Vanished Smile: the mysterious theft of Mona Lisa
by R.A. Scotti
On August 21, 1911, the Mona Lisa vanished from the Louvre. Since the theft was not discovered until the next day, the trail was already old by the time the police began investigating. As French detectives scrambled to assemble a list of suspects, the public became frenzied as they mourned the loss of a beloved icon. As one of the most perplexing and audacious art thefts unfolds, this nonfiction account of the crime combines meticulous historical research with a readable and thrill packed cast of characters and events.
Book Discussion Questions
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?
THE RENAISSANCE - From (E.H. Gombrish, The Story of Art, Phaidon, London, 1995 reprinted 1999)
The Italian High Renaissance is the defining movement in art history. No other artistic movement has contributed more to the development of art as a whole. Before the Italian Renaissance the artist held the same position in society as any other skilled craftsmen and were given as much respect as carpenters and goldsmiths. But, in the 1400's this all changed. A new revolution in art opened the eyes of the world to the glory of the world itself. Before 1400 the primary subjects of art were religious in nature. Aside from commissioned portraits most artists made their livings painting biblical scenes and portraits of saints. It was generally assumed that only religious imagery was deserving of reproduction. The painting technique itself was fairly primitive with little respect to correct anatomical form, atmospheric condition, or geometric shape. Paintings appeared flat and lack luster. The subjects where often showed in profile and a lack of appropriate shading made them level with no real depth or perspective. But, during the Renaissance a new interest in Greek and Roman culture lead to an explosion in knowledge about the human form along with innovations in mathematics and science. Suddenly, all creations of God, and the human form in particular became revered as testament to God's great power and perfection. Beauty became connected to morality and the pursuit of beauty in art became widespread. The nude human form, linear perspective, atmospheric perspective, and a new found interest in observing the natural world hallmark the movement. Artist themselves were elevated in social status and their works were looked upon not as mere crafts, but as miraculous creations that were divinely inspired. At the forefront of the Renaissance movement where the three most prominent artists of the Italian Renaissance; Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael.
Michelangelo's contemporary, Leonardo da Vinci, was born 1452 in Vinci, Italy. At age fifteen he apprenticed in the renowned Andrea del Verrochio workshop in Florence. Painting was not Leonardo's only calling. As the epitome of a true Renaissance man Leonardo was devoted to learning as much as possible about the world around him. He studied subjects as diverse as mechanics, municipal construction, botany, geology, flight science, canals, architecture, astronomy, mathematics, acoustics, warfare, hydraulics, medicine, and anatomy.
It was his study of anatomy that led to his refined talents as an artist. Leonardo was fascinated by the inner workings of the human body and sought to accurately recreate them in his paintings. He gained his knowledge from the dissection of cadavers, which was illegal at the time. He risked death or life imprisonment to study the muscle structure of the human body and kept detailed drawings of his findings. He reportedly kept body parts in his home for prolonged study and haggled with executioners for the corpses left over from frequent beheadings. He documented the first correct anatomical study of a human fetus, and his enthusiasm for dissection eventual forced him to flee the Vatican to avoid prosecution.
Because of da Vinci's dedication to the correctness of the human form in art we are left with some of the world's finest pieces of art. His most well known works The Last Supper and Mona Lisa are testaments to his accomplishments. The Last Supper depicts the final gathering of Jesus Christ with his disciples. Leonardo uses the linear prospective to create depth in the piece which would other wise look flat and crowded. Each of the disciples shows a different facial expression at hearing the news that Jesus will be betrayed. Our eyes are draw forcefully to the focal point of the composition. The face of Jesus. Unknown to da Vinci at the time, this face will live in infamy because it is Leonardo's depiction of Jesus Christ that eventually becomes the template that all modern pictures of Jesus are based on. Indeed, Leonardo was tremendous at painting soon to be famous faces. No face is better known in art than that of the serenely smiling Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa demonstrates Leonardo's love of art as a science. Its grounded triangle composition, perfectly anatomical features, and careful observation of atmospheric and lighting conditions combine to give Mona Lisa an enigmatic appeal. Mona Lisa is unlike any painting before it. Her carefully shaded lips and eyes leave her expression undefined. Her mood is determined by the viewer. At one moment she looks sad, kind, flirtatious, amused, confident, skeptical, and everything else in between. Leonardo was especially fond of Mona Lisa and kept the painting with him even though he, like many other of his works, never finished it.
"There is another work of Leonardo's which is perhaps even more famous than 'The Last Supper'. It is the portrait of a Florentine lady whose name was Lisa, 'Mona Lisa. A fame as great as that of Leonardo's 'Mona Lisa' is not an unmixed blessing for a work of art. We become so used to seeing it on picture postcards, and even advertisements, that we find it difficult to see it with fresh eyes as the painting by a real man portraying a real woman of flesh and blood. But it is worth while to forget what we know, or believe we know, about the picture, and to look at it as if we were the first people ever to set eyes on it. What strikes us first is the amazing degree to which Lisa looks alive. She really seems to look at us and to have a mind of her own. Like a living being, she seems to change before our eyes and to look a little different every time we come back to her. Even in photographs of the picture we experience this strange effect, but in front of the original in the Louvre it is almost uncanny. Sometimes she seems to mock at us, and then again we seem to catch something like sadness in her smile. All this sounds rather mysterious, and so it is; that is so often the effect of a great work of art. Nevertheless, Leonardo certainly knew how he achieved this effect, and by what means. That great observer of nature knew more about the way we use our eyes than anybody who had ever lived before him. He had clearly seen a problem which the conquest of nature had posed to artists - a problem no less intricate than the one of combining correct drawing with a harmonious composition. The great works of the Italian Quattrocento masters who followed the lead given by Masaccio have one thing in common: their figures look somewhat hard and harsh, almost wooden. The strange thing is that it clearly is not lack of patience or lack of knowledge that is responsible for this effect. No one could be more patient in his imitation of nature than Van Eyck; no one could know more about correct drawing and perspective than Mantegna. And yet, for all the grandeur and impressiveness of their representations of nature, their figures look more like statues than living beings. The reason may be that the more conscientiously we copy a figure line by line and detail by detail, the less we can imagine that it ever really moved and breathed. It looks as if the painter had suddenly cast a spell over it, and forced it to stand stock-still for evermore, like the people in 'The Sleeping Beauty'. Artists had tried various ways out of this difficulty. Botticelli, for instance, had tried to emphasize in his pictures the waving hair and the fluttering garments of his figures, to make them look less rigid in outline. But only Leonardo found the true solution to the problem. The painter must leave the beholder something to guess. If the outlines are not quite so firmly drawn, if the form is left a little vague, as though disappearing into a shadow, this impression of dryness and stiffness will be avoided. This is Leonardo's famous invention which the Italians call 'sfumato'- the blurred outline and mellowed colors that allow one form to merge with another and always leave something to our imagination.
"If we now return to the 'Mona Lisa', we may understand something of its mysterious effect. We see that Leonardo has used the means of his 'sfumato' with the utmost deliberation. Everyone who has ever tried to draw or scribble a face knows that what we call its expression rests mainly in two features: the corners of the mouth, and the corners of the eyes. Now it is precisely these parts which Leonardo has left deliberately indistinct, by letting them merge into a soft shadow. That is why we are never quite certain in what mood Mona Lisa is really looking at us. Her expression always seems just to elude us. It is not only vagueness, of course, which produces this effect. There is much more behind it. Leonardo has done a very daring thing, which perhaps only a painter of his consummate mastery could risk. If we look carefully at the picture, we see that the two sides do not quite match. This is most obvious in the fantastic dream landscape in the background. The horizon on the left side seems to lie much lower than the one on the right. Consequently, when we focus on the left side of the picture, the woman looks somehow taller or more erect than if we focus on the right side. And her face, too, seems to change with this change of position, because, even here, the two sides do not quite match. But with all these sophisticated tricks, Leonardo might have produced a clever piece of jugglery rather than a great work of art, had he not known exactly how far he could go, and had he not counterbalanced his daring deviation from nature by an almost miraculous rendering of the living flesh. Look at the way in which he modelled the hand, or the sleeves with their minute folds. Leonardo could be as painstaking as any of his forerunners in the patient observation of nature. Only he was no longer merely the faithful servant of nature. Long ago, in the distant past, people had looked at portraits with awe, because they had thought that in preserving the likeness the artist could somehow preserve the soul of the person he portrayed. Now the great scientist, Leonardo, had made some of the dreams and fears of these first image-makers come true. He knew the spell which would infuse life into the colors spread by his magic brush."