Monday, February 14, 2022

Mona Lisa ~ Stolen in 1911

Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait of an Italian noblewoman, popularly known as Mona Lisa (which can be translated as Madam Lisa or My Lady Lisa), may be the most famous, most recognized, painting in the world.

Mona Lisa, by Leonardo da Vinci, digitally retouched to reduce the effects of aging.

I had the privilege of viewing the portrait several years ago during a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Louvre Museum in Paris. It was the only painting at the huge museum—in fact, the only piece of art—we had to wait in line to see. I remember being surprised at how small this larger-than-life painting actually is!

The dimensions are 77cm x 53cm (approximately 30” x 20”) making the original portrait smaller than its poster-sized reproductions. The portrait was painted with oils on a white Lombardy poplar panel in the early 1500s.

You may wonder, as I have, why this painting is more special than all the other portraits of Italian nobility painted by da Vinci. Here’s what I learned:

Art historians find it significant that da Vinci painted his subject, most often identified as Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, in three-quarter profile with her gaze fixed on the observer. He also used a rare pyramid technique to place her “calmly and simply in the painting’s space” (UKEssays).

Da Vinci’s unusual choice to “depict the sitter in front of an imaginary landscape” and to “use aerial perspective” is also significant. He is one of the first painters to utilize these techniques (Wikipedia). 

Adding to the painting’s importance is this bit of trivia ~ the Mona Lisa is only one of four da Vinci paintings whose authenticity has not been controversial. The other three are Adoration of the Magi, Saint Jerome in the Wilderness, and the immensely popular The Last Supper.

The above image depicts "a margin note by Agostino Vespucci (visible at right) discovered in a book at Heidelberg University. Dated 1503, it states that Leonardo was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo" (image caption on Wikipedia).

Another reason for the painting’s rise to world recognition has nothing to do with da Vinci and everything to do with Vincenzo Peruggia, an employee at the Louvre.

Mug shot of Vincenzo Peruggia

On August 21, 1911, Peruggia hid in a broom closet until after the museum closed then walked away with the Mona Lisa wrapped up in his white smock—a garment typically worn by museum employees at that time. 

Peruggia stored the painting in a trunk in his Paris apartment for two years before taking it to Florence and contacting the owner of a local art gallery. 

The gallery owner had the painting authenticated by the director of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. After these two gentlemen notified law enforcement, Peruggia was arrested.

The Mona Lisa in the Uffizi Gallery, in Florence, 1913. 
Museum director Giovanni Poggi (right) inspects the painting.

Peruggia, who may have believed that Napoleon stole the Mona Lisa during the Napoleonic Wars, claimed he wanted to return the painting to Italy. However, it was da Vinci—not Napoleon—who took the painting to France. He gave it to King Francis I when he became the official painter for the French court.

Not everyone believes Peruggia was motivated by patriotism. According to the Florence gallery owner, the thief expected a reward for bringing the painting “home.” A couple of letters he wrote to his father after the theft suggest he expected a fortune to come his way.

Another theory is that Peruggia was in cahoots with a forger who planned to sell copies of the painting as the original.

Whatever the reason for his theft, Peruggia was hailed as a patriot and received a lenient sentence. He spent about six to seven months in jail. 

The Mona Lisa was exhibited throughout Italy before being returned to the Louvre in 1913. All the publicity surrounding the theft and then the recovery of the painting increased its fame with the general public.

The Mona Lisa returned at the Louvre Museum

“Considered an archetypal masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance, [the Mona Lisa] has been described as ‘the best known, the most visited, the most written about, the most sung about, the most parodied work of art in the world’” (From the Louvre).

It’s no surprise that the famous painting was at the top of Hitler’s list of paintings he wanted for his planned Führermuseum. Jacques Jaujard, director of France's National Museums, ensured Hitler didn’t get his wish. 

Jaujard protected the Mona Lisa and hundreds of other pieces of art by moving them from one hiding place to another during World War II. On October 6, 1947, the Mona Lisa returned to the Louvre. (Click here for more details on how Jaujard hid the painting.)

After another theft attempt, the Mona Lisa was placed under a glass case which was shattered when someone threw a rock at the painting. The broken glass was replaced with bulletproof glass.

Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass at the Louvre Museum

When the painting was on display at the Tokyo National Museum in 1974, a woman sprayed it with red paint to protest the museum’s lack of suitable access for the disabled. In 2009, a Russian woman touring the Louvre purchased a ceramic teacup then threw it at the painting. The glass case protected the painting from any damage in both these incidents.

For more info about the 1911 theft, you may wish to watch the The Missing Piece: Mona Lisa, Her Thief, the True Story, which can be rented or purchased from Amazon Prime. The documentary features Peruggia’s daughter who was 84-years-old at the time of filming (2012).

Johnnie Alexander imagines inspiring stories in multiple genres. A fan of classic movies, stacks of books, and road trips, she shares a life of quiet adventure with Griff, her happy-go-lucky collie, and Rugby, her raccoon-treeing papillon.

The heroine in Johnnie's WWII novel, Where Treasure Hides, risks her life to protect her family's artistic legacy.

To learn more about Johnnie's books, her monthly novel giveaways, and the 2022 Mosaic Reading Challenge, visit

Note ~ The first five photos are in Public Domain. The photo captioned "Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass..." is used under Creative Commons with attribution to

Resource ~ UKEssays Citation: "Historical Significance of Mona Lisa Painting." 11 2018. UKEssays. 02 2022 <>.


  1. Thank you for posting! It's interesting to hear about everything this lady has been through. I can't imagine why defacing art like this would be a suitable action for anything, but that's just me.

    1. I don't understand that either, Connie. It's such a selfish and...I'll say it...stupid thing to do! Always glad to "bump" into you around the 'net!

  2. Great post! I found the hiding of the painting most interesting.

    1. Hi, Michelle! Isn't it incredible that he kept this invaluable painting in a trunk?! Wow!! Thanks for commenting!