Admit it, you're a little bit underwhelmed by the Mona Lisa, and you've definitely wondered how a painting of an average-looking woman with a smirk on her face became the most famous painting in the world. Well, Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece – the most-visited painting in the world with over six million annual visitors – wasn't always an object of worldwide fascination and the destination of reverent pilgrimages. In reality, it was the theft of the Mona Lisa by Italian handymen on August 21, 1911, that catalyzed its course to art-world super stardom.
That sleepy Monday in Paris – while locals and Louvre officials nursed their hangovers – three Italian handymen, led by Louvre employee Vincenzo Peruggia, crept out of a utility closet inside the Louvre and made off with a da Vinci painting. While it had achieved some level of renown in the art world, it wasn't one of the museums more popular attractions. After its theft, it became the most famous painting in the world... overnight. It was the Mona Lisa.
Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1507, and, for the first three centuries of its life, the painting remained relatively unknown outside of the art world. Art critics began hailing it as one of the masterpieces of Renaissance art near the turn of the 20th century. As a result, according to historian James Zug: "The Mona Lisa wasn't even the most famous painting in its gallery, let alone in the Louvre."
However, all of that changed after its removal from the Louvre on August 21, 1911. It took 28 hours for anyone to notice that Vincenzo Peruggia, with the help of brothers Vincenzo and Michele Lancelotti, made off with the painting. When the Louvre finally announced the theft, and many vainly hoped the painting had been misplaced somewhere inside the museum. However, shortly thereafter, newspapers around the world ran the story of the heist, and the search for the Mona Lisa began on a global scale.
The theft of the Mona Lisa was Paris's great shame, and, in order to win back their honor, the French made everyone a suspect in the case – including the US aristocracy (specifically J.P. Morgan), Pablo Picasso, and German Kaiser Wilhelm II. They offered a huge reward for the painting's safe return. When the Louvre finally reopened, a few days after the heist was discovered, massive crowds clambered to get inside the museum and stare at the four hooks that used to hold the painting. And it wasn't just the faceless masses trying to get a glimpse, either; famous folks, like author Franz Kafka, also wanted a glimpse of the painting's absence.
Newspapers around the world ran the story, and the New York Times featured a piece titled "60 Detectives Seek Mona Lisa."
"PARIS, Aug. 23–All day long anxious crowds have been stationed in front of the Louvre, vainly hoping to hear that Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa' had been found somewhere inside the museum. Nothing is known so far as to the whereabouts of the picture, and public feeling has turned from incredulity to the greatest indignation."
The primary thief in the heist, Vincenzo Peruggia, was a handyman at the Louvre before he made off with one its priceless pieces of art. In fact, he was actually the guy who installed the glass and wood case around the Mona Lisa, so he knew better than anyone how to quietly and quickly remove the painting from its enclosure. Though he planned to sell the painting, it took him a while to find a buyer because of the international attention that his crime had drawn. A little over two years after he had stolen, Peruggia finally found a buyer for the painting in Florence, Italy, who turned Peruggia over to police.
After being taken into custody, Peruggia claimed patriotism had motivated his caper; he desired the da Vinci masterpiece to be returned to its country of origin. Though dubious, this defense seems to have worked. He received a very light prison sentence of seven months in jail and went on to fight for Italy in WWI, as well as marrying and raising a family.
Art lovers and lay people around the world rejoiced at Peruggia's arrest and the return of the Mona Lisa. From relative obscurity, the painting had become the most well-known piece of art on the planet.