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Vanished Smile

Vanished Smile

Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa
by R.A. Scotti, read by Kathe Mazun

In 1911, Scotti tells us, Harland and Wolff was building the biggest ship known to man, Scott was on his way to the South Pole, and the most audacious heist in art history was in the works.  By 1913, only one of the three could have been called a success. When the Mona Lisa went missing in 1911, the whole world went into a tizzy.  Her theft revealed the shoddy security policies at the Louvre, the depth of esteem the art world held her in, and the speed with which a rarefied paragon of the art world could become a ubiquitous bit of popular culture. A few thoughts:

  • It’s really stunning just how bad security at the Louvre was.  While other museums had at least secured paintings to walls with screws, the Louvre hung them from hooks, so they could be easily removed.  They also had a policy that any of the photographers working in the museum could, at any time and without notifying anyone, take a painting off the wall and bring it to the photographic studio to take its picture.  This meant that when a patron asked where Mona Lisa was, it took the guard three hours or more to realize that she’d been stolen rather than borrowed. (This was, of course, a full day after the theft had taken place while the museum was closed to the public.)
  • Because I know little of art history, I think of Picasso as an accepted master.  Of course, in 1911 he was an iconoclast, part of an anti-establishment art movement that disdained the seclusion museums created.  He’d signed on, along with Apollinaire, to a manifesto calling for museums to be burned.  When the investigation swung his way, it turned out that he had a couple statues that had been nicked from the Louvre in his home.  He and Apollinaire actually ended up before a judge, though nothing became of it.
  • For most of her history, Mona Lisa (or La Joconde, as the French call her) has been hidden from public view, spending several decades in the French King’s six-room royal bathroom suite.  There are a number of art historians who wrote about how magnificent she is without having seen her.  (Including one who erroneously described her glorious eyebrows.)  This reminds me of much pre 1980s cinema scholarship, in which scholars had to write about a film based on only one or two viewings, sometimes long before the writing took place.
  • The chapter on the known history of the painting itself presents a number of very interesting facts.  In particular, I was fascinated to hear that Da Vinci completed the painting at a glacial pace, taking several years yet leaving no preliminary sketches or planning notes, despite being a pack rat about papers.
  • The painting turned up in 1913, in the possession of a small-time thief who claimed to have stolen the painting to return it to Italy in revenge for all the art Napoleon had sacked in Italy during his invasions in the previous century.  Many people were unsatisfied with his explanation, though, as the planning and audacity to commit the crime seems like it required a more sophisticated mind, and there were several holes in the thief’s story.  Some of the other theories Scotti presents are the political (a conspiracy theory that the painting was stolen to diffuse tensions between France and Italy) and the conman theory (a notion that the painting was stolen to allow a skilled forger to secretly sell copies to unscrupulous collectors).  The latter sounds most convincing, but Scotti provides a number of reasons to disbelieve the most public version of the conman theory, which appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

Vanished Smile is an interesting, well-told book.  Scotti does a solid job sketching out the characters and narrating the events that unfold during the search for the painting.  Katie Mazun does a fine job with the narration as well.  Worth reading for both the history and the caper.

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