Home » Arts & Life, fine art

Son Retour?

By (May 1, 2009) No Comment

Vanished Smile

By R.A. Scotti
Knopf, 2009

On Monday, 21 August 1911 (the bewitched year that also saw the births of Ronald Reagan, Fenway Park, and the Titanic), guards at the Louvre in Paris made a startling discovery – perhaps the most startling discovery somebody has ever made or could ever make in an art museum: the Mona Lisa was missing.

Leonardo da Vinci’s world-famous painting, probably the portrait of a Florentine silk merchant’s wife, had been hanging on its customary wall in the Salon Carre the previous day, a hot, somnolent Sunday whose few visitors filed out at the 4 o’clock closing time. The Louvre was closed to the public on Mondays, with only a handful of guards and white-smocked maintenance workers coming and going through the galleries. When one of the guards noticed that the painting wasn’t on the wall, he assumed it was off being photographed somewhere else in the building. But when it didn’t return – and when the Louvre’s photographers confirmed they didn’t have it – an almost unspeakable truth began to dawn: the museum’s prize possession, the best-known work of art on Earth, had been stolen.

The physical act of the theft itself was not remarkable. Although the Mona Lisa wore a recently-installed glass case (of vital interest later, as we shall see), she could be removed from it easily, and the painting itself was not padlocked to the wall – it hung on hooks, the museum’s thinking being that this would make it easier to hurry out of the building in case of fire. The wood backing and the ornate gilt frame of the painting were heavy but not prohibitively so, especially if two men were doing the lifting. There were no closed circuit TV cameras in 1911, no infra-red motion detectors, and the few guards viewed their posts as happy sinecures, not sacred trusts.

The miracle is that a theft didn’t happen sooner. As R.A. Scotti points out in her extremely enjoyable new book on the crime, The Vanished Smile, the Mona Lisa wouldn’t last ten minutes under such lackadaisical conditions nowadays. Art theft is the third most widespread form of crime in the world (only smuggling and drug trafficking are more popular), for an obvious reason: under the proper conditions, fifteen minutes worth of work can net you a lifetime of profit.

Ten years ago on a hiking trip, I walked into a small Umbrian church in search of some cooling shade. Aside from two ancient women praying twenty meters away with their backs to me, there was nobody else around. In a small alcove along a side aisle, there was a beautiful old panel painting, a Madonna with a very tender face, almost certainly a Lorenzetti, probably 600 years old. Had I removed the rumpled extra shirt from my backpack, I could have fit the panel inside without difficulty and simply walked out with it. An object of priceless beauty, the focus of centuries of private veneration – and yet the next time anybody thought to look for it, they wouldn’t find it. In such a small, quiet place, an outcry might never be raised … and in the meantime, two months of discreet inquiry would have found me a buyer.

The Louvre today has reverted to its fortress roots, and the Mona Lisa that hangs there is protected 24 hours a day behind glass that is bulletproof, shatterproof, and waterproof. Spectators are watched with state of the art video surveillance technology, their body language studied by experts for the slightest sign of incipient malice or mania.

But in 1911, the museum was caught entirely (and literally) off-guard, and when the news broke, Paris and then the world went into spasms of aesthetic agony. The celebrated police detective Alphonse Bertillon (whom Arthur Conan Doyle likened favorably to his famous fictional sleuth) was called in, with the hope that his massive collection of fingerprint-files might help to ferret out the criminal or criminals (eyewitnesses disagreed, but the most reliable could only recall one man who afterwards struck them as suspicious). The French borders were closed, and all outgoing shipping was searched from stem [?] to stern (ships that had already left France were searched upon their arrival at their destination). The poet Apollinaire was briefly rousted for the crime, as was Picasso. Weeks passed, then months, and still no leads panned out. As Scotti reports, the public’s mood changed:

And so after many fruitless months, public sentiment had turned from shock to sorrow, indignation to frustration, embarrassment to derision. Chorus lines made up with the face of Mona Lisa danced topless in the cabarets of Paris. Entertainers at the popular nightclub Olympia mocked the failed efforts to recover the painting. Comedians asked, “Will the Eiffel Tower be next?”

At first, the French authorities didn’t have the heart to fill the space in Salon Carre left empty by the thieves (Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum has shown a similar reluctance over its own famously stolen artwork), and a large part of the reason for this was the allure of the painting itself. Scotti covers her subject with a thorough and admirable zeal (there’s trivia enough in The Vanished Smile to sustain even the most discriminating pack-rat), but she really hits her stride in that age-old exercise: attemping to account for the Mona Lisa. Those few fellow artists in Leonardo’s own day who managed to see it (he kept it with him until he died, rather than release it to the person who actually paid for it) were astonished by it, and even those who’d never laid eyes on it felt secure in singing its praises. The painting that famously sent Pater into ecstasies, the work one critic referred to as “une merveille de la peinture,” works its familiar magic on Scotti as well, who writes, “Mona Lisa is a continuum of desire. History has proved no defense against her, or age, fading grace, or darkening palette.” She is, Scotti continues:

…a strange painting – a juxtaposition of extremes. A woman pregnant with possibility and ambiguity is set against a barren world, apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic. Like the woman, the background may be real or imaginary, but the two sides are not aligned. If the figure were removed, like poorly hung wallpaper, the two sides would not match… Adding to the strangeness, the figure and the landscape have distinct perspectives. She is seen vertically at eye level, but the background is an aerial view.
This single portrait, barely two feet by two feet, took Leonardo as long to complete and compulsively retouch as it took Michelangelo to finish the entire fresco of the Sistine Chapel ceiling. As Scotti calculates, Leonardo painted about an inch for every square yard Michelangelo covered. When you ponder this, it’s not hard to conclude that whatever spell the Mona Lisa casts over her viewers, Leonardo was the first to feel it.

Eventually, Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione was put on the wall that had once been occupied by the Mona Lisa (although the picture was of course composed centuries before, the expression on Castiglione’s face seems to anticipate the Parisian public’s reaction in 1912; the author of The Book of the Courtier seems to be pleading with the viewer, as if to say, “What? This wasn’t my idea!”), and the world – increasingly preoccupied with international rumblings that would eventually erupt into the First World War – began to accept that it would never see the painting familiarly known as La Jaconde again. As the guard who initially noticed her disappearance had blurted out in 1911, c’est partie – she’s left.

In the winter of 1913, a Florentine art dealer received a brief note signed “Leonardo” from someone claiming to have the Mona Lisa. The art dealer arranged a meeting and alerted the head of the Uffizi Gallery and the Florence police. “Leonardo” turned out to be Vincenzo Peruggia, a glazier who was formerly employed in creating that glass case for the Mona Lisa, and in a box in his shabby hotel room was the painting itself, at least as far as the two experts who first examined it could determine:

The more closely they studied it, the more excited they became. The lost Leonardo had been found. Both men would stake their reputations on it. Mona Lisa had come full circle. She was recovered in Florence, where her life began, only slightly the worse for wear. There was a bruise on one cheek and a small scratch on her left shoulder. Otherwise, she was in remarkably good shape for her four hundred years.

The painting was returned to France at New Year’s 1914 amidst near-hysterical rejoicing (Italian newspapers trumpeted Son Retour – Her Return), and Scotti is clearly having fun watching it all:

The lakes and ponds in the Bois de Boulogne and the lagoon at Versailles were frozen solid. So, too, were the expressions of the chic Parisians. In Paris society, “the Mona Lisa look” was all the fad. There was a run on yellow powder which, dusted generously on the face, neck, and bust, suggested her golden complexion. Society ladies practiced her smile, which immobilized their facial muscles and consequently minimized conversation.

There was no doubt of Peruggia’s guilt in stealing the painting – he’d left a finger print at the scene of the crime (this would have been discovered much earlier, except the print he left was from his left hand, and Mssr. Bertillon’s index was filled only with right-hand prints), and he subsequently confessed to the theft, claiming some half-baked nationalistic motive involving Leonardo’s artwork returning to its native country. Modern-day museums are confronting with increasing frequency this very question of national provenance, but it’s unlikely ever to be acted upon so spectacularly again.

Whatever Peruggia’s motivation was, the painting was subjected to further intense scrutiny once it was re-installed in Salon Carre (Castiglione was rudely cast from favor). Experts studied every square millimeter of what’s known in the art world as craquelure, the complex web of dark wrinkles and cracks that spiderweb the surface of any old painting and act as a textured version of Mssr. Bertillon’s fingerprints, since no two paintings form craquelure in precisely the same way. Despite having been fooled on this exact point for as long as painting has existed (Scotti calls art forgery “the world’s second-oldest profession”), experts are always willing to place their faith entirely in this feature’s irreproducibility, as Scotti writes:

Another defining feature was the craquelure. Skeptics might argue that the Louvre labels could be faked, but Leonardo himself could not reproduce with absolute accuracy each minute fissure. Various causes – old age, the effect of varnishes, and the way the original layers of paint were applied – can result in a distinct network of fine cracks on the surface of a painting. After comparing photographs of the Louvre Mona Lisa and the recovered painting inch by inch, Curator Leprieur validated the find.

Anybody with even a passing knowledge of Renaissance history should be brought up short by such a passage. “Leonardo himself could not”? About a man who invented robots, submarines, and helicopters four hundred years before they saw the light of day? Flawless art forgery is only an impossibility in the minds of those people professionally invested in it being impossible – for everybody else, it can be managed if there’s time and motivation enough. Leonardo’s contemporary Michelangelo was briefly tempted by the profit incentive of just such forgeries, but he decided to make masterpieces of his own instead. Leonardo made the same decision (this was the ultimate bravery of the Renaissance), but “could not”? In a quiet work space, with skilled hands and the right tools, there’s no such thing as “could not.” As Mssr. Bertillon’s fictional counterpart once said, “What one man can invent, another can discover.”

And so the possibility – teetering on probability – that the Mona Lisa viewed by hundreds of thousands of awestruck visitors to the Louvre every year is, in fact, a forgery.

Scotti doesn’t go so far. In The Vanished Smile, she’s only willing to raise doubts about the official story, particularly the official villain:

A guest worker in France, unsophisticated and not very bright, with a couple of minor scrapes on his police blotter, masterminds the art theft of the ages. For more than two years, he makes only desultory efforts to capitalize on his crime. At first the thief says he acted alone, and then he implicates two accomplices, simple men much like himself. Although he is briefly lionized, he leaves jail without enough lire to buy a cappuccino and never attempts another theft. Is this the modus operandi of a master criminal?

Such doubts were felt at the time, and they were only muddied by the 1932 story that appeared in The New York Journal. It was written by aging sensational-journalism fixture Karl Decker, and it featured a colorful character named the Marques Eduardo de Valfierno, who allegedly took Decker aside one day and told him the “truth” about the theft of the Mona Lisa – that Peruggia and his dimwitted accomplices had been tools of Valfierno and his highly skilled gang of art forgers, who’d arranged for the theft (and its subsequent publicity) in order to convince several gullible would-be owners that they were getting the genuine article, when in fact they were actually receiving high-quality fakes. Decker died without offering any corroboration whatsoever that any detail of his story was true – there is no record of Valfierno or any of his associates outside of Decker’s story, so the whole Journal piece must be dismissed as fiction. And yet Scotti – and all chroniclers of the Mona Lisa’s strange life and times – must waste pages in dealing with it.

Perhaps not a complete waste, however, since the Valfierno fiction accidentally raises some interesting points – foremost is that same question of cracks and creases. It turns out Leonardo himself wasn’t even needed in order to come up with a nefarious technique for replicating this allegedly irreproducible feature:

According to recent scientific studies, craquelure has various causes. That detailed technical information was not known in 1911, and [Valfierno’s alleged forger] Chaudron probably falsified the defect called premature craquelure caused by the way the artist layered the paint. If Chaudron applied a color with a low oil content over an oilier one, the upper layer of paint would dry before the under layer, causing the surface to crack. Or he might have created the craquelure with a needle, scratching a web of lines in the outer layer of varnish, then rubbing dirt into the cracks with a pad of cotton wool.

Art experts today (including, needless to say, those on the Louvre’s payroll) assure us La Joconde has been subjected to the most advanced spectrographic analyses known to science, tests designed to measure exactly the age of wood, pigments, even insect holes. But their assurances lack a back end – one corner of the blanket of certainty is flapping in the wind, since there are no corresponding spectrographic results from 1911 to use for comparison. No scientific test in the world can tell us that the painting hanging in the Louvre today has the exact same age, texture, and pigmentation as the painting Peruggia stole – the most comfort such tests can provide is that the Mona Lisa we see today has the right age, texture, and pigmentation.

Those right ingredients aren’t exclusive to the Mona Lisa – they exist elsewhere in the world, and they did in 1911. If an art forger as sophisticated as Valfierno (only real) had wanted to, he could have procured pigments and dyes made in the exact same way Leonardo made his own, mixed and aged the exact same way, applied the exact same way to a backing of the exact same type and age of wood. Such a forger would have had all the time in the world to assemble such materials, and he would have had from August 1911 to December 1914 to create a flawless duplicate of the craquelure. Perform a little experiment of your own: find a Renaissance art expert, get him drunk, put the question to him, and see what happens. I’m guessing tears, and shouting.

And what would be the point of all that work, merely to create an exact duplicate of the Mona Lisa and hand it back to the simpleton Peruggia? If you can create a perfect replica of the painting, down to the insect holes and the imperfections, why run the risk of stealing the original?

Why, because Leonardo painted it, of course.

Jan van Doop is an art history graduate of a prominent Delft university and is a lifelong student in the aesthetics of Vermeer. He spends his summers sketching in the Louvre.

Join the Open Letters facebook page!

Return to the Main Page