Monday, May 4, 2009

Vanished Smile; The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa by R.A. Scotti

Paris; August, 1911

From the ateliers of Montmarte and the cafes of Montparnasse, a radical creative idiom was emerging that would change both art and writing. While Proust was wrestling The Remembrance of Things Past from a pile of notes and scribbles, the very sentiment of remembrance was coming under attack. The past was no longer a lesson to be mastered. It was an inhibition to be overcome...

Appollinaire and Picaso were in the vanguard of the impassioned battles being waged in Paris over the direction of the arts. They were friends and leaders of a group loosely known as la bande de Picasso. Familiar from Montmarte to Manhattan as "the Wild Men of Paris," Picasso's gang of painters and poets were the outlaws of traditional art, riding into town like the cowboys of the Wild West to slay the Renaissance gods.

Young, brilliant, and ruthlessly ambitious, they strutted through the cobblestone streets of Montmarte and filled the cheap cafes, defining themselves as well as the new idiom, breaking the rules to free art from art history. Much of their art and their antics were "shocks of discovery" committed to roil the status quo. More has been written about Bloomsbury, the London-based group of artists and writers, though it was less expansive and more inbred- a hothouse where la bande de Picasso was a wild garden. Passions were rude and rowdy. Ideas had the power to shock, and epiphanies came thick and fast.

Two agonizng weeks after the theft of Mona Lisa from the Louvre, Prefect Lepine ("le petit roi") believed he had cracked the case. In la bande de Picasso he had found the international ring of art thieves he had been hunting: Appollinaire and his nefarious colleagues "making this hullabaloo in the painting department."

To the police the case was persuasive. Seizing the Mona Lisa was an insolent act in what Appollonaire called "the endless quarrel between Order and Adventure." It was a declaration of independence. What more dramatic way to kill your father than to target the most famous painting by the most provacative Renaissance master?

The Picasso gang had been lionized as romantic renegades. When the police identified them as a ring of "foreign thieves and swindlers who had come to France to plunder its treasure," escapades once excused as careless exuberance assumed sinister overtones. Tales circulated of the Picasso gang's coming back from the cafes late a night, frequently drunk, shouting, singing and declaiming in the squares. Picasso always carried a Browning, and he would wake up the neighbors by shooting it into the charged air.

Stunned by the greatest art theft in history, Paris was shocked anew to learn that the prime suspects were the firebrands of the modern-art movement.


  1. When suspecion fell on Appollinaire and Picasso they had good reason to be nervous. Buried in the back of the cupboard of their airy bourgeois apartment on Boulevard de Clichy were two small stone figures carved by ancient Spaniards during the Bronze Age. The bottom of each bore the stamp PROPERTY OF THE MUSSEE DU LOUVRE. What a fiasco!

    The real thief turned out to be an Italian immigrant named Vincenzo Peruggia, who worked as a glazier in the Louvre. Claiming to have acted alone, he kept Leonardo's revolutionizing portrait in the closet of his dingy Paris apartment in Paris for two years before turning it over to authorities just a city block or two from where Da Vinci had originally painted it in Florence: a patriot returning the masterpiece "stolen" by Napoleon Bonaparte to its rightful owner. In fact the Mona Lisa had been purchased by King Francois I from Leonardo's estate for the equivalent of nearly twelve tons of pure silver ($9.7 million today) sometime between 1531 and 1547.

    Mona Lisa was returned to the Louvre to be hung among all those magnifient works of art that Napoleon did steal when he conquered Italy.

  2. While Mona Lisa is art history's most enduring enigma, celebrity and mass communication have made her a tragic figure. After her theft, she was recovered physically but never spiritually. She was found and lost. Today Mona Lisa is seen by millions, yet unseen. For her own protection, "the most subtle homage that genius can pay to a human face" can never be contemplated again in a true light, free of barricades.

    Behind her impenetrable bulletproof glass in her multimillion-dollar digs she hangs in splendid isolation. When the last camera has flashed and the last ogler has turned away, when the Louvre alarms are blinking and night falls over the mansard roofs of Paris, only the eyes of Francois across the room in "Wedding Feast at Cana" has his eyes on Mona Lisa.