accounts, and anything else that might reveal the popular thoughts at the time. The revelations about the personality of artist Pablo Picasso through diary notations and documented conversations is particularly fascinating.

This book takes no liberties with the facts. The author uses all that was discovered through research to weave a story that is far more compelling in its truth and integrity than it would have been if created as a work of historical fiction. Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa is a masterpiece, cleverly reconstructing the conversations, the personalities, and the overall attitudes of those who were involved in the investigation–and the ruination of those who were put under suspicion in the heist.

For more than two years Mona Lisa was missing. On 29 November 1913 a note came in to an art dealer in Florence saying that Mona Lisa would shortly be returned to her true home, the country of her birth, Italy, the note signed "Leonardo." It led to another batch of false confessions and finally the arrest of the holder of the painting, a man who authorities agreed was incapable of the initial theft–he lacked the technical expertise to have even disencumbered Mona Lisa from her complex museum trappings, let alone to have done it quickly and without any damage to the frames themselves.

Vincenzo Peruggia was sentenced to less than a year for the theft of the Mona Lisa. Authorities doubted his claim that he acted alone, but were relieved to put the matter to rest once and for all. Mona Lisa was returned from Italy to her room in the Louvre. The true perpetrator of the greatest theft in art history has never been discovered. The mystery of her kidnapping, and where she had been hidden, has never been solved. She remains to this day, one of the most valuable pieces of artwork in the world.

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About A Geek Girl

  • http://etierphotography.blogspot.com/ FCEtier

    I have to check this one out. AGG, you’ve sold a book!

  • A Geek Girl

    FC, definitely a book you’d enjoy. Particularly since we’re both such big fans of biographies and history.