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Vincenzo Peruggia and the theft of the Mona Lisa: how the painting rose to fame


The Mona Lisa. Today it’s the world’s most famous painting, but in the early 20th century, it wasn’t even the most famous painting in its gallery. On the 21st of August 1911, that was all about to change. 

The theft

Vincenzo Peruggia was an Italian museum worker who had installed protective glass cases on paintings at the Louvre. Can you tell where this is going?

On the 21st of August, after spending the night in a cupboard at the Louvre to avoid being spotted, Vincenzo Peruggia and his two associates slipped the Mona Lisa out of the museum.

This sparked a media frenzy, and the police were drawing blanks. Theories were spinning – at one point Pablo Picasso himself became the prime suspect! Despite the story making headlines across the world, the location of the thief and Leonardo Da Vinci’s masterpiece remained unknown for two years. 

Rumbled! The Mona Lisa recovered

In 1913, Peruggia slipped up. Contacting an art dealer in Italy, Peruggia tried to sell the painting. He traveled to Florence taking the Mona Lisa with him, but a day later Peruggia was arrested. 

During his trial it came to light that Peruggia believed that the Mona Lisa had been stolen from Florence by Napoleon. He argued that he was only doing his duty as an Italian in returning it to Leonardo Da Vinci’s true home. However, Peruggia was mistaken. Leonardo Da Vinci himself had taken the painting to France when he moved there, where he may have finished painting it. 

Funnily enough Peruggia got his wish – for a short time at least. The Mona Lisa was on display at the Uffizi Gallery for a special exhibition following the theft, gaining much attention from the public.


The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa played a significant part in its fame. Although Leonardo Da Vinci completed the painting in 1507, it wasn’t acclaimed by the art world as a masterpiece of the Renaissance period until the mid 1800s. Peruggia’s remarkable stunt pushed the painting into the minds of the public, and today it remains the most recognisable work of art in the world. 

Peruggia was sentenced to 8 months in prison. Very shortly after his trial, the story faded into the background, being overshadowed by the outbreak of WWI.


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