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What Does the Prado’s Mona Lisa Copy Tell Us About the Real Thing?

Short of inventing a time machine and travelling back to the 16th century, we’ll most likely never know what Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa looked like when it was first painted. Mini “time machines” in the form of copies made between Leonardo’s day and our own give us an idea of what Mona may have looked like at different points in time, but nothing could bring us back to the moment of creation—until now. On view now at the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain, is what experts believe is a copy of the Mona Lisa painted by a student at the same time and even in the same room as Leonardo the master. A modern miracle of conservation and art history research, this new discovery will change the way we look at the most famous painting in the world forever.

I’d love to know when the Prado suspected that they had something more than another old copy of the Mona Lisa in their possession. As you can see on the interactive page on the Prado’s website, black over-painting covered the entire background of the portrait, making it look like a skilled, if safe, copy of just the figure. Subtle yet significant differences in the modeling of the woman’s features made it clear that it wasn’t a Leonardo, but what exactly was it? The fact that the painting wasn’t considered that significant initially might have contributed to the aggressiveness in conserving the work and removing the black layers to find the beautifully colored landscape background beneath. Although the Louvre’s ruling philosophy on conservation is much more liberal (maybe even radical) than ever before, the chances that a similarly aggressive treatment would be done to the Mona Lisa remain slim. In the case of the Prado’s copy, the high risk of deep cleaning paid off in high reward.

Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper has been covering the story of the Prado copy and done great work here and here. Bailey reports that two theories are in play for why the work was made. One theory holds that a student of Leonardo’s wanted to learn how to compose a portrait by peeking over da Vinci’s shoulder and following step by step. The argument against this theory is that a student wouldn’t have used the expensive walnut panel support and lapis lazuli blue pigment found in the Prado copy. A second theory holds that the Prado copy is a studio copy Leonardo intended to sell to another client at the same time he sold the original. What member (or members) of Leonardo’s studio painted the copy is a mystery. Renowned da Vinci scholar Martin Kemp believes that at least two different artists painted the copy, with the portrait being “based on close observation of Leonardo [that] exhibit[s] a certain niggling exactitude that comes from careful emulation,” while the “sketchy” landscape “seems to speak of a different artist from that responsible for the head.” Not exactly high praise for either mystery painter, but an interesting theory that it was a group effort rather than a single star pupil stuck to Leonardo’s hip.

The only point of Bailey’s analysis that I disagree with is the issue of the eyebrows, which are clearly visible in the copy and famously missing in the original. Bailey believes that the eyebrows were left out of the original as an accurate depiction of the model because severely plucked eyebrows were fashionable at the time. The fact that Giorgio Vasari mentions eyebrows on the Mona Lisa in a contemporary account leads Bailey to think that Vasari’s actually talking about the Prado copy, perhaps providing evidence that the copy is a simultaneous work. But, as Pascal Cotte illustrated with his cutting edge photographic technology using a “multi-spectral” process of thirteen different scans of the Mona Lisa at 240 million pixels resolution (documented in the film Mona Lisa Revealed: Secrets of the Painting, which I reviewed here), residual traces of the eyebrows of the Mona Lisa remain as proof that they slowly disappeared over the centuries, most likely due to da Vinci’s painstaking yet extremely fragile technique. I’m sure Vasari knew which painting was by da Vinci, so I don’t think you can use the eyebrows as definitive evidence.

The Prado copy will remain on display in Madrid until March 13th, after which it will travel to the Louvre to be part of the exhibition Leonardo’s Last Masterpiece: The St Anne. For the first time in five centuries, the two paintings will be in the same location again. For those who can see them side by side, the experience will be as close to seeing through the eyes of Leonardo as modern museumgoers can ever get.

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