December 12, 2013

This week in 1913: Mona Lisa fever hits Italy, Ezra Pound and James Joyce have “a hate or two in common”


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Just before one of its darkest moments came the twentieth century’s most exciting year . . .

It was the year Henry Ford first put a conveyer belt in his car factory, and the year Louis Armstrong first picked up a trumpet. It was the year Charlie Chaplin signed his first movie contract, and Coco Chanel and Prada opened their first dress shops. It was the year Proust began his opus, Stravinsky wrote The Rite of Spring, and the first Armory Show in New York introduced the world to Picasso and the world of abstract art. It was the year the recreational drug now known as ecstasy was invented.

It was 1913, the year before the world plunged into the catastrophic darkness of World War I.

December 9-15

December 11: As they walk through the streets, Alfredo Geri and Leonardo Vincenzo agree that he will receive 500,000 Lire if the Mona Lisa is genuine. That would be nice, Leonardo says, but it really isn’t about the money; he just wants to bring Italy’s stolen art treasure back home.

The gentlemen climb up the steep steps to the Albergo Tripoli-Italia, where Leonardo’s shabby single room is situated on the second floor. He fetches a trunk out from under the bed, throwing its entire contents—underwear, work tools and his shaving things—onto the mattress. Then he opens a false bottom inside the trunk and takes out a board wrapped in red silk: “Before our eyes, the divine Gioconda appeared, unharmed and in magnificent condition. We carried her over to the window for comparison with a photograph we had brought along with us,” as Geri later explained. There is no doubt; the inventory number from the Louvre is even on the back. Leonardo, exhausted from the long journey and with the 500,000 Lire in his sights, hangs the picture on his bedroom wall and lies down for an afternoon nap.

From this moment on the whole of Italy is overcome by Mona Lisa Fever. And Leonardo? Leonardo’s real name was Vincenzo Perugia, he was thirty-two years old and had been working as a temporary glazier in the Louvre at the time of the theft. It was he who had put the Mona Lisa in the controversial glass frame. And because he had put her there, he also knew how to get her out.

Just a kilometre away from the Louvre as the crew flies, the most-hunted art work in the world lay for two whole years. The story was a shock: for the Louvre and for the Parisian police. But at the same time it is also a wonderful Christmas message filled with joy. Locked up in his cell, Peruggia receives innumerable thank-you letters, sweets and presents from grateful Italians.

Gabriele d’Annunzio wrote the following: “He who dreamed of fame and honour, he, the avenger of the thefts of Napoleon, brought her over the border back to Florence. Only a poet, a great poet, can dream such a dream.”

December 15: Ezra Pound, the great poet and one of London’s most important and proactive cultural mediators, sends a letter to James Joyce in Trieste. He asks the poverty-stricken English teacher for some of his newest poems for the magazine The Egoist. “Dear Sir!” this friendly letter begins, and it ends: “From what Yeats says I imagine we have a hate or two in common.” This letter has the effect of making Joyce feel as if he has been raised from the dead. So emboldened is James Joyce that he sits down and corrects his two manuscripts. After two weeks the first chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and his short story collection Dubliners are ready, and he sends them by express train to Ezra Pound in London.