|Former Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia was arrested in Florence two years following the theft of the ''Mona Lisa'' from the Paris museum. He claimed he stole the masterpiece in order to return it to Italy, the land of Leonardo's birth, though he had tried unsuccessfully to sell the painting several times. The brazen theft is attracting renewed interest as its 100th anniversary approaches. (Paris Prefecture De Police Museum)|
On Aug. 21, 1911, a journeyman laborer named Vincenzo Peruggia surreptitiously unhooked Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" from the walls of the Louvre and headed off to a service stairwell. A former museum employee, Peruggia said he had hidden himself in a seldom-used broom closet the previous afternoon, waiting until Monday morning when the galleries were closed to the public and lightly guarded. Making his getaway through a side exit, he left a worldwide press uproar and a police dragnet in his wake.
Arrested two years after the theft in Florence, Peruggia claimed patriotism as his primary motive, asserting that he had only wanted to return the "Mona Lisa" to the land of Leonardo's birth - a story that made him immensely popular in Italy, never mind that he had made several unsuccessful attempts to sell the painting while still in France.
Once the masterpiece was given back to the Louvre by the Italian government, French authorities opted to treat Peruggia with leniency. He would serve only a few months in jail, after being deemed "mentally deficient" by the courts. Certainly anyone who believed that it would be easy to find a fence or buyer for the world's most recognizable artwork could not have been the brightest light on the chandelier.
As the 100th anniversary of Peruggia's audacious robbery approaches, the "Mona Lisa" theft has sparked renewed attention. The filmmaker Joe Madeiros is at work on a feature-length documentary, based on previously unknown archival documents, that will cast fresh light on Peruggia's motives, or so Madeiros says.
In the meantime, two noteworthy books have taken up the subject. "Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa" re-spins the tale as a kind of real-life detective story, while "The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection," looks at the event more subtly, as the starting point for an exploration of crime in turn-of-the-century Paris.
In "Vanished Smile," veteran author R.A. Scotti follows the trail of the missing masterpiece with the same zestful sense of adventure that she brought to "Basilica," her 2006 book about the construction of the Vatican. An unabashed literary diva, Scotti commands attention from page one. "Mona Lisa only has eyes for me," she observes. "There is no other. No one more interesting, more intelligent, more compelling. And what is extraordinary, if a dozen others crowd into this room, each one will feel the same."
Scotti's playful narrative style may not be to everyone's taste - "The first gulp of Tuesday August 22," she writes, "was as unsurprising as a glass of vin ordinaire" - but dynamism and a gentle sense of humor forgive a multitude of sins, among them Scotti's sometimes wandering focus. Star struck, she devotes an inordinate amount of space to the lives and habits of Pablo Picasso and Guillaume Apollinaire, both of whom were briefly detained by the police in connection with the theft, although neither had anything to do with it. (The painter and the poet came under suspicion because they had previously purchased several Iberian statuettes pilfered from the Louvre's archaeological collections.) A far more successful digression, however, is the elegant and erudite chapter that Scotti devotes to Leonardo himself, usefully underscoring the importance to civilization of the painting at the center of the drama.
In "The Crimes of Paris" the husband-and-wife writing team of Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler quickly establish the outlines of Peruggia's adventures, using them as a framing device to begin a wide-ranging account of belle époque mayhem and misdeeds in the City of Light. The Hooblers, who won an Edgar award for their 2004 murder mystery "In Darkness Death," introduce us to a fascinating array of historical villains and heroes, from François-Eugène Vidocq, the one-time thief who became the founding director of the Sûreté National, to the members of the anarchist Bonnot gang, who were the first to employ a getaway car in escaping the scene of a crime.
Arguing that Paris, as a modern city and nexus of communication, was in thrall to the spectacle of criminality, the Hooblers attempt, with only partial success, to bring thematic coherence to what is ultimately a stubbornly disorganized, if immensely entertaining, series of anecdotes. It is unclear what connection there could be, for instance, between the story of Marguerite Steinheil, a society beauty whose friends and lovers had a habit of winding up dead, and the culturally terrifying art theft perpetrated by Peruggia. Unlike Steinheil, the woman in the picture Peruggia stole has, over the centuries, captured the imaginations of Goethe, Pater, Nat King Cole, and a seemingly endless stream of tourists who flock each year to the Louvre. Envisioning an empty space on the patch of wall where her portrait hangs would be to conjure up an entirely different and profoundly diminished world.