Vanished Smile

The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa, R.A. Scotti, Knopf.

Vanished Smile Cover

No one should have been surprised when a thief sauntered out of the Louvre with the Mona Lisa on August 21, 1911. After all, the sprawling museum had neglected to take even the most basic precautions against theft, and more than twenty-four hours elapsed before administrators even realized she had disappeared. Two years passed before Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece was located—in the possession of an Italian-born glazier who was a far cry from the daring, suave escape artist investigators imagined they were tracking.

In “Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of Mona Lisa,” novelist-cum-historian R.A. Scotti recounts the story of a crime that both shocked the world and perplexed investigators. Displaying a writing style that is simultaneously romantic and suspenseful, Scotti illustrates the wide variety of emotional responses to the crime—from the frustration and embarrassment of the museum director and police detectives to the sadness of a disbelieving public, which flocked to the Louvre in record numbers to look at the blank wall where the painting had been.

Readers unfamiliar with the case’s back story will be surprised to learn that Pablo Picasso was, for a time, considered a suspect. Before long, though, we find out that petty crook Vincenzo Peruggia was responsible for absconding with the four-centuries-old painting, ostensibly to “right the wrong” of Napoleon having plundered the work.

Unfortunately for French investigators, the eventual recovery of Mona Lisa only further highlighted their collective failure, as Peruggia—a former Louvre employee who had constructed the masterpiece’s glass-enclosed frame—should have been a prime suspect from the get-go. The story doesn’t end there, though, as Scotti explores the notion that Peruggia was merely a puppet—that Mona Lisa was kidnapped to make it possible for co-conspirators to sell multiple forged versions, which netted tens of millions of dollars. 

Fast forward to today and Mona Lisa is as physically secure as a painting can be; it’s attended by personal guards, encased in concrete, and displayed behind two layers of bulletproof glass—security so obtrusive that many regard it as a failure in its own right. If nothing else, readers of “Vanished Smile” will appreciate why it is no longer possible to view this iconic work “in the flesh.”

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