Mona Lisa feels alive again

Cleaning of early copy of Mona Lisa gives us our clearest idea of the effect Leonardo da Vinci originally intended.

Recent conservation work reveals that the work was painted by a pupil working alongside Leonardo da Vinci Photo: Museo Nacional del Pradio
A close up of the recently renovated painting (left) and Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa

Every great painting is surrounded by ghost paintings. Copies, possible proto-types, sketches, fakes of various periods, closely related works by contemporaries, and even lost paintings, these works can illuminate our understanding of the original masterpiece, or – more likely – they confuse and complicate it. Generally these subsidiary works hang little-regarded in museum reserve collections or in private houses. But occasionally one emerges into the limelight to upstage its stellar relative.

That is what has happened with an obscure painting from the Prado collection. With its dark and dingy background, the work was long regarded as one of innumerable 16th and 17th century journeyman copies of the Mona Lisa. Now that the background has been removed by cleaning to reveal a landscape almost exactly the same as that in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the painting has suddenly been promoted from the 10th division of the Old Master League, into our principal source of understanding of the world’s most famous painting.

Infrared reflectographical tests show that the underdrawing in the Prado painting is similar to that in the Louvre original, suggesting that whoever painted it had seen Leonardo’s painting in its early stages, was possibly even painting their version ‘at the master’s shoulder’ as the Prado curators claim.

We are to understand that the creator of the Prado painting was there when the subject, Lisa Gerardhini, wife of the Florentine cloth merchant Francesco del Giacondo (hence la Giaconda), sat for Leonardo. Suddenly the genesis of a work that has attained near sacred status, that has been so extensively reproduced and parodied it is almost impossible to imagine it being physically painted, feels once again alive.
Indeed, we even have a shrewd idea of who the painter was: certainly one of Leonardo’s assistants, either Francsco Melzi, who arrived in Leonardo’s studio in 1506, which would date the original slightly later than is generally supposed, or Andrea Salai, who later became Leonardo’s lover. There’s everything in this story.

In my experience, art historian are divided into two camps: romantics, who will seize on practically any evidence to launch themselves into the past in an almost novelistic way, and sceptics, who will refute even contemporary eye-witness accounts if they can’t be backed up by current scientific evidence. Currently the romantics appear to hold the field. We are being asked to accept a lot on the strength of some under-drawing we haven’t yet seen; though more will be apparent when the painting is unveiled in the Prado in mid-February.

What we have been allowed to see in the meantime is a detail which appears to show a fresher, cleaner-lined version of the Louvre painting, which, having just been cleaned, gives an idea of what the original would look like if it were cleaned – which it certainly won’t be any time soon – and hence our clearest idea of the effect Leonardo originally intended.

At the same time, we are often told that modern cleaning techniques are unreliable, if not destructive – that along with dirt and discoloured varnish, of the sort covering the Louvre Mona Lisa, they remove critical layers of the original paint. Personally I’m sceptical of the notion that even the most advanced techniques can give a definitive idea of what any 600 year old painting originally looked like. Paintings are part of history, and it’s in their nature that they age and change.

The Prado painting is undoubtedly a very good copy, but I doubt it will ultimately make a great deal of difference to what we think and feel about the original. The Mona Lisa is undoubtedly over-rated. But it does have that enigmatic quality people have talked about for centuries, a quality that is not – on the strength of this detail – present in the Prado painting.


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Ολυμπιακοί Αγώνες 2012,Φωτογραφίες :Άναμμα της Ολυμπιακής Φλόγας 2012