It’s 1944 and the Nazis are getting kicked out of France. They’re not going easily though – they’re taking everything of value that’s not nailed down. Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring has his eyes on the biggest prize of them all – the lady with the enigmatic smile – the Mona Lisa. Can agents Gabi Mueller and Eric Hofstadler catch him before he makes his escape and save one of the most famous paintings of all time?
WHAT WAS YOUR INSPIRATION DRIVING THE STORY IN CHASING MONA LISA?
Tricia Goyer: After Mike and I wrote The Swiss Courier a couple of years ago, I knew I wanted to write something to do with a curator in Paris. I was fascinated by what happened to priceless art during World War II. Mike took the nugget of the idea and ran with it. Mike and his wife, Nicole, even visited Paris for research! I love when those little inklings of ideas grow into something much more.
Mike Yorkey: It’s hard to complain about going to Paris to do some research. Tricia and I began kicking around an idea: what would happen if the Nazis decided to steal the Mona Lisa during the chaotic times of August 1944, when Allied forces were advancing on Paris? That’s when the fun started.
OVER THE COURSE OF WRITING CHASING MONA LISA, WHAT SURPRISED YOU MOST ABOUT THE JOURNEY?
Tricia Goyer: Well, first that the Mona Lisa was really stolen in 1911. An Italian took her out of the Louvre. I had no idea … and she wasn’t found right away! For two and a half years, the Florentine lady was missing.
Pure luck broke the case. An Italian antique dealer named Alfredo Geri placed a classified ad in several Italian newspapers that he was in the market to buy art objects at good prices. This happened in the fall of 1913. He received a letter from a fellow in Paris who called himself “Leonardo.” He said he was in possession of the stolen Mona Lisa.
The Italian art dealer didn’t believe him. Geri wrote a return letter saying he would have to see the painting before he could offer a price. Could he bring it to Italy and show him? On December 10, 1913, an Italian man with a moustache showed up at Geri’s office in Florence. He said his name was Leonardo Vincenzo and that he had the Mona Lisa back in his hotel room. He explained that he had stolen the painting to restore to Italy what had been stolen by France. Thus, he made a stipulation that the painting was to be hung at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and never be given back to France. He also wanted a half million lira for his trouble.
Geri did some quick thinking. He said he needed to have the director of the Uffizi confirm that it really was the Mona Lisa before he handed over the money. They made arrangements to meet the next day. When they returned to his hotel room the following afternoon, Leonardo pulled out a wooden trunk. He opened it, tossed out a pair of underwear, an old shirt, a pair of shoes, and removed a false bottom. There lay the Mona Lisa!
Geri and the museum director turned the painting over and noticed a seal from the Louvre. The museum director said he needed to compare the painting with other works by Leonardo da Vinci, so he needed to take the painting with him. Geri and the museum director carried the Mona Lisa out of the hotel and called the police. They stormed the room and arrested the man, whose real name was Vincenzo Peruggia.
The thief was born in Italy but had moved to Paris, where he had worked at the Louvre since 1908. All the guards knew him. Apparently, on that fateful Monday morning, when the Louvre was officially closed, he noticed that the Salon Carré was empty. He grabbed the Mona Lisa, dragged it over to the staircase, removed the painting from its frame, and walked out of the Louvre with her under a painter’s smock.
The French were happy to learn that the Mona Lisa had been found. The public went wild. After being displayed throughout Italy, she was returned to France on December 30, 1913, to great fanfare.
As for Peruggia, he got fourteen months in jail, but he was hailed for his patriotism in Italy. A “crime of passion” was how the heist was described in the press. He became an Italian folk hero.
The other thing I was horrified to find out was that the Nazis not only stole priceless art, but they purchased it, too. I had no idea!
Mike Yorkey: A lot of people think the Nazi generals and bigwigs just marched into Paris museums and took paintings off the wall. Didn’t happen that way. They had the money to buy up all the art they wanted. Sure, they stole art from Jewish families, but with legitimate museums and dealers, it was by purchase order.
Many people do not know that the famous Louvre Museum in Paris started packing up its treasures, including the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Winged Victory at Samothrace, a few days before the start of World War II when Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939. With weeks of the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Louvre had shipped most of its treasures to chateaux south of the city. The Mona Lisa, the most famous painting in the world, apparently moved six times during the war and was even hung up in a girl’s bedroom at a chateau in southern France.
WHAT PARTS OF CHASING MONA LISA WERE INSPIRED BY REAL LIFE … EITHER RESEARCH OR EXPERIENCE?
Mike Yorkey: When I was in Paris, I took a World War II walking tour that passed by famous Prefecture de Police, where the Paris uprising started just before Liberation. Then the group walked to the Hotel Meurice, where the German High Command was headquartered. I peppered the tour guide with questions all afternoon, but I was able to “see” how many of those famous events really happened, which are part of the book.
Tricia Goyer: Historical fiction always takes a lot of work, but we put due diligence into researching the time period, the political climate, and the art world. I would say just as much time is put into research than writing … maybe more!
WHY DO YOU THINK STORY IS SUCH A POWERFUL WAY TO COMMUNICATE TRUTH?
Mike Yorkey: It’s the opportunity to impact others, and I know Tricia feels the same way. When it comes to story, most people “get it” when it comes to World War II—who the bad guys were, what the stakes were, the sad, sad story of Jewish persecution and killings, and how the good guys eventually won. Since writers don’t have to explain all those things, we can construct thrilling plots that zero in on the action. I like writing books with plot twists and unexpected turnarounds, and Chasing Mona Lisa (www.chasingmonalisa.com) has them, just like our first novel, The Swiss Courier (www.theswisscourier.com).
WHAT DO YOU MOST HOPE THAT READERS GET FROM READING YOUR WORK?
Tricia Goyer: In addition to being swept away with the plot, I hope readers walk away with an understanding that each of us as a unique place in history. Sometimes we fell lost in all that’s happening around us, but sometimes the ordinary is just what God can use to impact what—and who—is priceless!
Mike Yorkey: Tricia said it well.
WHAT IS SOMETHING YOUR READERS MIGHT BE SURPRISED TO LEARN ABOUT YOU?
Tricia Goyer: Our family loves to travel. Family road trips are something we venture out on a few times a year. Whether it’s a long weekend or a week-away, we love finding a new location to explore and heading out!
Mike Yorkey: My wife, Nicole, is Swiss, and we are fortunate to be able to go to Switzerland twice a year—once in winter for skiing and once in the summer for hiking in the Swiss Alps. Not only does Nicole get to be Swiss again and speak Swiss-German, French, and Italian, but I get to tag along and soak up the beauty and the culture. I’m very blessed.