Book Review: “The Thefts of the Mona Lisa”

Charney, "The Thefts of the Mona Lisa," published by ARCA (2011)

If you are looking for a book this holiday season (either to give as a gift or to read yourself), I heartily recommend Noah Charney’s new book, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa. I read the book over Thanksgiving break (which was easy to do, since the book is just a little over 100 pages). Like Charney’s book Stealing the Mystic Lamb, this book on the Mona Lisa was informative, thought-provoking, engaging, and entertaining.

In some ways, I think that Charney presents books in the same way that I like to deliver art history lectures. He even includes the same kind of anecdotes that I think students would find interesting. I even laughed out loud when I read Charney’s musings on what Leonardo da Vinci might have accomplished if Ritalin was available in the 15th century.1

This book not only discusses the infamous 1911 theft of the statue by handyman Vincenzo Peruggia,  but other crimes involving the famous portrait. I particularly enjoyed reading about Picasso’s indirect involvement with the Mona Lisa: the artist was accused of stealing the Mona Lisa, but in reality was (only!) guilty of owning some Iberian statuettes which were stolen from the Louvre in 1906 or 1907. Charney even convincingly discusses how Picasso, as a criminal collector, may have hired the thief in the affaire des statuettes.2

Anyhow, you should read the book. It’s a lot of fun, and I enjoyed just about everything in it. In some ways, I’m a little surprised that I liked the book so much, because I don’t particularly love the Mona Lisa (Leonardo da Vinci, 1503-1506) as a work of art. Oh, I think the painting looks alright, but I’m a little repelled by the varnish and greenish-tint of the painting. And the crowd in front of the painting at the Louvre is off-putting, to say the least. I had a much more meaningful experience at the Louvre with one of Leonardo’s other paintings, The Virgin of the Rocks (c. 1483-1486).

But back to the Mona Lisa. I have to admit that I am much more impressed with this painting when I look at some of the digital restorations that have been proposed over the past few years. This one by Lumiere Technology is especially appealing to me. I like the bluish tint to the landscape and the delicacy (and visibility) of Lisa’s veil. I also like the digital reconstruction created by Naoko Gunji and Jane Vadnal (no link – I have yet to find a digital copy of the reconstruction online). Gunji and Vadnal sought to suggest the original colors, but also restore the original proportions of the painting. The reconstruction includes more of the columns which have been cropped off the sides of the original panel.3 On the flip side, some other suggested restorations available online seem a little too, uh, fanciful.

What are your thoughts on the Mona Lisa? Have you read Charney’s book yet? One other last plug for the book – proceeds from the book sales go to support ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art. ARCA is an international nonprofit research group. If you love art crime, you should buy this book to support a very worthy cause!

Many thanks to Noah Charney and ARCA press for supplying a review copy of this book.

1 Charney, The Thefts of the Mona Lisa, (ARCA: 2011), 12. Leonardo da Vinci was famous for starting projects, but never seeing them through. Consequently, a lot of the extant paintings by Leonardo are unfinished. Vasari even writes that Leonardo left the “Mona Lisa” unfinished. Although the painting seems to be finished today, it could be that Leonardo was never completely satisfied with the final product. See Charney, 21.

2 Charney, 55-59.

3 A reproduction of the Gungi and Vadnal reconstruction is found in David G. Wilkins, Bernard Schultz, Katheryn M. Linduff, Art Past Art Present, 6th edition, (Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2009), 311.

  • heidenkind says:

    I have to say I wasn’t too impressed with it (or should I say her?) when I saw it in person, but then one develops high expectations for something like The Mona Lisa. The greenish tint is pretty bad. It was also a lot smaller than I was expecting! I would like to see it again now that I know more about it.

  • Samantha Broadhead says:

    I had the same experience at the Louvre. As an Art History major it was a life time dream to go to Europe and see the art. So needless to say I was excited to see The Mona Lisa only to find she was smaller than I imaged. I had studied the work and had been told the dimensions in lectures but her legacy and fame makes the painting seem larger than life. She’s the icon most people think of when they think of “Fine Art”. Then to add the huge crowds and the distance you have to stand due to museum security the experience wasn’t what I had dreamed of.

    I kind of felt like she lost a bit of her value in my opinion. I felt as though it’s her fame and name not Leonardo’s that they were admiring because the next room with The Virgin of the Rocks that you also mentioned had no one looking at it. I was shocked!

    Still a fan of his work though and those restorations are quite interesting, I don’t think I’ve noticed her curly hair before. Thanks for sharing this book, I can’t wait to read it.

  • Thanks for your comments, heidenkind and Samantha. Yes, I also was struck with Mona Lisa’s small size. (And no one was standing in front of “The Virgin of the Rocks” when I went there, either! I was really surprised, but happy that I got to spend some time alone with that canvas.)

    Some day I think it would be fun to create 3-D models or some type of visual marker so my students can see how big/small some of these masterpieces actually are. I want students to realize that the Ghent altarpiece is MASSIVE whereas the “Kritios Boy” is relatively small. (I actually think that creating models/outlines to scale would make a really interesting exhibition. People visiting the exhibition could just simply think about space, scale, and the larger-than-life characteristics that are attributed to masterpieces.)

  • H Niyazi says:

    Thanks for this review M! I’m looking forward to getting stuck into my own copy/review in the new year.

    I think a nice accompaniment to this review is Charney’s recent interview with Martin Kemp. You can really see how facinated he is by the Mona Lisa theft by the questions he asked Kemp, particularly the nature of the high quality early copy that was near the Louvre directors office.

    Those interested can read the interview at Charney’s blog on artinfo here :

    Speaking of life size facsimiles of art, I think its a great idea. I’m reminded of Peter Greenaways installations, and think such things should be more common in museums

    The Google art project, whilst limited to a certain number of museums (and a low-fi gallery shot) can provide a quick idea of scale of works in situ, which is always good to get an idea of scale. eg. Botticelli’s fascinating “Calumny of Apelles” is often ignored, diminuitive as it is beside the much larger “Primavera”.

    I do look forward to larger, more realistic facsimiles – they would be invaluable in teaching, not to mention promoting accessibility to people who may never get to the places these works are located.

    Kind Regards

  • Thanks for the comment, H! Yes, the Google Art Project does help with the idea of scale, at least to some degree. These gallery shots also help to provide some comparisons between the scale of different works of art, as you pointed out in your comment.

    I’m glad you put up a link to the Kemp interview by Charney! That is a great way to compliment my review. I really enjoyed reading that interview when it first was posted.

  • Joolee R says:

    Not a fan of the Mona Lisa either, but this book sounds interesting! Thanks for a great review!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.