(Knopf, 241 pages, $24.95)
Pablo Picasso certainly looked like a suspect when the most famous painting in the world was stolen from its wall in the Louvre in 1911. The young Spaniard ran with a crowd of modernists who had vowed to “burn down” Paris’ great museum, and he was rumored to be hiding two ancient sculpted heads that had been stolen from the Louvre’s collection four years before. But Paris authorities never did redeem themselves for the national humiliation of having Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa nabbed from under their noses. Italian police arrested the thief two years after the French manhunt began. The culprit turned out to be neither an iconoclast nor a mastermind. Vincenzo Peruggia was merely a carpenter who once worked for the museum.
A century later, questions linger about the case, said Richard Lacayo in Time. Peruggia apparently kept the masterpiece in a Paris closet for nearly two years before attempting to sell it to a Florentine art dealer. The Italian handyman claimed to have committed the crime for patriotic reasons, and was in a sense rewarded—Leonardo’s enigmatic beauty made a triumphal tour of Italy shortly after Peruggia’s arrest. R.A. Scotti’ s fast-moving account, however, inexcusably resurrects “an utterly unsubstantiated” story from the 1930s about a mysterious “marqués” who supposedly orchestrated the theft so he could sell forgeries of the painting to wealthy buyers. Scotti’s book needn’t traffic in such “garbage.” In places, her spirited work “reads like a prose poem with narrative gallop.”
Because Scotti badly overwrites at times, it’s better to admire Vanished Smile as merely a “rolling, clattering piece of entertainment,” said Dwight Garner in The New York Times. Beginning with an astute take on Mona Lisa’s unique power—“Each person who looks at her becomes the only person in her world”—Scotti never skimps on the tale’s savory details, and the “conspiracy theories” she considers leave her story “intriguingly hanging.” Peruggia, at least, found himself a happy ending, said Jeff Baker in the Portland Oregonian. After spending just eight months in jail and then joining the Italian army, this real-life antihero chose to move back to France, where he opened his own paint store.