The Last Mona Lisa is a fast-paced, exciting thriller by author Jonathan Santlofer, inspired by an actual event: the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. The facts of the case are these: Vincent Peruggia, a former employee of the Louvre who had worked on the frame of the Mona Lisa, stole the painting and tried to ransom it to the Italian government at the Uffizi Museum in Florence, where he was arrested and spent time in the Murate Prison. Eventually he was released and the Mona Lisa, of course, was returned to the Louvre. Ever since, there have been rumors that the painting in the Louvre is a forgery. A well-known art forger, Yves Chaudron, was suspected of being involved in the crime, and a nobleman, Eduardo de Valfiero, was said to have financed it, but nothing was ever proved against them.
From these basic facts, Santlofer constructs his multi-layered narrative. In the present day, Peruggia’s fictitious great-grandson, Luke Perrone (the family had changed its last name to avoid association with the art thief), is an artist and professor of art history in New York City. He is struggling to get tenure because his department chair insists that he has to have an exhibition in order to receive tenure, but his gallery has just closed. When Luke receives an email from a professor in Florence, who claims to have Vincent Peruggia’s journal, he travels to Florence to see it. Luke has been fascinated by his great-grandfather’s story since he was very young, and he cannot resist an opportunity to find the truth behind the theft of the Mona Lisa, and to discover whether the painting in the Louvre is the original or a forgery.
When Luke arrives in Florence, he learns that the professor who originally had the diary has recently died, and the diary is now in the Laurentian Library. Luke’s investigation is much more dangerous than he bargained for. Practically everyone who touched the diary, or helped Luke in some way, turns up dead: not only the professor who owned it, but his partner, who was the person who contacted Luke in the first place, as well as several booksellers who handled it.
At the Laurentian Library, Luke meets Alexandra, a beautiful, mysterious woman, and feels instantly attracted to her. She appears to return his feelings, but always backs away whenever Luke tries to get close to her. Can she be trusted? In spite of his attraction, Luke doesn’t tell Alexandra what he’s working on.
Eventually, Luke teams up with Interpol analyst John Washington Smith, who is also interested in the case. Smith has not gotten a promotion, in spite of working hard for Interpol for many years, and he sees the case as an opportunity to make a name for himself. He and Luke dislike and distrust each other at first, but learn to work together and respect each other, and eventually they become friends.
As Luke and Smith work to solve the mystery of Vincent Peruggia’s life and the theft of the Mona Lisa, danger is always just around the corner. An obsessed art collector has sent a hit man to stalk Luke through Florence and, eventually, Paris, as Luke’s quest takes him there. Of course, this is the person behind the killings, even though his identity is not revealed until the end. Santlofer increases the sense of danger as he rapidly switches points of view from Luke to Smith to Alexandra to the killer. We know that Luke is in danger long before he realizes it himself.
The present-day narrative is interspersed with pages from Peruggia’s diary, which add a fascinating and complex layer to the story. His story is tragic, as we learn the motives behind his crime. Peruggia’s beloved wife has died, and his mother-in-law takes his infant son away because Peruggia does not have enough money to raise the child. It is in order to get the money to take his son back that Peruggia goes along with the nobleman and the art forger in their scheme to steal the Mona Lisa, only to have them betray him and cheat him out of the money. As Luke reads his great-grandfather’s diary, he comes to identify with Peruggia, who, like himself, is a failed artist. In one scene, Picasso ridicules Peruggia and calls his art old-fashioned. As Santlofer tells us in his author’s note, Picasso had been suspected of being involved in Peruggia’s theft, but cleared his name.
The Last Mona Lisa is a first-rate thriller. Santlofer, an artist himself, has excellent insight into the art world. His characters, especially Luke, are complex. Luke comes from a rough background, as a former teenage gang member and recovering alcoholic. He has problems with women, and never manages to stay in a relationship for more than six months. I was not sure I liked him at first, but he won me over as soon as he told Alexandra that he taught a class on Artemisia Gentileschi. Alexandra is mysterious, and we do not understand her motives until the end, but, at the same time, I hoped she and Luke would get together.
I loved the settings in Florence, and I had seen many of them during my visits in 2016 and 2018. Santlofer’s descriptions made me want to go back as soon as it is safe to travel again. Unfortunately, I did not have a chance to visit the Uffizi, and I walked by the Laurentian Library but never got to go inside. The descriptions of Paris also made me feel like I was there. I highly recommend The Last Mona Lisa to anyone who enjoys a great thriller, especially if you have an interest in art history. Parts of it might remind people of The Da Vinci Code, but, in my opinion, it is much better written.
The Last Mona Lisa is available from the Hatcher Graduate Library.