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Mona Lisa : Questions of Insecurity
Part Two in Riff's series
(Part Two on the Mona Lisa story. The writer indulges in a bit of time traveling back to the Prefecture on Île de la Cité in 1911 for an interview with Chief Inspector Florissant.)
I barely had two feet in the Inspector’s door before he was on the attack.
-So it’s you. I read your article. You’ve got it all wrong. You fell for the first story you heard. Probably copied it out of another paper. He paused to light his pipe.
-The sheer amount of fake news out there these days…the Chief of Detectives swung one leg over the desk and tipped back in his chair. You’re a journalist ? he asked without looking at me, leaning forward to rifle through a mess of papers. - Or claim to be, he said before I could answer. You’ve never shown me your papers, he said just to rile me. Why don’t you take a seat. I don’t like it when people hover like that.
I sat down but not before dragging out my press pass from a small left wing newspaper on the West Coast. I’d never been in the Gendarmerie’s HQ on Île de la Cité before and I was a little on edge. Inspector Florissant wasn’t helping things.
-You journalists get everything wrong. That story you published last week… You want the truth about the missing painting ? Nobody cared about it at all. Then it disappears and it’s big news, most important painting in the Louvre. You all go running after the Italian fellow when it isn’t him at all. Or rather, he’s peripheral to the story. I’ll tell you who we’re watching but you’ll have to keep it to yourself. He paused. Care for a shot of cognac ? A drawer low down on his desk creaked open.
-We have a problem here in France. Paris in particular. Too many immigrants, just flying over the borders.
-Not you, not the Americans. You come and go. You’re just businessmen or sightseers. No longterm effect whatsoever. But the Italians, the Spaniards, the Belge, the North Africans, the whole damn lot - too many. We can’t keep track of all of them. Many are fine but some… their motives are unclear.
I let him go on grousing. Florissant held up two blurry portraits.
-Look familiar ?
I scanned the faces of the young men before they went back on the pile. I’d never seen either of them before.
-Both foreigners. Pretentious sons of bitches. Claim to be artists. One with no known income, the other works as a bank teller. We did full background checks on both, and all their friends. Incredible really.
Incredible how ? I asked.
-You wouldn’t believe it. Where these people come from… that one there, let me tell you, he may be the illegitimate son of the Pope. You don’t have to believe me. He picked up the first image and tossed it to my side of the desk.
-Guglielmo Alberto Wladimiro Alessandro Apollinaire de Kostrowitzky… His Polish mother got a little carried away there but that’s the way they did in the last century. No father listed on his birth certificate, maybe a fellow by the name of Aspermont, maybe the Pope. Rumors swirl.
-Vagabond upbringing in Rome, Bologna, Monaco, Nice, Belgium. The family - him, his mother and a half-brother, set up in Paris. Precarious existence. What’s the mother running away from ? Fluent in several languages, he starts writing and publishing in small reviews, learns how to type and goes to work for the bohemian lawyer Esnard. Flits around town, they all do.
The inspector was droning on, as if he were reading a rap sheet rather than the story of someone’s life.
-Goes back to the bank. Publishes articles and poems, writes a few indecent novels to get by. Hires, for a brief time, a secretary, Géry Piéret, Belgian, who later becomes a hustler, a thief. Our man from the Vatican, the Pope’s son, is still a virtual unknown. In 1905 he meets suspect no. 2. The Inspector tossed the other photo at me.
-Another rootless young man with a long, mellifluous name and nowhere to hang it.
-Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. The Inspector did the best he could with the Spanish.
-Born in Malaga, son of an itinerant art school teacher who dragged the young man all over Spain, from the north coast to Madrid to Barçelona in his early years. For a few years this Ruiz went back and forth between Barçelona and Paris before unpacking in Paris for good. Lives in Montmartre which is kind of an anarchist camp on the outskirts of town. The two men became buddies, and this Ruiz - just signs himself Picasso now - soon this Spaniard is leading something called the Picasso Gang around town. We took notice.
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-So you see, two foreigners, two outsiders from rather contestable backgrounds, lapping it up in Paris. One a writer, one a painter, made for each other. The Belge comes back into the picture. Among his other tricks Piéret lifts items from the Louvre. Security isn’t so good at the grand museum and he makes off with little things. Whether this Picasso asked for it or simply bought them off Piéret, we know for a fact that he had a few small Iberian sculptures in his possession that were stolen from the Louvre. Hence, he had the opportunity, the means to get at la Joconde.
-The man who is now signing himself Guillaume Kostrowitzky is big on the idea that the Belles Artes are over and the epoch of the Plastic Arts has begun. What better way to make a statement than to steal a classic from the Renaissance ? It’s my understanding that their intent, foiled because of the uproar over the missing painting, was to replace the Italian piece with a modern painting in the new genre. Something like this Picasso’s Madamoiselle Léonie, so help me God.
-They used Piéret to get the painting, and then set up the Italian Peruggia, who worked at the museum, as the fall guy, making it look as if he’d taken the painting for patriotic reasons. They only had to figure out a way to sell it and they would have had it made. Instead, our two thieves ended up basically giving it to the Italian authorities with the promise their names wouldn’t be mentioned. They went back to their lives as artists, and thought, with nothing to show for their trouble, they’d never be suspects.
-We brought them both in. Two young men with very red faces. We sent Kostrowitzky - who’s changed his name again, to Guillaume Apollinaire - to the Santé prison here in Paris and put Picasso on a kind of show trial, just to dissuade him from trying anything else. You should have seen him jumping up and down, crying big crocodile tears and bawling that he’d never even met this Polish, now naturalized French, poet. Never seen him once. Fellow put on a good show. Bit over the top but enjoyable.
-I could tell you more but our time is up.
And the painting in the Louvre now, I asked, is it real or fake ? Did the Italians keep the original for themselves ? You have an opinion on that, don’t you ?
-I might but why should I tell ? You’ve got the basic picture now.
-Could use a scoop, I muttered.
-I’ve given you enough already. Let’s just say we’re keeping an eye on things, and if there are suddenly two Mona Lisas - a painting I’d like to remind you was no great shakes before it had the good luck to be stolen and find itself precious overnight - I’ll get in touch.
I thanked the Inspector for his time and told him I could find my way out. But he had a little more to say before I left.
-You writers are a miserable sort. You just make things up as you go along, don’t you ? No truth to it. Well, it’s your business but it’s a shabby way to live, he said, lighting a pipe and busying himself with the mound of papers on his desk.
Ha ! For all I know, the Inspector invented the whole bit, Picasso and Apollinaire, the Gang, Piéret and the rest of it. Let’s just call it His Version and add it to the pile.