Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles If you want praise of Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" as art, you can find it. But what if you think it's just... ... fine? What's the cynic's explanation for the "Mona Lisa"? Why is the "Mona Lisa" so, so famous? Is it really that much better than da Vinci's "Lady with an Ermine"? That seems better; there's one more ermine. But it's "Mona", who is so famous, that the director of the Louvre ⏤ where "Mona Lisa" lives ⏤ said 80% of their visitors are only there to see that one painting. If you don't think "Mona Lisa" is famous just because she's somehow ten times better than every other painting, her story reveals something more interesting. Something about how art breaks into wider culture. And it might never have happened if the "Mona Lisa" hadn't disappeared. Before "Mona Lisa" became a mass culture star, before she vanished, one critic made her a work of art worth taking. And he was so over-the-top insanely in love with the painting that he single-handedly made it a masterpiece. Walter Pater's 1873 book "The Renaissance" was key. It came out more than 350 years after Leonardo painted "Mona Lisa", but it defined the painting for Victorians. That was key in an age when it was hard to actually see the art, so the words did the work. Here is the epic semi-colon-stuffed paragraph at the center of his ode to "Mona Lisa". Highlights: "...the animalism of Greece." "She is older than the rocks among which she sits." "Like the vampire, she has been dead many times." This was the purplest prose of all time, but people loved the stuff. Oscar Wilde thought the essay's writing was great. He praised, "the musical of the mystical prose". And every general interest profile of the Louvre, from academic guidebooks to discussions clubs in Paducah, used Pater's words to talk about "Mona." Other critics jumped on ⏤ "Mona" was a popular, secular painting that they could analyze. Unlike da Vinci's "Last Supper", they could supply all the meaning. But even at her peak, "Mona Lisa" was just art-world famous, not the most famous painting of all time. In 1907, a vandal of the Louvre targeted a picture by Ingres, not da Vinci. And, in 1910, amidst rumors of theft, papers called "Mona" just the second most famous painting in the Louvre, after Raphael's "Sistina Madonna". It took a real theft to take "Mona" from art syllabus highlight to mass culture icon. These are Vincenzo Peruggia's fingerprints. This is Vincenzo Peruggia's mugshot. He has one because, on August 21, 1911, the former Louvre worker lifted the "Mona Lisa" off the wall and took it home. It took the Louvre a day to even notice, but the media didn’t have as subdued of a reaction. The painting went missing for two years, and every time, the press ⏤ often quoting Pater ⏤ called it the greatest portrait there ever was. They speculated that Mona's smile had driven the thief mad, they wrote art thief fan fiction, and they constantly daydreamed about "Mona Lisa's" whereabouts. Thousands went to the Louvre just to see empty hooks hanging on the wall. The robbery and manhunt were like a two-year ad campaign for the painting. And because you couldn't just Google "'Mona Lisa' before it was stolen", it was hard for people to see the actual painting and say, "What's the big deal?" When Peruggia was caught, he said his goal was to bring "Mona" back to her native Italy. By then, she was the most famous painting in the world due, in part, to her absence. Just as critics could smear prose on her blank face, the press could hang a reputation on those empty hooks in the wall. When "Mona Lisa" was stolen, she left a masterpiece. After her recovery and a two-week tour in Florence, she returned to the Louvre bigger than just art. She was a story and a legend and prominently shown in every paper that reported her recovery. It was the big reveal after two years of suspense, now with a story that merited Walter Pater's hyperbole. From that point on, she attracted presidential speeches and parodies. "...also come to pay homage to this great creation of the civilization which we share." The momentum never stopped. In the end, the cynics' interpretation and the gob-smacked critics' interpretation have something in common. "Mona Lisa" isn't a portrait, but a blank face. A place for critics to paint meaning, and people to find mystery. That’s why she was so famous, not because of how she's painted, but what we see in her. If that's not art, then what is? I found one 1909 description of the "Mona Lisa" that seemed particularly prescient. The writer said, "Even those whose first expressions is 'huh' and proclaimed frankly that they cannot see her beauty or her interest find themselves disputing hotly over both." That's probably still the case today.