The Mona Lisa Foundation

The ‘Prado Mona Lisa’

This interesting portrait was first referred to in the 1666 inventory in the Galleria del Mediodia del Alcazar as ‘Mujer de mano de Leonardo Abince’ (‘Leonardo da Vinci’s Handy Woman’). It differs strikingly from the other variations.

The young lady gives off an air of graceful melancholia: the modelling and flesh-tones of her face, and right hand in particular, are finely painted, though without the sfumato of Leonardo’s work. As with other copies, the existence of the frill edge at the top of her bodice indicates that this detail was likely once seen in Leonardo’s own work. Also remarkable in this painting is the clarity with which the transparency of the thin veil fabric is rendered, accentuating the vibrant red of the sleeves. Certain other elements of the painting have been beautifully rendered, perhaps not quite to Leonardo’s standard, but with exquisite attention to detail nonetheless.

This painting has recently undergone a major restoration, and in January 2012, results from this cleaning and restoration of the background were disclosed, and released to the international media. The results uncovered the hitherto black background that was hiding a landscape, and a parapet flanked with the edges of column bases similar to those in the Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’. However, what excited the art world much more was the discovery, through infrared reflectography, of similarities in the underpainting of both this work and the Louvre portrait.

These fascinating findings, coupled with the excellent state of preservation, show the original colours of the Prado painting. However, there is no hard evidence that Leonardo himself had used a similar palette for the ‘Mona Lisa’ now in the Louvre. These two portraits are quite different, and were executed on wood panels taken from separate tree types.

Information previously provided by the Prado Museum in 2010, indicated their belief that the portrait was likely painted before Leonardo left Italy for France, which would have meant that it was executed in Rome c.1516. However it may take some serious technical examinations to verify this, as by its condition it appears to be of a later date. Now, subsequent to the recent restoration and accompanying publicity, many new theories have been reported about its origin and execution.

There has never been any suggestion that the Prado copy was painted by Leonardo. Bruno Mottin, the head conservator at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musees de France, is reported as believing that it was likely painted by one of Leonardo’s favourite apprentices, for example, Salai, or Melzi. In a press release issued by the Prado in February 2012, the museum stated that: “Following its rediscovery, this copy of the Mona Lisa in the Museo del Prado, which has now been confirmed as a work of one of Leonardo’s pupils or followers working in his studio while the original was being painted, has not only been confirmed as the oldest known copy of this enigmatic image but also acquires considerable importance for its potential to cast more light on the Louvre’s painting.”

It is really unclear what further information about the Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’ could be provided by the Prado copy. Tests undertaken over decades on the Louvre painting have been well documented: all that is really known about the Prado copy is that a coating of black paint was removed to reveal the background. Even the description of this (background) is contentious: “ … the same Tuscan background as in Leonardo’s painting …” Those icy and rocky peaks are surely more reminiscent of the Alps than any Tuscan landscape.

What the painting does possibly indicate, given the recent findings and expert opinions is that it would have been worked on at the same time as the Louvre version, i.e. in the same place and at the same time. This lends further credence to the Louvre ‘Mona Lisa’ having been executed in one place at one time, most likely in Rome c.1513-16. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that the same follower of Leonardo would have shadowed the master for over a decade in executing this work.

Certainly if, as the Prado theorized, their copy was painted by someone sitting right next to Leonardo da Vinci, trying to duplicate his every brushstroke, then, assuming that it was begun in 1503 that artist would have had to have literally been tied to Leonardo for 16 years, while the master worked and travelled from Florence to Milan to Rome to France, and only rarely put his hand to painting: this does not make sense. So a more likely narrative would be that they were both executed during Leonardo’s stay in Rome (1513-1516).