Sunday, August 21, 2011

Missing Mona

As is known to all dozen people who, like me, keep track of such minutiae, it was exactly 100 years ago today that Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous 16th-century portrait, the Mona Lisa, vanished from its home in Paris’ Musée du Louvre. As Wikipedia explains,
The painting’s increasing fame was further emphasized when it was stolen on 21 August 1911. The next day, Louis Béroud, a painter, walked into the Louvre and went to the Salon Carré where the Mona Lisa had been on display for five years. However, where the Mona Lisa should have stood, he found four iron pegs. Béroud contacted the section head of the guards, who thought the painting was being photographed for marketing purposes. A few hours later, Béroud checked back with the section head of the museum, and it was confirmed that the Mona Lisa was not with the photographers. The Louvre was closed for an entire week to aid in investigation of the theft.

French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, who had once called for the Louvre to be “burnt down,” came under suspicion; he was arrested and put in jail. Apollinaire tried to implicate his friend Pablo Picasso, who was also brought in for questioning, but both were later exonerated.

At the time, the painting was believed to be lost forever, and it was two years before the real thief was discovered. Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia had stolen it by entering the building during regular hours, hiding in a broom closet and walking out with it hidden under his coat after the museum had closed. Peruggia was an Italian patriot who believed Leonardo’s painting should be returned to Italy for display in an Italian museum. Peruggia may have also been motivated by a friend who sold copies of the painting, which would skyrocket in value after the theft of the original. After having kept the painting in his apartment for two years, Peruggia grew impatient and was finally caught when he attempted to sell it to the directors of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; it was exhibited all over Italy and returned to the Louvre in 1913. Peruggia was hailed for his patriotism in Italy and only served six months in jail for the crime.
An excellent recounting of this theft can be found in The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection, by Dorothy Hoobler and Thomas Hoobler (2010). But Nashville, Tennessee, screenwriter and playwright Carson Morton has also used employed the case in a new mystery novel, Stealing Mona Lisa (Minotaur). He doesn’t stick completely to the facts, but uses them as the basis for a remarkably engaging and at times romantic yarn that offers a more complex story behind the Mona Lisa’s disappearance. (He’s even managed to incorporate Paris’ Great Flood of 1910 in his plot, though it required some jiggering with the timeline.)

I recently read Stealing Mona Lisa, and was very impressed. Although it spins off many an imaginary thread, the book certainly captures the spirit of that century-old pilferage. And Morton plumps up his tale with a fictional cast of eccentric and generally well-wrought secondary players. Entertaining, entrancing, and a times humorous, Stealing Mona Lisa is an ideal diversion for these waning days of summer.

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