The true story of the stranger-than-fiction heist of the Mona Lisa in 1911.
No visitor to the Louvre can avoid the throngs of tourists and art lovers who line up to see Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Given the crowds, it will come as a great surprise to those who do not know the story that, in August 1911, this icon of Western civilization vanished from the museum without a trace.
Even more amazing, no one noticed it was missing for more than 24 hours and it was more than two years before the work was seen again.
The story of this theft, recovery, and enduring mystery is the subject of Vanished Smile, a fresh, engaging book by R.A. Scotti. The book is equal parts art history and crime caper. This rollicking tale makes for fascinating reading in large part because, as Mark Twain once said, “Truth is stranger than fiction because fiction is obliged to stick to the possibilities. Truth isn’t.”
Stealing the painting was easy. The work was not anchored to the wall and the thief simply lifted it off and walked away. After discarding the glass case that protected the painting, he simply left the building. There were almost no clues and the police assumed they were dealing with a sophisticated band or art thieves. The French borders were sealed in an effort to prevent the painting from leaving the country. Visitors lined up to see the empty space on the wall. The world waited.
Two leading members of the Paris avant-garde were quickly identified as suspects. An informer told a French newspaper that he had previously stolen items from the Louvre for the poet Guillaume Apollinaire (who had signed a manifesto promising to “Burn Down the Louvre”) and his close friend, Pablo Picasso. Both men had, in fact, been in possession of works stolen from the Louvre. Apollinaire was quickly arrested and jailed for six days and Picasso was brought in for questioning. But by the time the police arrived, they had disposed of the contraband and were released.
Then the trail went stone cold. There was never a ransom note and many art lovers feared that the painting had been lost for good. Suddenly, in December 1913, the Mona Lisa resurfaced in Florence. It was recovered by the Italians – much to the chagrin of the French – and the world rejoiced. After being put briefly on display in Florence, Rome, and Milan, the painting was returned to the Louvre.
The thief was Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian laborer who had worked at the Louvre and who believed (erroneously) that Napoleon had looted the painting from Italy. Like most Italians, he knew the painting as La Gioconda – the name of the sitter. He kept the masterpiece in a dingy apartment for two years before taking it to Italy. He simply wanted it back where he thought it rightfully belonged. He was put on trial and quickly convicted.
But by then World War I had started and France and Italy were on opposite sides and the sentence was light. He spent just seven months in jail and lived quietly in Italy for the rest of his life. Meanwhile, the hotel where the painting was recovered quickly changed its name from Alberto Tripoli-Italia to La Gioconda, the name by which it is still known today.
But it’s hard to believe that this is the whole story. Peruggia, by all accounts was hardly a master criminal. A psychiatrist who examined him testified that he was “intellectually deficient” and it was hard to believe that he had the ability to plan and carry out such an amazing theft all alone.
In fact, he may have had help. In what is a coda to the whole story, Scotti describes an alleged art theft and forgery ring that arranged the heist to make exact copies that could then be quietly sold to rapacious American collectors like Morgan, Carnegie, and Huntington. But once again, the evidence is murky and the source of this story was a journalist who specialized in sensationalist stories with suspect documentation.
Scotti, who has written previous books on the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica and the Great Hurricane of 1938, specializes in popular history and tells this fascinating story very well. Unfortunately, her writing is occasionally so overbearing and florid as to evoke shudders. For example: “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.” Wow! Call an editor – quick!
The Mona Lisa was shuttled away from Paris in both world wars and traveled abroad a few times – to Washington, New York, Tokyo, and Moscow. Today the painting is housed in a separate room and the frame is set in concrete. Two sheets of triple-laminated bullet-proof glass protect the world’s most famous painting. A law prevents it from leaving France. She may have been stolen once but it will not happen again.
Terry Hartle is senior vice president of government relations for the American Council on Education.