Why is the Mona Lisa famous? The incredible story that made her a celebrity

the famous mona lisa in the louvre

Simply say the word ‘art’ and her face comes to mind. Exceeding the fame of the artist who created her and museum that houses her, the Mona Lisa, or La Joconde as she is known in France, is without a shadow of a doubt the most famous painting in the world, and perhaps one of the most recognizable images of all time. But who was the Mona Lisa? Why is she famous and how much is she worth? 

crowds taking photos in front of the Mona Lisa
Crowds taking photos in front of the Mona Lisa

An Italian Noblewoman

There is no mystery as to who the model for the Mona Lisa was. Forget the hair-brained conspiracy theories that haunt the history channel late at night. The answer is clear and found in the name. Lisa Gherardini, wife of Italian merchant Francesco del Giocondo, sat for Renaissance genius Leonardo Da Vinci. While little is known about her, neither her story, nor da Vinci’s talent are the reasons for the painting’s fame. In fact, the Mona Lisa wasn’t famous at all until she was stolen… 

The theft of a generation

Described as the theft of a generation, the disappearance of the Mona Lisa caused one of the biggest media frenzies of the 20th century and catapulted the painting into immortality.

Of the 10 million visitors to the Louvre Museum each year, nearly 8 million of them only come to see the Mona Lisa. But few know why they want to see, in the middle of a vast and impressive collection, a somewhat underwhelming work of art. Fewer still know the story of her great theft. 

The day the Mona Lisa disappeared

In 1911 an Italian by the name of Vincenzo Peruggia was working at the Louvre Museum in Paris. But unbeknown to the museum, history’s greatest art thief was now in their employment. In an attempt to repatriate some of the Italian art stolen from his homeland, Vicenzo decided to steal the Mona Lisa. However, he made a mistake. Although Napoleon took many treasures from Italy to Paris, the Mona Lisa was in fact, a gift from Leonardo Da Vinci to the King of France.

The crime was not the stuff of movies! Apparently Vincenzo snuck in through the worker entrance one evening, and simply lifted the painting off its hooks. He discarded the frame and wrapped the canvas under his work coat. What is really shocking is this ‘criminal mastermind’ confidently exited the museum and took the crowded metro home, with the painting still under his coat! 

empty space in the Louvre without the Mona Lisa
The empty space on the wall of the Louvre after the theft of the Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa becomes famous

The next day the crime was discovered by a painter who had come to admire the works of Da Vinci. After alerting the police, the media storm began. Accompanying the shocking headline announcing the theft was a photograph of the empty space on the wall.

As the story gained greater coverage, people began visiting the Louvre just to see the empty hooks. There was no going back, now even the space she had occupied was famous. Not so strange when you consider that in 1911, almost no one (save a few art historians) knew what the painting looked like. In all the mystery, excitement, and intrigue, Mona Lisa was becoming a celebrity.

The police investigated every possible lead. At one point they even questioned French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and his friend Pablo Picasso! Yet for 2 years they found nothing but dead-ends.

The Return

In 1913, Giovanni Poggi, the Director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, received a mysterious call from a man offering to sell the painting for an eye-watering sum. Poggi accepted the offer and Vincenzo took a train to Florence with the Mona Lisa in his suitcase. The dealer agreed to buy the painting but asked if he could examine it overnight. Needless to say, he alerted the authorities at once, and the clueless Vincenzo was arrested.

Claiming to have stolen it for the Italian people rather than personal greed, the thief was given a light 6-month jail sentence and some Italians even considered him a hero. After two weeks on display in the Uffizi, the now-famous Mona Lisa finally returned to Paris.

a group of men standing around the Mona Lisa in 1941
The Mona Lisa on display at the Uffizi

Have you seen the Mona Lisa? Did you think she was the highlight of the Louvre?