Inspired by the story that the Louvre was to auction a private viewing of the Mona Lisa out of her frame to raise money, I wrote a short story about the painting’s disappearance. I’ve always thought of myself as very much not a writer of fiction, and my effort has reinforced that opinion – encouraged by two kind novelists of my acquaintance. I don’t regret trying. Like the formatted prose (a sort of poetry) I write, it was useful to flex my muscles in a different literary arena before returning to genres of writing that I can do at a more professional level. I am now inflicting it on anyone who wants to see what the problems were.
The leather soles of chief curator’s smart new shoes click on the polished floors as he strides past the parade of masterpieces lining the limitless halls. It is a progress grand enough for Napoleon mounted on his famed Marengo. The restored parquet tiles shine brightly – but for how long? No trace could possibly remain of the blood of his murdered predecessor in Dan Brown’s dishonest novel, which he disliked. He had serious doubts about the “Da Vinci Code Tour” foisted on the curators by the marketing people. At least he had persuaded them to add “Between Fiction and Fact” to the title of the tour. In spite of the American author’s duplicitous claims, there is too much of the former and only a thin skim of the latter, here and there. As a chief curator he was younger than usual but he was fast learning to stand up to institutional bullying.
He walks briskly past Mantegna and Bellini without so much of glance. And many others. He feels a pang of sadness for the wonderful pictures that struggle to gain even passing attention from the touristic millions. The Uccello “Battle” could do with the conservators’, attentions he reminds himself. He’s suggested this but it’s still not on the agenda. The Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France might be based in the Louvre but as a national service it was not at the beck and call of the mighty museum.
His job this morning is not to dwell on Leonardo’s penumbral “St John the Baptist’, leering at us from his panel with sharply pointing finger and reed cross, or the murky magic of the ‘Virgin of the Rocks’, which embarrassingly had looked so much better during its loan to London. The radiance of brightly cleaned “St Anne” does no favours to the pair of other Leonardos. They are still gearing up to clean the “Virgin”, which is not in good condition, but the inevitable controversy is a deterrent. The aggressive response to the cleaning of the “St Anne’ had given the curators much grief. Did they really want a repeat? Fortunately, not his decision, he smiled to himself.
He doesn’t break his stride. He knows that they will be waiting for him in the gallery that opens off the corridor of halls. It is that day of the year when “La Gioconde” is removed from her protective prison to be inspected. So sealed in her fortified compartment – and so difficult to see – her welfare has to be taken on trust. He assumes that all is in order within. It has been so far, at least since the painting was last attacked in 1956 by the mentally disturbed Bolivian. Temperature and humidity are controlled within what are considered to be safe limits. The enclosure is as secure as it can be, given that it needs to be more-or-less visible to the millions who have come specifically to see it.
His determined march to his destination is not so different from that of countless visitors, pressing on to gawp at the “Mona Lisa” and hurrying past treasures inherited from the grand institutions of regal and revolutionary France. Another hall passes by, once resplendent with rich red walls, like all the others, for as long as anyone could remember. There was a certain imperial grandeur to the old colour, but things now had to look modern – or that was what was said. The pale walls, graceless screens and lowered ceilings are not a gain, he muses ; a compromised modernity very unlike the original settings of the majority of the pictures. As a youngish man he felt a twinge of guilt for preferring the look of the past. He is almost there. The cattle-pen awaiting the corralled public when the museum opens tomorrow is not for him. He ignores the assertive arrow and the rather worn photo of Lisa and turns into the passage marked “sortie”.
This is the room that hosts the most famous image in the world, as all the guides and brochures insist. He has grown not to like the peculiar orangey, sandy-beach colour of the lofty walls. It had looked attractive enough on the sample panel that the consultant decorator had shown them. It looked quite nicely varied in texture and warm in colour. “It’s like silk”, they were told. Spread over the full extent of the lofty room it just looks odd and pointless.
As he enters, he is of course aware that there are the other paintings in the room. Notably conspicuous is the substantial ceiling painting of “Jupiter Expelling the Vices” by Paolo Veronese, one of the great Venetian masters. It features muscular Vices performing aerial acrobatics under pressure from Jupiter’s fistful of thunderbolts. It was originally located in a large oval compartment on a carved ceiling in the Doge’s Palace. It looks incongruous as a wall painting, but even he is not going to suggest that they mount it above the viewers in imitation of its original setting. It should go home to Venice, from where it had been purloined by Napoleon’s agents. The Louvre had fobbed off the Venetians with a decent copy. The same painter’s truly massive “Feast in the House of Levi” occupies most of the width of the end wall. But somehow the little dingy portrait overwhelms it. Few bother to ask what is going on in Veronese’s populous canvas. There are other smaller works of supreme quality, but they serve as mere space-fillers.
The subject of their sole attention has already been released from it’s relatively new prison. It is still in the Renaissance frame that it was given in 1906. The sight of the protective glass reminds him that it was a one-time odd-job man and glass cleaner, Vincenzo Peruggia, who managed to steal the painting in 1911. He had parked the frame and glass in a stairwell before smuggling the panel out of a back door under a worker’s smock. Peruggia wanted to repatriate it to his native Italy, believing (falsely in this case) that it had been stolen by Napoleon.
The queues of people who were keen to see the space vacated by Lisa were initially longer than of those who had earlier assembled to look at the real thing. Two impotent years of investigations passed before it was recovered, but not before Picasso and others had been rounded up as suspects. Peruggia eventually broke cover and was arrested when he tried to gain recompense for presenting it to the Uffizi.
The poplar panel sits squarely on an experienced wooden easel. Standing spotlights, not too bright, are already focussed on it, and Walter Pater’s ‘submarine goddess’ is emerging to breathe the soft air, gaining discernible increments of life. The chief curator greets the sturdy picture-handlers, who have done the job before so affect a gruff French nonchalance. One lifting job is much like another. It’s just paint on a board, after all. The Director of Research and Restoration is there with two staff members. Two other painting curators have also arrived, together with three of the kind of security men that no-one would volunteer to meet on a dark night.
The handlers place the framed picture face down on a small table and one of the conservation staff, equipped with a screwdriver, releases it from its gilded frame and glass. They have a few minutes before President is due to arrive.
“Let’s take it over to the window”, the chief curator suggests, “while we’re waiting”.
The handlers move the panel and easel over to a large window. He knows what will happen, but it is always thrilling. Newly bathed in living natural light, he watches Leonardo’s thin glazes of warm flesh tones play games of refraction and reflection with the white priming of the panel, while the blues – the best lapis lazuli from Ethiopia – vibrate in the distant spaces of the watery mountains. This is like visiting Leonardo’s studio, which he set up specifically to create varied and melting effects of light on faces. The action of natural light stands in marked contrast to the monotonously clinical illumination now favoured by our art galleries. He would have loved to hover at Leonardo’s elbow as the sun made its transit across the blue heavens of Florence, changing its spectral composition as it goes. The effects in winter were notably varied. After more than half a millennium, Lisa breathes again. He feels reluctant to express this openly. It sounds a touch pretentious. But he can sense that the other curators are witnessing something remarkable.
The President Director of the Louvre arrives. He looks neither grand nor un-grand. His had been an unexpected internal appointment at a time when there was a powerful lobby for a woman from outside to be awarded the hugely prestigious post. Even though he was once ‘one of them’, the body language of the small group of museum employees changes in the presence of their boss. He is generally well-liked and greets each by name. He has been well briefed. He moves decisively to stand in front of the panel in the window, while the others shuffle backwards to provide him with elbow room. A silence, seemingly quite long, is broken.
“Magnificent”. Another pause. ‘How I wish that she could always be seen like this. We wouldn’t have to argue about cleaning. The light of the skies does it for us… Shall we begin? We have our guests.”
Things are different this year. “La Gioconde” – roughly translatable as “The Smiling One” – is being put to work as a fund raiser. The Louvre has teamed up with Christie’s and the Parisian sale-room, Hôtel Drouot, to auction a privileged meeting with the sitter on her unencumbered panel. Bids are invited for one person and their guest to pass time with the wife of Francesco del Giocondo while she is undergoing her annual health check.
Wags were opining that Lisa del Giocondo (neé Gherardini), a bourgeois Florentine woman from an aristocratic but impoverished Tuscan family, had become a courtesan, pimped by the Louvre. No matter that she passed her last years in a convent and seems to have been of unquestioned virtue. After the sapping ravages of the COVID virus, even the majestic Louvre needs to raise money by ruses that would never have been given house room previously. The chief curator just about suppresses his underlying distaste for the auction.
Consolation prizes for bidders were to include personal tours of the Louvre by day and night in the company of Monsieur le President, and a scenic visit to the roof. Wealthy patrons are offered the chance to bid over the first two weeks in December. The winner, perhaps predictably, is a tough Russian oligarch, a friend of Putin, who collects modern and contemporary art on a large and record-breaking scale. The chief curator is not surprised. Just as Christie’s had auctioned Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi for $450 million in a sale of inflated recent art, so the top bidder sees Leonardo as more than an old master. Leonardo is the ultimate cultural star, unconstrained by history. He is paying little short of $100,000 for the most intimate of private views.
In the hall in the Louvre, the easel has returned to its original position. The oligarch is ushered deferentially into the company with his wife (or partner) who looks precisely as she should, elegantly and slimly poised on elevated heels designed to test the newly polished parquet. He exudes bullet-headed power, expensively suited with no tie, and is greeted with a calculated display of French courtesy by the President, who effects introductions. The rich Russian speaks fluent English with a rolling accent but only poor French. They proceed in English, which the present-day staff of the Louvre speak ably but with a nagging reluctance. The overall air amongst the curatorial staff is uneasy.
The Director outlines what they will do. The panel has been placed tenderly on a strip of velvet, face down. It has been reinforced since the last century within an oak surround which is spanned by three cross-bars. The idea is to hold the panel firmly but not with excessive rigidity. The head of conservation explains to the guests what they are seeing.
The oddest feature is at the top of the panel. Just to the right of the centre, a rectangular wooden strip has been inserted vertically in the direction of the grain. Crossing the insertion are two pairs of inset dovetail joints (shaped like butterflies) – or rather the top joint had fallen out at some point and been replaced by a coarse canvas which has been stuck into the joint and down the added strip . There are some scrawled labels, no longer readily readable. An “H” and a “29” have been scribbled rapidly on to the scarred surface of the wood, seemingly some time ago. There are traces of sticky cream-coloured paper around the edges. It’s all a bit of a mess. Lisa’s underwear is unexpectedly scruffy. The unsightliness is shared by the backs of many old paintings, as the curators and restorers well know.
The conservator explains that there is an old split in the wood at the top of the panel that previous restorers have secured on at least two occasions. Enjoying the wrong side of paintings is a rather specialised taste, but the oligarch understands that he is seeing a ‘secret’ that few have been privileged to witness. But he is becoming restless to find that he is a passive bit-player in the conservators’ arcane mini-drama. He is used to controlling matters and being the centre of attention.
The main concern of the staff is whether the panel has warped during the last 12 months. As wooden panels go, the warping is not severe, but every quotient of curvature puts strain on the wood and the layers of priming and the paint. There are already more than enough cracks. The conservators have devised a special tool to detect renewed warping. It consists of a bar on to which a micrometer has been ingeniously mounted. It is nicknamed the “giocondometer”. Tiny fractions of millimetres are duly registered and compared to previous measurements. The panel has moved slightly as is to be expected. Basically it is OK. They also check for infestation. All that is apparent are some old woodworm holes.
The panel is tuned over and the painted surface gently dusted, The chief curator always gets a frisson from the moment when the revered image becomes a very material object, as it was when Leonardo was working on it and transported it across the mountain passes into France three years before his death. The experts look carefully at the crack, which darts down into Lisa’s hairline. The raised and jagged edges of the fissure are clearly apparent, as are some fringes of discolouration from earlier retouching. The previous year one of the conservators had effected a quick repair to secure a small strip of lifted paint beside the crack. Old pictures need loving care and attention. This time no immediate actions need to be taken. However, the rather neglected guests do need attention.
They are each given a hands-free magnifier, with two rectangular lenses set in the front of a stout plastic band, adjustable at the rear. The magnifiers look a bit like motorcycle goggles. The panel is set back on its easel and the lights repositioned. The oligarch goes first, guided to various regions of the painting by chief curator. They exchange a few remarks. The chief curator points out that the natural edge of the original paint surface ends inside the margins of the polar panel. This means that what was visible of the flanking columns was only ever thin slivers, unlike the fuller columns in most of the copies and in contrast to what many of the books say.
As the oligarch peers through his goggles, he finds the deep network of cracks assertively unsettling. Gradually and subconsciously they retreat in his eyes to become little more than scratchy background noise, like the crackles on an ancient blues record. He begins to navigate through the pictorial wonders. He is astonished at how little seems definite. Nothing seems defined. What seemed like edges are not. From normal viewing distance the bridge visible over Lisa’s shoulder seemed to be a structure. Under magnification it is the ghost of a bridge. The same with the mountains. Even the features of her face remain elusive. The famous smile is deeply uncertain in its contours. The fiddly knot design at the neckline of her dress is more defined, but still not absolutely.
Leonardo draws us into the image but then leaves us to do the work of definition. The elusive subtleties are far beyond the capacity of the modern sensation-seekers whose art he normally purchased. The magnifier is becoming irksome. He feels the need to recapture what Leonardo himself saw and what we can see with our natural eyesight. He takes off the glasses, thrusts them into the chief curator’s hands, and stares intensively. No-one speaks. He had bid to see the painting as a kind of trophy experience. But this experience transcends the customary kudos of power.
“Your go”, he says, turning to his companion.
She looks with her magnifier in prolonged silence, slowly and systematically, or so it seems. She has so far said almost nothing. The staff anticipate a dumb remark to which they will politely respond. “Why are the cracks so different in the face and in the hands?”. A good and considered question. The conservator says that the layers of paint in her head, into which Leonardo had put sustained effort, probably over a number of years, are much thicker and more varied in composition than in the hands. The thicker layers are prone to deep cracking.
“Could you do something about the cracks? Give it a clean?”
The president gives a strangled laugh.
“It would be the most difficult clean in the world. It’s not going to happen on my watch”.
“Even if I pay for it?”, her partner jokes.
“Even then” is the answer.
Everyone laughs spontaneously. The whole atmosphere has lightened. Leonardo has performed his act of aesthetic diplomacy, across social and national divisions, with Lisa’s teasing connivance.
12 months have passed. The same walk, his shoes now fully broken in. It is an established ritual. It helps bond the chief curator to the inner world of the greatest of all national museums. He feels good. At least this year they could get on with the job without paying guests. He says as much as he greets the small team assembled in the room. No Director this year and no stern security men. They agree to repeat the window experience, not because it is necessary but because they can, and it is deeply moving. The same man with the same screwdriver loosens the panel and its oak surround within its old frame. Something feels not quite right. Lifting the panel free, he feels something bizarre. The weight is wrong. It is much too light.
“No’ he says, quietly. “No, no”, more loudly.
The others press in and ask what is wrong, fearing something very unwelcome.
“This is not it”, he states in a loud whisper.
Something has happened that makes no sense. There is no logic. They had witnessed the painting going back into its frame and prison last year. The chief restorer grabs the panel. He raps it with his knuckles. It makes a plasticky sound.
“This”, he says slowly and deliberately, “is a replica made by 3-D printing”.
He had seen how a few leading companies in the world could now create digital replicas which are uncannily true in colour, tone and texture. Front and back. The tell-tale signs that the replicas are not the real thing are the weight and the touch (above all the temperature). No-one could tell peering at the painting in its prison.
“I’ll get the Director” shouts one of the curators, breaking into a run.
The chief curator calls the Director’s mobile. “Come now, please, it is an emergency”.
The other curator calls security. “There has been a theft. We must shut down everything. Now! Immediately”.
Within seconds a raucous siren is shrieking.
The chief curator feels ill, a deep, numb nothingness streaked with fear.
“How, who, when…? Had the oligarch loved the picture too much? Maybe a stupid thought. Think, think. It could have been a year ago. It could have been yesterday. Is it an inside job?”.
Nothing makes sense. They are back in 1911, only worse. They are going to crucified by the world-wide media.
To buy time they could put it back and tell no-one other than the police. Or they could just put it back and pretend. In the vortex of the chief curator’s teeming thoughts nothing is unthinkable – other than loss itself.