WHO was Mona Lisa? What was her relationship to Leonardo, and what was the secret of her smile? These are the questions RA Scotti asks in her new book, and she continues to pile them on. After the painting was stolen, "Where was she? Who took her? And most perplexingly of all, why?"
The overload of questions may lead readers to wonder: Why so many questions? Is it because the actual central issue of who stole the Mona Lisa is not sufficiently interesting to sustain a full book?
The answer is yes. The single mystery of the Mona Lisa's theft is inadequate subject matter for a 238-page hardback. Even now, no one knows who was behind the theft of the famous painting, which was taken from the Louvre in 1911 and returned to the museum two years later.
RA Scotti has chosen this story as a starting point for a cultural history, weaving characters like Picasso and Goethe in with shadier figures, and topics such as the growth of the newspaper industry in with discussion of Leonardo's painting technique. The result is readable and informative, if slightly patchy, with fact and fiction sitting side by side.
The book begins with the author's personal encounter with the painting on a rainy day in Paris: "I dashed from my hotel room... and took refuge in the Louvre." Five pages later, we're in 1911, meeting elusive conman Eduardo de Valfierno, who may or may not have orchestrated the theft. The narrative sweeps you along, through the initial hunt for the painting, to a description of the various suspects (Picasso among them) to an exploration of the identity of Lisa del Giocondo herself and the painting's recovery.
An excess of drama and mystification mars the book, and Scotti's phrasing can seem forced. "Mona Lisa had the most famous face in the world and the most uncertain identity," Scotti says. The painting "often made men do strange things," like sending love-letters to the Louvre (admittedly, this is rather strange). By page 69, Mona Lisa has become "the most wanted woman in the world".
From the start, Scotti personifies the painting, and this is sometimes successful, other times not. Mona Lisa "had stepped out of her frames as effortlessly as a woman stepped out of her petticoats" -- did women step out of petticoats effortlessly in the early 20th Century? And the file on the crime was "like a missing-persons report".
Scotti's writing is underpinned by thorough research, much of which was done, she tells us, at the New York Public Library. That doesn't stop it from lapsing into generalisations and cliche. Europeans may be amused to learn that Parisians are "famously blase", and Florence is a city that "celebrates civilisation as restraint". The day Leonardo's painting is stolen from the Louvre, the heat "trivialised 4,000 years of art and history". The Mona Lisa itself is a painting of "eternal beauty, infinite depth and dangerous enchantment". This is vague, breathless writing.
Despite these flaws, the story gains pace. It's fascinating to read Scotti's imaginative rendering of Picasso's early life, when he lived in artistic poverty in a tenement in Paris with his beautiful mistress Fernande Olivier. Picasso was a swaggering figure, Scotti says, and she draws on his mistress's memoir to add detail: he was "'short, dark and uneasy in a way that makes you feel uneasy yourself'".
Along with Picasso, other intriguing characters appear, several of whom are still household names. The original JP Morgan is one, who was, in 1911, "the gold standard of American millionaires". Morgan was a passionate and prolific art collector, and Parisians suspected he had bought the painting. He denied it was ever offered to him, though after his death, evidence emerged to suggest that the thief may have tried to sell it to him. It's telling that this fantastically rich banker was implicated in such a shady deal.
On many occasions Scotti sprinkles historical information deftly and unobtrusively into the story. In 1911, not even masterpieces were bolted to the walls of the Louvre, she reveals. The policy was intended to make them easier to rescue in a fire, but also meant that they could be plucked from the wall with little difficulty. She notes, too, that Leonardo had painted the Mona Lisa on a panel of "white Lombardy poplar", a fact that emphasises the special character of the painting.
Scotti devotes substantial space to the history of journalism. The subject seems only tangentially related to the Mona Lisa, but it is engaging enough for you to forget that quibble. She recounts how Valfierno apparently confessed his involvement in the crime to a flamboyant journalist called Karl Decker. Decker revealed the supposed truth only years later, after Valfierno died, and by then little evidence remained to prove the case. At that time, she adds, "American journalism had undergone a bleaching. The New York Times' staid style had become the model."
Ultimately, Scotti does not discover who was behind the Mona Lisa theft, although she explores every possibility as far as she can go. What's perhaps most captivating is Scotti's own obsession with identity. From her name it's unclear whether she is male or female. Most of her other books are mysteries, and in her biography she explains: "because international espionage is largely a man's field, to sell the novel to a publisher, I had to pretend to be a man -- RA Scotti". She only came out as a woman when her reputation was secure.
The Lost Mona Lisa will teach you quite a bit about 20th-Century art and journalism; which makes it matter less that it answers few of the many questions it raises.a