Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The vanishing of Mona Lisa

She has mystified and captivated generations of onlookers, yet nothing seems to diminish the enigma of Mona Lisa. What exactly does she feel, is a question artists and scientists have explored for centuries. Is she sad, reflective, happy, disgusted…what? Leonardo da Vinci’s epic creation invites any number of interpretations depending on the state of mind of the observer. Whatever you may be thinking, Mona Lisa seems to empathise. It’s not just that the contours of the painting are brilliant; it is also the mischief, the “I-know-what-you-don’t-want-me-to-know” look in the eyes that confounds.

Such is the cult surrounding her that in 2005, Dutch researchers tried dwelling into the mind, rather face, of history’s perennial treasure trove by using a software that recognises a person’s emotions by examining the face. They concluded that Mona Lisa is 83 per cent happy, 9 per cent disgusted, 6 per cent fearful, and 2 per cent angry. Well...

In Vanished Smile, RA Scotti deftly uncovers the mysterious theft of the art world’s prima donna, close to a century ago to this day. Thanks to Scotti’s meticulous research and atmospheric writing, a crime that had all the trappings of insanity, national prestige and obsession is brought to light marvellously.

The book begins in 1911, with Argentine con man Eduardo de Valfierno luring gullible American millionaires with the bucks to buy—but not the eye to discern—the original Mona Lisa. This, when all de Valfierno had were six fakes. How did this tie with the theft of the real Mona Lisa from the Louvre in France? Scotti keeps the mystery crackling for a good 200 more pages.

Later that year, on a languorous Sunday — August 20 to be precise — the Mona Lisa vanished. Her loss was not discovered upto 48 hours later, since the museum was closed on Mondays. The crime was beyond comprehension in its cheek and neatness, launching a pan-global hunt for Leonardo da Vinci’s timeless creation.

Scotti brilliantly captures the farcical aftermath of the theft, with the French government pinning the blame on the Louvre’s authorities, newspapers having a field day with the scandal, and a clueless public trying to make sense of the Byzantine ways of the art world.

With no certainty on the criminal’s identity in sight, suspicion fell on writer Guillaume Apollinaire, enfant terrible of the Belle Époque, who had published inflammatory literature demanding the Louvre be burned down. Matters came to a head when Apollinaire was betrayed by his friend, the painter Pablo Picasso, resulting in a ludicrous court trial, allowing Scotti to show them both as wretched, though innocent, victims of an extremely sophisticated fraud.

Vincenzo Peruggia it was, an Italian employee at the Louvre, who was finally discovered to be the Mona Lisa’s thief—more than two years after the lady’s disappearance. On that fateful Sunday night, Vincenzo completed his shift and hid in a room inside the museum. At some point in the early hours of Monday, he snuck out, walked up to where the Mona Lisa hung, took her down with the precision of an expert, hid her under his coat, and walked out.

When caught (he tried selling the painting to the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence), Vincenzo attributed his crime to his obsessive love for the painting and to the restoration of Italian pride by returning it to its roots (da Vinci was Italian).

However, the ghost of the Argentine conman hung over Vincenzo’s head, as the latter’s jingoistic lamentations were alleged to have distinctly commercial origins. It was speculated that Vincenzo stole the Mona Lisa at the insistence of de Valfierno, who only wanted the painting to disappear from the Louvre so as to convince his buyers that each of their individual Mona Lisas was an original.

De Valfierno is believed to have commissioned French art forger Yves Chaudron to make copies of the painting so he could sell them as the missing original, and leave Vincenzo stranded with the real Mona Lisa since he had no use for it anymore. Which is why, it was said, Vincenzo tried selling it and got caught in the process.

But was any of this true? Had Vincenzo and de Valfierno indeed collaborated, making the theft a blindingly well-executed crime? Nothing was ever established, Vincenzo was hailed as a hero in Italy and let off after serving a mild sentence.

All’s well that ends well. The Mona Lisa returned to her place in the Louvre—with a completely revamped security apparatus. A theft that shook the art world to its foundations had been overturned, even though its contours were still not entirely clear—and remain so to this day. RA Scotti has given us an account that captures this uncertainty with remarkable precision — an apt tribute to Leonardo da Vinci’s mysterious muse.
This review will appear in the June 4, 2009 edition of Business Standard.

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