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une femme disparaît

28 february 2019

In August 1911, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was stolen off a wall in Paris' Louvre museum by … let's spoil the whodunit right now, since that was 108 years ago … a tradesman named Vincenzo Peruggia. As you may know – or can easily guess – Peruggia didn't do much of anything with the picture the French call La Joconde. He kept it in his apartment for a couple of years, taking as decent care of it as you can when you own a priceless work of art and need to keep shifting it between your dining table and your woodpile so you can eat once in a while. La Joconde eventually made its way back to the Louvre, where you can see it today if you have the patience to elbow your way through a horde of selfie-taking tourists.

Jérôme Coignard's marvelous book Une femme disparaît is only partly about the rather banal theft and recovery of La Joconde, and at least as much about how the theft played out – in the media, in French and Italian culture, in the history of art and the history of museums.

Sandy Nairne lists four archetypal motives for stealing great artworks: resale, ransom, obsession, and politics. All four were posited by contemporary observers. Ransom quickly dropped off the list, though: the Mona Lisa seemed to simply walk off the wall of the gallery, and the thief never contacted authorities to make demands. (One wag feared that the bandit would cut off her ear as proof of life, but on reflection, he'd have had to draw one on first.)

Peruggia later tried to characterize his theft in terms of politics. He claimed, variously, that he was patriotically repatriating a masterpiece plundered from Italy – or alternatively, that he was working at the behest of a German provocateur. But there was also some evidence later on that he thought of shopping the picture to a fence. Peruggia made a list of potential American buyers, and at one point traveled to London to consult a broker who had moved a lot of art in the direction of the New World. But of course you can't just hock the Mona Lisa. Peruggia eventually took the painting to Italy with the vague idea that he would be rewarded for bringing it home. But King François I of France had bought the painting soon after Leonardo painted it, and the French government saved the receipt. The Mona Lisa seemed to be one of the few works in the galleries of the great imperial powers that they hadn't stolen. The picture duly made its way back to Paris, while Peruggia languished in an Italian jail.

Obsession, then, colored Peruggia's view of both profit and politics. Not erotic obsession, which was the obsession in turn of so many commentators; Peruggia seemed largely indifferent to the seductive smile of his hostage. He was aggrieved, though, at the prejudices he faced as an Italian worker in Paris. And he was also possibly not thinking straight. Coignard suspects that lead poisoning, a frequent occurrence in people who worked with paints and varnishes of the day, skewed Peruggia's judgment.

The millions of Joconde-crazy folk who followed the story avidly did not have that excuse. Coignard shows that the Mona Lisa became considerably more famous in its absence than it had ever been while it was just hanging around. As with other famous abduction victims, people reported seeing the Mona Lisa everywhere. Bizarrely elaborate theories circulated. One of the most intricate posited that thieves were having multiple copies executed, which they would then sell one by one to ultimately-disappointed buyers before "rescuing" the real thing and claiming a reward. Thousands of postcards and other reproductions were printed, and versions of La Gioconda with "Have You Seen Me?" scrawled on her bosom achieved the status of a primal, viral meme.

Of course, the whole attention of the Quai des Orfèvres was trained on recovering the painting. Much good it did. Investigators recovered one usable thumbprint from the glass box that the Mona Lisa was displayed in (Peruggia had removed her and cast the box aside). Peruggia's thumbprint was actually in the files of the renowned Bertillon, who practically invented forensic science. But the cataloging system Bertillon used made retrieval and matching almost impossible unless you had a suspect in mind. Peruggia, who had done some work for a Louvre contractor, might have been suspected, and was apparently even interviewed once, with the painting stashed a few meters away from the detective – but Peruggia was just some guy, nobody's idea of a master art thief, so no cop ever tipped to the connection.

It did seem more plausible that a daring gang of Belgian thieves had absconded with La Joconde. Following a trail of increasingly implausible leads, the Sûreté sent a pair of undercover operatives to Brussels. One posed as a clueless Englishman while the other served as "interpreter." They purported to be buyers for the picture, and spent lavishly on cars, yachts, and hotels to keep up the necessary appearances. But though the Belgians were certainly crooks, they were not thieves but conmen. The Mona Lisa was back in a Paris apartment the whole time, unbeknownst to any of those involved in the mutual sting.

It never seemed that Peruggia got much pleasure out of the painting he'd stolen. He had to keep it hidden most of the time. After the painting was recovered, police searched the premises for additional evidence, but found only

un lit de fer, une table, une chaise paillée, un petit fourneau, et pour œuvres d'art, une photographie encadrée du dôme de Milan et deux vases qui semblent avoir été gagnés à la foire. (254)

[an iron bedstead, a table, a caned chair, a little stove, and as far as artworks went, a framed photograph of the cathedral of Milan and two vases that looked like somebody had won them at a carnival.]
You'd think the guy could at least have hung his Leonardo on the wall and looked at it once in a while. But is she much to look at, after all? Coignard reports that many who saw La Gioconda after her recovery found that she did not live up to the imaginary status she'd acquired while missing. She was just a Renaissance woman "au teint jaune, au visage bouffi" (243) – with a yellow cast and a puffy face. The Mona Lisa is a byword for mystery, and her disappearance enhanced that mystery. She will never be quite as intriguing in her found condition.

Though her mysteries have multiplied over the past century. Coignard notes a dynamic that also applies to Shakespeare and many another classic: "A vrai dire, on en savait beaucoup plus sur Monna Lisa et sa famille en 1911 qu'on en sait aujourd'hui" (76) – to be honest, we knew a lot more about Mona Lisa and her family in 1911 than we know today. Not that we have lost that knowledge, but that we have become less confident in what we know and how we know it: to the point where even the identification of the sitter as Lisa, wife of Francesco del Giocondo, is no longer as certain as it then seemed. We only know that her image, whoever she was, has taken some odd detours along its way to our gaze.

Coignard, Jérôme. Une femme disparaît: Le vol de La Joconde au Louvre en 1911. 2010. Paris: Le Passage, 2018.