One hundred and one years ago, on August 21, 1911, the famous painting was stolen from the Louvre. Apollinaire and Picasso were, briefly, suspects. For a couple of years the world - at least those in it who cared - were pretty much getting used to the 'fact' that it had gone for good. Bibby's Annual, for 1912, is typical of the period:
This is the portrait that disappeared so dramatically from The Louvre, to the consternation of keepers and guardians, one night in August last. All we know is that overnight it was in its usual place, and in the morning it had gone. Where it is now, if it still exists — and some of the French authorities think it has been destroyed — no one but the thief knows. It has, at any rate, never been recovered. For four hundred years this world-renowned work delighted the world. From the first the painting had a high reputation. Raphael himself imitated it almost as soon as it was painted, and its influence upon subsequent art has been incalculable. The husband of the lady, Francesco de Giocondo, commissioned the portrait from Leonardo. For four years, in fits and starts, the work proceeded, and at the end of that time was not yet finished to the artist's satisfaction. Music was provided to relieve the tedium of the sittings. Finally, for what reason is not certainly known, the husband refused to accept delivery of the work, and the artist sold it to the King of France. Generations of artists have been fascinated by the spell of the calm sphinx-like lady with the inscrutable smile. If, indeed, we have for ever lost this great masterpiece, this supreme creation, yet her memory and her influence can never fade. The world is the richer for her having been, even if she should appear no more.
Now we know that it would eventually be recovered. That it would be restored, in 1913, to the Musée, to the very employer of one Vincenzo Perrugia. Who had walked off with it under his coat, doing that rather banal inside-job thing.
But imagine yourself being back in 1912. Counterfactuals are, by their nature, paradoxically difficult and easy to treat with. The fact that they are not the case and, simultaneously, imaginable gives them a certain charm. The charm of the storyteller at the campfire.
Imagine how we'd feel today if we knew, if we had accepted, with all of the resigned certainty of the pessimist, that somebody had stolen it and that it had gone forever.
On 21st August, 2011, exactly one hundred years after the disappearance, my mother died. That's not a counterfactual but is kind of its opposite - simultaneously hard to imagine, and, the case. A coincidence.