“A mortal god.” This is how Vasari describes Raphael in the Vite. Even as a youth, Raphael (born Raffaello Santi), 1483-1520, displayed extraordinary artistic ability, and while still in his teens had already completed numerous assignments.
In 1504, he came to Florence to hone his talents and for a short time became apprenticed to Leonardo da Vinci. While there, he produced a small pen and brown ink sketch of a young woman. This portrait is of major importance in the history of Mona Lisa: art historians and Leonardo experts are universally agreed that this drawing was directly influenced by the painting of Mona Lisa del Giocondo while Leonardo was actually working on it.
The Mona Lisa Foundation believes, based on its research, that this sketch was based on the earlier ‘Mona Lisa‘, and this places the execution of this painting in the early 1500s.
The existence and dating of this sketch yield two significant conclusions. First, the history of the sketch shows that Leonardo was painting a Mona Lisa portrait around 1504. Second, the composition itself suggests that this painting was not the Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’. The striking inclusion of the columns dramatically underscores the fact that the painting as seen by Raphael, and on which Leonardo was working, had flanking columns: this is a critical difference from the Paris version.
In addition, the flat unadorned landscape; the famous three-quarter pose, with the head tilted slightly forward, and the crossed hands, mimic almost exactly the composition of the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’. The focus of Raphael’s sketch, with its youthful subject and columnar framing is remarkably different from the Louvre painting in Paris, and reinforces the opinion of so many experts that the Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’ must be of a later date.
Coincidentally, it is reported by Professor Giuseppe Pallanti, who has written the most exhaustive history of Lisa del Giocondo, her husband and their respective families, that when Raphael was living in Florence during that time, the rear entrance to the Taddei palazzo where he was a guest, faced the residence of the del Giocondo family.
Raphael obviously used this same Leonardo image again as the basis for his striking c.1505 masterpiece, the ‘Lady with a Unicorn’, which is supposed to be a portrait of Maddalena Strozzi shortly after her betrothal to Agnolo (Angelo) Doni. Again we see the composition in a loggia with pillars, and the relatively flat landscape behind. The young woman in the ink sketch does not quite resemble either Lisa or Maddalena, and was likely a studio model used by Leonardo to help train his apprentices and students.
Raphael subsequently painted a marriage diptych of Agnolo and Maddalena. Her pose is similar, but this time, as in Leonardo’s later ‘Mona Lisa’ version, the pillars are omitted. The woman is also recognizable by the expensive and ostentatious jewellery she wears around her neck: for which both she and her husband had a penchant.
In the great reference work The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, compiled and edited from the original manuscripts (pub. 1883), the eminent Leonardo scholar Jean Paul Richter emphasizes that, according to Vasari “ … Raphael copied certain works of Leonardo’s during his stay in Florence.”
In a special article published in The New York Times (February 15, 1914), the art expert and critic Paul Konody, writes from London:
“ … There is, in the collection of old master drawings at the Louvre an original pen drawing by Raphael, which is reproduced in Muntz’s great work on Leonardo, and which is generally admitted to be a memory sketch by Raphael of Leonardo’s ‘Mona Lisa’. Now this memory sketch is framed at both sides by two columns of which no trace is to be found in the Paris ‘Mona Lisa’. These columns appear in the identical place in the Isleworth picture and are of immense value to the harmonious balance of the composition.”
R. Langton Douglas writes in 1944, that “…the young Raphael imitated the pose of Monna Lisa in his portrait of Maddalena Doni.”
Kenneth Clark writes: “In 1504, Raphael, who was preparing his portrait of Maddalena Doni, did a pen and ink drawing which is unquestionably related to the ‘Mona Lisa’. Raphael’s drawing is usually taken as evidence that the ‘Mona Lisa’ was painted before 1504.” However, in his essay Mona Lisa from The Burlington Magazine edition of March 1973, Professor Clark is emphatic that the Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’ was painted after Leonardo’s second Florentine period. This clearly implies, together with his other statements, that a different portrait of ‘Mona Lisa’ was painted earlier (i.e. Leonardo made two paintings of Mona Lisa).
In 1988, the eminent French art historian, Andre Chastel, wrote that: “ … the portrait of the woman [‘La Joconde’ of the Louvre] seen in 1517 by the Cardinal of Aragon was preceded ten years before by studies for other models from which Raphael took inspiration.”
From these quotations, among others, it is clear that the two crucial Raphael works mentioned above that depicted pillars, the pen and ink sketch and the ‘Lady with a Unicorn’, could only have been based on a portrait with pillars that Leonardo was then painting; the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ is the only portrait known to be in existence today that could have been the basis for these works.
Most experts today seem to be agreed that the Louvre version was painted by Leonardo in a style that he developed only after 1508, while the version seen by Vespucci, described by Vasari, and used as a model by Raphael, was painted before 1504; it therefore could not be the Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’.