Vanished Smile: The Mysterious Theft of the Mona Lisa by RA Scotti

Vanished Smile cover

“1911 was a year of grand escapades. In the boatyards of Liverpool, a magnificent new ocean liner was under construction. Its builders boasted that it would be ‘unsinkable.’ In Antarctica, Captain Robert Falcon Scott was trudging across the frozen plateau to the South Pole, the Union Jack folded in his pack, dreaming of making history, and in Paris, a plan was brewing to pinch the most famous painting in the world. Of these three grand escapades, the first seemed assured of success, the second likely, and the third not only improbable but impossible.”

Man, who doesn’t love a good heist story? The theft of the Mona Lisa, stolen in 1911 and recovered in 1913, is on par with Ocean’s Eleven with its eccentric list of suspects, apparent simplicity hiding complex pre-planning, and a theft that involved a tangled mass of accomplices and complications. The painting vanished practically into thin air one afternoon, leaving the French police scrambling for suspects (some of whom included young Pablo Picasso and Guillame Apollinaire) and going on a worldwide search for the stolen painting. One of the French detectives in charge of the case was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, and used the case to test his theories on fingerprinting in order to solve a case. The entire world, meanwhile, went into straight-up mourning for the lost painting. The eventual culprit was caught, but seemed like such an unlikely criminal mastermind that no one believed he had really done it. Years later, a new story surfaced that revealed the real reasons for the theft, but hang on – even that story might be a lie. Even decades later, experts aren’t sure exactly why the Mona Lisa was stolen. There are theories, but nothing has been conclusively proven yet.

If you’ve never heard that the Mona Lisa was stolen and are seriously intrigued by the story, then RA Scotti’s book is a great crash course on the heist. She describes the painting’s notoriety pre- and post-theft, goes into detail about the various suspects and their motivations, and discusses the history of the painting itself (such as who Mona Lisa really was and how da Vinci painted the work). The story reads like a Hollywood heist story, and it’s a lot of fun. I have only two gripes: first, the story is only 227 pages long, so Scotti doesn’t go into as much detail as I’d have liked when she discusses the theories behind the theft; and also, Scotti’s narration has a tendency to run towards the melodramatic (“Mona Lisa had been spirited away, leaving no forwarding address.”) to the point where I would read a breathlessly dramatic sentence and expect to hear the CSI: Miami theme song blaring from the pages. Also in this version the Mona Lisa is basically a character, and Scotti writes like it’s a person that’s been kidnapped:

“Men had been coming to court her for years, bearing flowers, notes, and poems… She accepted their attentions democratically but gave nothing in return, just the same half-smile. She conferred it on all equally. A promise, a tease, a warning. No man could be sure.”

This is a painting Scotti’s writing about. A painting. It got annoying, frankly, to keep reading about the Mona Lisa being referred to as “her.” It’s a painting, Scotti, not a human being. Try to calm down over there.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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