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A true detective story for young readers about the 1911 heist of the Mona Lisa

A portion of the cover of Nicholas Day's "Mona Lisa Vanishes."
Courtesy
A portion of the cover of Nicholas Day's "Mona Lisa Vanishes."

It's challenging to imagine a time when the Mona Lisa wasn't a household name. The portrait is now iconic — and parodied.

She's been depicted in Legos, driving a convertible, as Princess Leia. But long before this, the Mona Lisa was just a painting among many at the Louvre Museum in Paris. Until it was stolen.

Writer Nicholas Day turned the 1911 theft — of what is now one of the most famous paintings in the world — into a book for young readers, "The Mona Lisa Vanishes."

Day, , who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, spoke to NEPM's Jill Kaufman about the heist, the painting's recovery— and how, over centuries, the world of art and progress collided.

Nicholas Day, author: So this story plays out in a pre-World War I Paris, in which everything is changing extremely quickly. Not just in the arts, but in technology, of course. And information can get across the Atlantic, can get across the Pacific in a period of time that's so much shorter than it had been before. And that's one of the reasons that the theft of the Mona Lisa becomes such a sensation.

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: I'm struck by the difference between then and now. Because this is a story about communication, as you said, that has elements that are what we live now — but in a different, slower pace.

Well, I think it's shocking that there was a time in which the Mona Lisa was not the iconic painting that it is today. It was certainly well known, but it was well known among people who cared about art. It was well known among other painters. But the idea that someone on the street would know about it? Absolutely not.

It's the story of this sensational theft that vaults the Mona Lisa to the prominence that it has today.

Did you start out writing a book about the theft of Mona Lisa to access actually writing about da Vinci or criminal forensics, which you also write about?

Well, it's a wonderful story because it has the backbone of a heist, especially for young readers. And you have that running through the whole story, and it gives the reader a sense of tension and suspense. Then off that backbone, you can hang all these interesting bits of information about Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance [and] sidetracks in the narrative involving Pablo Picasso.

The thief turned out to be Italian. Vincenzo Peruggia wanted to bring the Mona Lisa back to Italy. He believed the painting had been stolen long ago, hundreds of years earlier. What happened to him?

The Mona Lisa theft is such an enormous theft that it was very hard for people to believe that the person who carried it out could be this somewhat unimpressive Italian house painter living in a pretty squalid apartment in Paris.

And so one of the reasons that the theft wasn't solved for so long is that everyone was looking for a very accomplished, debonair thief. This man, Vincenzo Peruggia, escaped everyone's notice. He ends up not being jailed, but actually released on time-served, and he opens up a paint store and he sort of disappears from history.

What were you using to write this tale, based in history? I don't know if you've fictionalized much.

The whole book is 100% nonfiction. Everything that's here actually happened.

There's been a wonderful amount of scholarly work done on early 20th century Paris, the history of the Louvre, the history of the Mona Lisa, of course, and Leonardo da Vinci, the story of Pablo Picasso. And so it's just a question of sorting through it and finding the narrative that will keep readers turning the pages.

What made you think about writing this for young readers?

It's such a wonderfully exciting story because it starts with an art theft, and I think everyone has this sort of weird soft spot for art theft. I think because it has this image of being very sophisticated, and it also I think it's a crime, but it's a different sort of crime. It's not a violent crime.

So I thought that this would be a perfect story to bring readers into these two different worlds in which they're weirdly similar. There's so much changing in both turn-of-the-century Paris with the birth of modernism, and also the Renaissance, which is of course a very literal rebirth.

You're teaching here. Like you write, "A weird thing happened during the search for the Mona Lisa. The theft became a work of art itself. When we call anything art... " You're guiding readers, myself included.

I can read that part if you want.

Sure, sure.

A weird thing happened during the search for Mona Lisa: the theft became a work of art itself.

When we call anything art—whether it is a painting, or a video, or a urinal (an actual thing people have called art)—we are saying, This is interesting. Look at this. The word art is a way of marking something as worthy of our attention.

And nothing demanded more attention than the disappearance of the Mona Lisa.

In the weeks after the theft, every detail of August 21, 1911, was examined. Everything odd, everything ordinary. It was as if the aliens had come down to Earth at last but what they wanted was not our genetic code, or our fresh water, or our electric guitars. What they wanted was to know about August in Paris in 1911.

Have you gone to see the Mona Lisa?

I have still not seen it.

Do you want to see her? Behind glass, knowing what you know about how she used to be shown?

I would love to see it at some point, although it's a little dispiriting because it's very hard to get a look at the painting.

I think, you know, like the thief, I would like to creep in in the dead of night and have the Mona Lisa all to myself.

Jill Kaufman has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing "The Connection" with Christopher Lydon and on "Morning Edition" reporting and hosting. She's also hosted NHPR's daily talk show "The Exhange" and was an editor at PRX's "The World."