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 versions. 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 version of ‘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 Musées de France, is reported as believing that it was likely painted by one of Leonardo’s favourite apprentices, for example, Salai, or Melzi. There is no real evidence that Salai ever had the talent to paint a portrait as exquisite as this version, and Francesco Melzi was only 15 when he first met Leonardo, in 1506. In all likelihood, Melzi would not have had sufficient experience to have painted this copy, in parallel with Leonardo, while they were in Rome from 1513 to 1516. Melzi did eventually become an accomplished artist in his own right, but if the Prado ‘Mona Lisa’ is his work, then it could only have been completed some years after Leonardo’s death. It is also opined that it could have been executed by one of Leonardo’s Spanish students, who returned with it to Spain, and perhaps even completed it in Spain. Another theory is that the painting was taken by the Spanish when they sacked Rome in 1527.
However, 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 Leonardo’s Louvre version of ‘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.
There were further public statements by some of the Prado staff, which clearly implied their opinion that whoever painted the copy did so while “… sitting right next to Leonardo da Vinci, trying to duplicate his every brushstroke.” Then, in an extraordinary piece of ironic coincidence, the Louvre itself made a remarkable and concurrent announcement; that they have re-dated their own ‘Mona Lisa’, the famous ‘Joconde’, to the period 1503 to 1519, the year in which Leonardo’s died. The reason for this decision remains unclear. 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 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.
Furthermore, Leonardo was known to have suffered from the effects of a stroke, as early as 1514, while in Rome. When Leonardo was subsequently visited in exile by Cardinal Luigi of Aragon in 1517, the Cardinal’s secretary and diarist, Canon Antonio de Beatis, reported that “ … nothing good can now be expected from his brush as he suffers from paralysis in the right hand.” While Leonardo was known to be primarily left-handed, he was at that time over 65 years old, and obviously debilitated. In addition, de Beatis reported that the portrait of the “Florentine woman”, the painting now considered to be the ‘Mona Lisa’ of the Louvre, was “perfettissimo” (“quite perfect”), meaning completely finished. All of these documented reports would preclude the completion of the ‘Louvre Version’ in the year of Leonardo’s death, in 1519.
Perhaps the leading argument against the Prado copy having been executed at the same time as Leonardo’s ‘Louvre Version’ is that the two women are physically different: the Prado subject is significantly younger, and with a more robust appearance; her hair is more intricately curled; and the fingers of the beautifully-rendered right hand are thinner and more elongated than ‘La Joconde’. Though the quality of the artist’s work is somewhat betrayed by the more simplified rendering of the embroidery pattern, it is clear that to execute the face, hands and clothing with such finesse, he would have been more experienced than a mere student.