Gravitations and Surveillances
Invisible and unknown pranksters put salt and pepper in Vincenzo Peruggia’s wine. He was threatened, bullied, beaten up on street corners. Peruggia hadn’t wanted to be part of the large immigrant population looking for work in Paris, but in his town of Dumenza Varese, Italy, the specter of slow starvation was a constant companion. Poverty launched the town’s citizens to France, Argentina, the United States, and elsewhere. Most would never return.
Peruggia found a variety of jobs as a decorative painter, a janitor, a glazier for the Louvre, and it was at the museum that the plague of persecution took on even darker implications. Peruggia worked for Gobier, a glazier commissioned by the Louvre to fabricate glass fronts for its paintings after anarchist, Valentine Cotrel, slashed an Ingres. It wasn’t just a matter of his tools being stolen in Montmartre, or being ridiculed as a mangeur de macaroni (macaroni eater) in Les Halles, but as Vincenzo walked the halls and exhibition spaces, he couldn’t help but be aware of an affront that was bigger than the personal: the presence of all kinds of Renaissance painting and sculpture that was Italian in origin, looted by Napoleon and his troops. The Mona Lisa, Peruggia believed, should be returned to Rome, so on August 21, 1911, a Monday when the Louvre was closed, Vincenzo trooped in with other employees, pried the Mona Lisa off a wall with a crowbar, and walked out the front of the building with it wrapped in his worker’s smock. (Measuring 21 by 30 inches, it wouldn’t fit under his clothes.) The whole operation took only twenty minutes.
Louis Lépine, Préfet de Police, was in charge of the investigation. He closed the museum for a week, conducted scrupulous interviews with every single person who worked at the Louvre that day, but came up pretty much empty-handed. A plumber had seen Peruggia in a stairwell, and though he remembered their encounter and their conversation about a missing doorknob, this chance meeting was largely dismissed. Lépine’s profile of the thief was a highly educated, upper-class fellow, a sort of David Niven character in a cat burglar suit smoking a cigarette from a long holder, if he could have imagined such a person. When the painting’s frame and glass casing were discovered in a stairwell, Lépine called in fingerprint expert Alphonse Bertillon, also a self-styled handwriting expert, one of the people responsible for fabricating the sham case against Dreyfus. Everyone was fingerprinted, but no matches were found. Among those putting thumb to ink pad and being questioned were employees of Gobier. Peruggia’s position as one of Gobier’s most trusted apprentices was what had enabled him to become familiar with the museum, and employment at the shop was, in fact, his alibi.
Vincenzo refused to comply with the order, the only one to do so, but refusing didn’t mean law enforcement wouldn’t seek him out. When a policeman came to question him in his garret, the painting lay on a table, covered by a piece of red velvet. The gendarme had his elbows on it as he questioned Peruggia, then he searched the place, its meager bed, chair, that’s about it, nothing there, he concluded. The marginally employed immigrant, even though he had a prior record of arrest for theft and assaulting a prostitute with a knife, wasn’t ever a serious suspect. The man was shrugged off as an inconsequential nobody. As powerful as Lépine’s skills of detection might have been, his vision was occluded by his own snobbery. He was not alone. Some believed then, and to this day, that the painting in the Louvre is a forgery, and the original is who knows where? The identity of the actual perpetrator and his motive, the righting of a cultural wrong, this would never have occurred to Lépine in a million years.
Vincenzo stored the Mona Lisa in a wooden trunk where it kept company with paintbrushes, shoes, a mandolin. What was it like for Peurggia to live with the painting? Was it just another object among many? What did he think about when he looked at what would become one of the most reproduced images ever? It was 1911; even newspapers printed a picture, incorrectly ascribed, as the Mona Lisa, that in no way resembled the actual painting because accurate points of reference were few and far between. Most people had never seen an image of a rhinoceros or a gorilla, for example, had no idea what these things looked like, and unless you lived in the creature’s native habitat, visual references were often unreliable. Before the infinite ocean of the Internet, the Mona Lisa could be many things, but for his two years living alone with the DaVinci, how did Peruggia interpret what he saw?
He spoke to no one and left no written record, apart from some letters to his family, so the answer is unknown. After two years he returned to Italy, where he contacted an art dealer in Florence. Anticipating nothing short of a reward for the repatriation, Peruggia freely gave the Mona Lisa to the dealer who took the painting to be authenticated, or so he said. When the next knock on the door came, Vincenzo thought it meant cash in return, but his visitors were the carabinieri, and he was promptly arrested.
Peruggia didn’t believe it was a crime to steal something he saw as having been looted from his country in the first place. That the painting had not been stolen but had been sold to King Francis I by Da Vinci’s assistant and heir, Andrea Salai, was immaterial. To a certain extent, Italy agreed with Peruggia, and while he was arrested, he would not be extradited back to France, only receiving a very light sentence, twelve months in jail, reduced to seven. Though there is a debate as to his reasoning, patriotism or mercenary, to many Italians, Peruggia was a hero. Shortly after he was freed from prison, Italy was swept up into the maelstrom that was the beginning of World War I. He enlisted in the Italian Army, only to be captured by the Austrians. After two years in an Austrian prison, he returned to Italy, but again, there was no work to be found, and Peruggia turned migrant once more.
Close up, you see columns of spools of thread, the abstractness of cylinders of pure color. Take a few steps backwards, and you see the Mona Lisa upside down made from those same spools running from ivory to burnt sienna to black. In Devorah Sperber’s After The Mona Lisa, from a distance, steps tapping on the floor of the Brooklyn Museum, you lose the boundaries of spoolness and see the seamlessness of what was the original painted DaVinci, just on a larger scale.
My grandfather said life in Russia wasn’t so terrible, and after the revolution he thought things would get better. For a while they did, then there was no work, and soon thereafter the wolf was at the door. By the time he got out of the Soviet Union, he made his way from Rotterdam to New Haven where his brother, who had paid for his passage and therefore saved his life, had a tailor shop. He worked for his brother for slave wages until he died.
Though the palette for men’s suits might appear to be limited, when my sisters and I played in the shop on Whalley Avenue, it seemed like every color was represented somewhere. Spools could be enormous, shaped into cones. With them we built towers, castles, small cities. When not used as building materials, the spools were arranged on pegboards, organized in rainbow formation, more or less. Bolts of cloth were rolled out, and with his scissors, tracing wheel, colored measuring chalk, and industrial sewing machine, the two-dimensional magically became three-dimensional suits. The brothers sang in Russian, Yiddish, Hebrew, and because my grandfather loved opera, he learned Italian, sang arias along with Enrico Caruso and Jan Peerce. Their images on record covers were mysterious: clowns, dukes with drawn swords, images from Pagliacci, Rigoletto.
There was another Russian who married my grandfather’s sister, so he was not part of the shop, but he caused a lot of trouble. He worked in Brooklyn as a fishmonger, and he was a Communist. He gave family members subscriptions to Communist papers, and his convictions weren’t in question, but it was believed he went to party meetings to pick up women who were two-fisted theorists, sure about the malevolent nature of the owners of the means of productions, very different from my great-aunt, nervous and beautiful, but a skeptic about fervent, fractious groups. She was a doubter and mistrusted anyone who was so sure of a single answer. Passage out of the Soviet Union had so nearly never happened. There was no certainty of anything or set of explanations. The brothers “strongly suggested” her husband knock it off with the meetings. Whether he complied or not, my mother doesn’t remember, but of all the family, he alone encouraged her to go to college, to become a doctor. The immigrant who believed property-is-theft, religion is for the birds, and marriage was an outmoded institution recognized the clock wasn’t stopping at small shops and an address in an English-speaking country. There was no arriving, no assuming life has stabilized, you can stop moving from place to place. The process of being steamrollered into the next set of necessities and imperatives is inevitable. The shop would be torn down for a chain of drugstores, and none of their descendants would speak the languages they sang along with scratchy recordings so loudly—until a customer opened the door, the threshold bell ringing for business.
Despite a desire to reinvent, to forget, the fingerprints of past experience leave their smudges. However minor or silly or embarrassing somewhere in an accent or the way one gravitates to a Mona Lisa made of thread, there is evidence for the astute, or even not so astute, observer to decipher. A rarely used spool of orange thread, of faded green, these I still have stacked behind my son’s childhood comic books, like old paint that’s miraculously not dried into flakes. They are still usable, should anyone be interested in making a suit of many colors or reproducing a picture, iconographic or anonymous.
In 2010, the anarchist Russian art collective, Voina, painted a penis 65 meters long, 27 meters across on the Liteiny drawbridge over the Neva River in Saint Petersburg. When the bridge rose to accommodate passing boats, the offices of the Federal Security Service had a vision of anatomy that implied, based on the position of their headquarters in relationship to the bridge: shove it, folks. All of this was very deliberate. In fact, the title of the work was Dick Captured by the FSB. Ordinary office workers as they went about their business reviewing surveillance tapes, listening to other citizens’ phone conversations, reading emails, texts, refilling the toner in the copy machine, shredding documents, getting coffee, and then a boat needs to pass, and the bridge goes up. Some assess and adjudicate the fate of citizens based on the mass of data we all generate, the electronic fingerprints left behind, the comet’s tail of evidence. Using spiders to single out radioactive words, names, phrases, codes to possibly sift out the relevant, but even still, there remains an incalculable mass of data to be read, listened to, catalogued, sent on to a higher up. No subject is eliminated from suspicion because of their level of employment, professed heartfelt convictions, or citizenship status. Everyone’s data trail is scrutinized and stored somewhere. This, on an ordinary day, like any other, but all the while the bridge penis goes up and down.
Their business, their stock in trade, these workers, is secretly melting the wall between the public and the private, but for awhile, the scene out the windows was a vision of something most cultures consider distinctly private, now made public, just for them.
Members of Voina Collective were arrested and sent to prison. They had jumped off the cliff in nothing more than a wingsuit, and they must have known the odds of flight versus slamming to the bottom were equivalent to slim versus likely. A giant hasn’t yet been born who could smuggle Dick Captured by the FSB to safety, or repatriate it to another country. The painting could not be removed, and it was where it belonged on the bridge, that was the whole point. Where else could the work possibly go? The state was not amused. It was someone’s job to paint over Dick Captured by the FSB, that person, suspended over the water thanks to a harness, armed with bucket and roller, is prepared to administer as many coats as required to withstand cold winters, because should the white wash flake off, the phantom menace will return. Even still, a heavy coat of paint won’t solve all problems. Once photographed, even if only once, the painting lives forever on the internet, unless the agency can get into everyone’s devices and erase the bridge painting, but the worm or virus capable of such targeted execution remains to be invented, as far as I know. What some viewed as an obscenity made flesh via paint is erased, and the bridge is just a span once again. Office workers review potentially incriminating data which will affect living, breathing bodies, but the representation of this one particular body part is gone. White paint is all anyone can see. For the time being.
Susan Daitch has published five novels, L.C., The Colorist, Paper Conspiracies, The Lost Civilization of Suolucidir, White Lead, and a collection of short stories, Storytown. Her short fiction and essays have appeared in Black Clock, Guernica, Conjunctions, Slice, Tablet, Tin House, McSweeney’s, Bomb, The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Fiction, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Fiction, two Vogelstein fellowships. Fall Out, a novella, published by Madras Press, donates all proceeds to Women For Afghan Women.