‘Ars longa, vita brevis’: true enough, of course. The sitter for the Mona Lisa long ago crumbled to dust, but the painting itself, and numerous copies of it, may still be viewed. All the same, that too disappeared once, stolen from the Louvre in 1911. Picasso was among the suspects, not unreasonably: he had two Bronze Age statuettes nicked from the Louvre in his apartment in the Boulevard de Clichy. (They provided an inspiration for his revolutionary painting Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.) Actually the Lady had been lifted by an Italian picture framer, Vincenzo Peruggia, who had been one of those responsible for the rehanging of the painting a few months before. He held it for ransom, though he claimed that it had been his intention to repatriate it, and indeed he did take it home to Florence.
This story is the first in Rick Gekoski’s entertaining collection of essays. Perhaps it only just deserves to squeeze in since, unlike so many other works of art, its loss was temporary. Nevertheless, in spite of the claim ‘ars longa’, more works of art are lost, destroyed, forgotten or disappear than survive. Think of all those fragments of Greek and Roman statues, such as the gigantic foot of the Emperor Constantine in the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, which are all that remain of the original works.
Not all that is lost is worth regretting. One of Gekoski’s essays, entitled ‘A Ghost Story’, concerns a poem written by James Joyce at the age of nine. It was directed at the Irish politician Tim Healy, who had ‘ratted on’ (deserted) the nationalist leader Parnell. Joyce’s father, Stanislaus, was