In the famous Nat King Cole hit record, “Mona Lisa”, the great crooner sings of a beautiful woman, “You’re so like the lady with the mystic smile.” As we all know THE Mona Lisa, the most famous portrait in the world, was painted by the great Italian Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci in the early 16th century, and presently resides in The Louvre in Paris. A recent discovery in The Prado in Madrid, however, of another so like the lady with the mystic smile, is shedding new light on this seminal work of art.
For many years The Prado has owned a portrait of a woman resembling Lisa del Giocondo, the woman in the da Vinci painting, but which looked quite different from the masterpiece in The Louvre. While the original da Vinci shows the woman with a dreamy landscape of mountains and rivers behind her, the background of the painting in The Prado was painted completely black. Layers of over-painting, dirt, and varnish on the copy in Madrid meant that no one paid much attention to it, even though it was thought to be an early copy of the original.
So recently when restoration experts in Madrid began to clean their painting in preparation for lending it to an exhibition in Paris, they were astonished to find that their copy possessed a very similar landscape to that of the original, underneath all of the layers of black paint. They also removed the centuries of varnish that had been put over the painting in order to preserve it, but which over time had turned yellow, making the colors flat, and dark. Those who look at the da Vinci original today, and note how yellowed and dirty it is, will be surprised when they look at the copy from Madrid to realize that the Mona Lisa was once a bright and fresh painting of a young woman with a beautiful, pink complexion, not a shadowy middle-aged woman sitting in a murky background.
Scholars examining the Madrid painting believe that it was created by one of da Vinci’s apprentices in his studio, who set up his easel near that of the master and copied what da Vinci was doing. It was very common for an artist’s pupils to make copies of works as part of their apprenticeship, both as a teaching tool so that a younger painter could improve his technique, but also so that these copies of the original could be sold to those who could afford to pay for one. The hypothesis that the two paintings were done at the same time is further strengthened by evidence that changes which were made to the original painting as da Vinci went along, which can be discerned by analyzing layers of paint, are mimicked in the Madrid copy.
Of course, da Vinci never really finished the Mona Lisa, taking it with him to France to keep working on it, and never delivering it to the Giocondo family. It was subsequently purchased by King Francis I, which is how it eventually passed into the collections of The Louvre. As such, the Madrid copy only gives us some idea of da Vinci’s intent and methods in creating the picture. Nevertheless, it does give us some interesting insight into how da Vinci worked.
Many art historians and aficionados – including yours truly – have for many years advocated that the original Mona Lisa needs to be cleaned. It is absolutely filthy, and like the Sistine Chapel before it was cleaned, gives no real indication of the genius of the artist, buried under years and years of dirt, wax, bad restoration work, and grime. Now that this cleaned, contemporary of the original will be traveling to The Louvre, perhaps those who see what might appear if da Vinci’s masterpiece would finally undergo the restoration it needs will begin to come around to this way of thinking.