Speech by Alessandro Vezzosi
Geneva, September 27, 2012
Director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, Vinci, Italy.
Note: Alessandro Vezzosi is recognised as one of the most influential living experts on Leonardo da Vinci, and arguably the leading authority on Mona Lisa. This is the speech he gave at the occasion of the presentation of the painting to the international media.
I take the floor to present fairly briefly the events and the reasons that brought me here and to inform you about the ongoing research on the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’. Such research is part of the extremely complex studies on ‘Monna Lisa / Gioconda’ that are being carried out with the Archivio Leonardismi of the Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci and under the auspices of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies of the University of California, Los Angeles, directed by Carlo Pedretti.
Geneva is not only an important free port for the arts. It is also a university city, whose Library holds the ‘De Divina Proportione’ manuscript by Luca Pacioli for Ludovico il Moro, with illustrations drawn by Leonardo. Many works of art are kept in this city’s vaults, while our calling is – inter alia – to rediscover, to publish and to exhibit works of art hitherto unknown and inaccessible.
I started the Archivio Leonardismi forty years ago, gathering very diverse documents – from arts to mass media over five centuries – concerning Leonardo’s works and those of his circle. Every day, more and more, something new appears and today thousands of images make up the “Mundaneum Gioconde” – which is still growing. In 1981, I curated in Vinci the first exhibition of Leonardismi, which already presented the documentation on the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ with Henry Pulitzer’s book “Where is the Mona Lisa?”, which raised much attention, as well as Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Joconde L.H.O.O.Q.’ and ‘Rasée’ which raised much controversy. In 1988, as curator of the Florence exhibition “Leonardo Lost and Found”, I presented a much commented interpretation by Carlo Pedretti and André Chastel concerning the notes about the ‘Gioconda’ in the “Diary” written by Antonio De Beatis – relating the visit by Cardinal Luigi of Aragon to Leonardo in Amboise in October 1517.
The new hypothesis, based also on elements of style, was that the Louvre’s ‘Gioconda’ did not represent the Monna Lisa del Giocondo described by Vasari (who eventually – among debatable observations – was at the origin of the name for the Louvre’s masterpiece and its disputed dating to 1502-1506) but was painted for Giuliano de’ Medici around 1514.
This suggested another hypothesis, which coincided with the quotation by Gian Paolo Lomazzo in his ‘Trattato’ of 1584: the existence of two distinct paintings (‘Gioconda’ and ‘Monna Lisa’), two portraits that I have been looking for passionately since then.
As time went by, I realized that there are some fundamental aspects concerning the Louvre’s portrait – that masterpiece that is the most painting in the world – that are not really known with certainty, such as its dating, the identity of the person who commissioned it and that of the person it represents.
In 1991, an archival discovery revealed that the inventory of Salai’s properties at the time of his death mentioned a ‘Gioconda’ for the first time. Someone thought – unlike myself – that it was the Louvre painting. However, many suppositions may be possible since the painting is only mentioned and not described or reproduced.
In 2005-2007, news were published about the exceptional discovery at the Heidelberg Library of a gloss written by Agostino Vespucci in the Autumn of 1503, a note to be interpreted in the sense that Leonardo painted only the head of a portrait of “Lisa del Giocondo”.
My interpretation of this led me to point out that such an unfinished portrait would be incompatible with the Louvre ‘Gioconda’, including the aspect concerning the identity of the person who commissioned it (Francesco del Giocondo and not Giuliano de’ Medici). This gave more weight to the idea that there were two distinct portraits.
Other important findings emerged with the scientific tests made on the Louvre ‘Gioconda’ in 2006 and, more recently, on the Prado ‘Gioconda’ (in this case more through reflectography than through the landscape). Putting many historic-critical considerations in a nutshell, the underdrawing of both paintings – one of which was clearly painting by Leonardo and the other by one of his followers – reminded me not so much of the unfinished portrait of 1503 as of Leonardo’s maturity (1514?) as far as the genesis of the composition is concerned.
In 2009-2010, we could not exhibit the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ at the Museo Ideale in Vinci. However, through our Museum it was shown in three museums in Japan in 2011-2012, in the exhibition entitled “Leonardo and the idea of beauty”, where the questions of dating and attribution were left open. Both critics and the public showed a much positive interest.
By fostering a permanent research centre, the newly established “Mona Lisa Foundation” was extremely constructive to place the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ into the complexities of the “Monnna Lisa-Gioconda” context.
It is significant that the preview of the painting should take place here in Geneva, and that it is not organised by a gallery or an art merchant and that no mention of selling value is made.
The “Mona Lisa Foundation” stated and explained today in a press conference its firm belief that the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ is the first, unfinished, version of Leonardo’s ‘Monna Lisa’ that he started in 1503. The Foundation stresses its belief not only by publishing a first volume, but by fostering further research and confrontation among scholars and by allowing a large number of connoisseurs the opportunity to see the original painting.
Clearly, attributing a painting is an extremely complex process, which requires converging investigations, results and interpretations, inspections and judgements, all shared by experts. My method is that of ongoing works, based on research and hypothesis, on question marks – especially as regards the attribution – bearing in mind history and scientific findings and the evolution of criticism. Very often, when a discovery is made or an intuition is expressed, it seems that a reasonable certainty is at hand, while this only opens new pathways to research.
The ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa‘ is an important work of art deserving respect and strong consideration as well as a scientific, historic and artistic debate among specialists rather than a purely media interest. The research we are carrying out at present in conjunction with Carlo Pedretti and his research centre is all encompassing: the execution of the painting, its dating, the evolution of the painting’s surface (short as it is in the continuity due to old inclusions and abrasions over time), its provenance before 1913 and so on.
Apart from the Louvre ‘Gioconda‘, as far as we know today, and among the many versions, copies and variants of “Dama nella loggia / Monna Lisa / Gioconda”, the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa‘ seems to be the one that, more than any other, presents two elements that could well be traced back to the 1503 Lisa. The first one is the head alone (given the difference in quality between the face and the rest of the painting) in relation to the Heidelberg document. The second one is the sketch of the composition of ‘Dama nella loggia‘ with the “beautiful hands” and the well visible (although drawn over) columns as in the Raphael drawing of about 1504-1505 (and subsequently the ‘Young woman with Unicorn‘).
Today, the “Mona Lisa Foundation” stresses its belief that the Louvre’s ‘Gioconda‘ and this ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa‘ (considered an earlier painting) portray the same person in two different moments of life. It is a fascinating possibility, a working hypothesis that will have to be subjected to a discussion among scholars, an occasion that the Foundation is fostering. This presentation seems to close a cycle of studies carried out by the “Mona Lisa Foundation” and to open a new one.
I wish to stress that a parallel research is in progress, which is coordinated by Carlo Pedretti and myself. Other specialists have shown their interest in the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa‘. This meeting of ours is important in so far as it marks the beginning of an open, scientific and critical in-depth study and confrontation, thanks also to the opportunity which is provided to examine the painting for the first time in Europe. This kind of discussion should lead to scholarly meetings as soon as possible, without any hazardous announcements.
Allow me to conclude with Leonardo’s own words when he quotes St. Augustine from the ‘Fior di virtú’ of 1491: «Nothing may be loved or hated [and therefore judged] without thorough knowledge of it».
Geneva, September 27, 2012