Frequently Asked Questions
Q: Why do some experts still raise doubts about the painting?
A: The foundation has presented the case through historical evidence, connoisseurship and critical comparisons as well as the results of scientific tests and physical examinations. Many of the doubts and questions raised are already well answered by these factors. It is felt that any doubt or subjective criticism raised in the area of connoisseurship first requires a viewing and examination of the painting itself. The foundation will be pleased to enter into healthy discussions with any expert who has viewed the painting itself and fully considered all the aspects presented.
Q: Leonardo habitually painted on wood, and the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ is on canvas. On the basis of this, how do you justify this attribution?
Some critics of the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ have doubted that the painting is by the hand of Leonardo, because it was executed on canvas. It is true that Leonardo’s “preferred medium” was wood. However:
‘The Benois Madonna’, an authenticated Leonardo work at the Hermitage Museum, in Saint-Petersburg, Russia, was executed on canvas (see Wikipedia).
The execution of the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ occurred at a particular time in the history of art when these kinds of “supports” were in transition, and the use of canvas was starting to become popular. In 1501, Leonardo had just returned from Mantua (home of Mantegna who was promoting canvas as a support) and Venice (where canvas was then used by some prominent artists, such as Vittore Carpaccio).
There is evidence going back to his apprenticeship days in Verrocchio’s studio (mid-1470s), that Leonardo had painted on canvas (see his drapery studies now in the Louvre Museum).
Furthermore, Leonardo gave specific instructions about how to paint on canvas in his ‘Trattato’.
These make it clear that it cannot be disproved to be a Leonardo just because it is on canvas.
Q. A critic has argued that certain features (veil, hair, translucence of the dress, head etc…) of the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ do not replicate those of the ‘Louvre Version’. Can Leonardo have painted them?
A. One should be very wary of comparisons between the Earlier and Louvre versions. Since the foundation maintains that the Earlier version was executed before, it is therefore mistaken to take the characteristics of the Louvre version as a basis for judgement. Sir Kenneth Clark, Professor Carlo Pedretti, Professor Alessandro Vezzosi, all leading Leonardo scholars, and others, hold that the ‘Louvre Version’ was completed late in Leonardo’s career, primarily because of reasons of style. Their opinion is that this style was a late development, and does not appear in Leonardo’s works prior to 1508. Artistic characteristics that might be detected in the ‘Louvre Version’ would therefore conceivably not be present in a version painted prior to 1508. In addition, as is described below, it is still unclear which sections were actually executed by the master, and which he left unfinished. The Mona Lisa Foundation continues to pursue ongoing research as to exactly what portions remain unfinished, and of the completed parts, which are by Leonardo, and which are by others. Moreover, many important experts have declared parts of the painting to have been painted by Leonardo.
Q. The painting was left unfinished by Leonardo. What parts did he actually paint?
A. The Foundation has received expert opinion that the composition of the painting was conceived by Leonardo. Portions of the painting were not completed by him. Which parts he did paint is still very much an open question. However, documentary evidence uncovered in Heidelberg University in 2005 reveals that Leonardo was working on the head of Lisa de Giocondo in 1503. The foundation contends, like many experts in the past, that the head of the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ is the one referred to in this document. We have made a case regarding other elements, as one can see in other parts of the website, which are indeed open for discussion.
Q. A critic has pointed to X-rays and reflectography suggesting very strongly to it not being by Leonardo. Is this a basis upon which to refute the attribution?
A. The position of the foundation is that this is not the case. First, Professor Martin Kemp states (in his book ‘La Bella Principessa’, written together with Pascal Cotte, 2010): “A problem with X-rays, unlike multispectral imaging, is that they are not standardized and thus are vulnerable to diverse interpretation.” Second, since this work was executed on canvas, and not on wood, the artist’s preferred medium, the images so produced may not have the same characteristics as authenticated paintings, of which all but one, are on wood. Third, the infrared Reflectography and X Ray images as they appear in the foundation’s book (page 253) are low resolution reproductions and are not of sufficient quality or detail for careful examination; the originals should be consulted before passing expert judgment.
Q. A critic has argued “the primary reliable evidence provides no basis to argue that there was an earlier portrait of Mona Lisa del Giocondo”. Is this the case?
Both the historical documentation, and the stated opinions of numerous other experts are fully discussed in the ‘Historical Evidence’ section of this website, and it is the foundation’s stance that they strongly point to the existence of two paintings.
Moreover in the opposite case, if there would have only been one painting, then several important historical facts remain unanswered and the history of Mona Lisa is put in limbo.
Further, in discussing the famous notation of 1503 by Agostino Vespucci (See Heidelberg document), Professor Alessandro Vezzosi, eminent expert on Leonardo and a leading authority on the subject of Mona Lisa, writes: ‘Though some scholars have used this information to justify the identification of the ‘Gioconda’ in the Louvre with Lisa del Giocondo [née Lisa Gherardini], others deny this, and I myself am convinced that this document reinforces the hypothesis of two portraits.”
Q. Some critics of the painting claim that the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ is a copy of the ‘Mona Lisa’ in the Louvre. Is this the case?
A. The Mona Lisa Foundation points to the following reasons as to why it is not a copy:
Apart from the long-admired sitting position of the subject, the architecture of the painting is completely novel. The foundation is unable to identify any other painting, executed prior to this one, with a similar composition.
The use of these columns in the structure of this painting is fundamental to the composition. As an element in portraiture, Leonardo had never before utilized this idea. The traces of columns and bases that can be seen today in the ‘Louvre Version’ can be argued to be a later addition (as they cover an underlying layer of background), and never part of its original composition.
The sitting position of the subject is angled differently that the ‘Louvre Version’. The subject is leaning forward more slightly, and the body is angled further from the viewer. This sitting position is also emphasized in the neck muscles.
The figure in the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ is clearly younger, and, some say, more beautiful, than the ‘Louvre Version’. This face has never been represented like this in any other painting.
The portrait was painted on canvas. To be a copy of the ‘Louvre Version’, it would likely have been painted on wood.
The size of the ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ painting is significantly larger that its Louvre counterpart. In addition, the figure is significantly smaller. A copyist would likely have made them virtually the same size.
A pioneering use of simple Tuscan landscape was employed, without the later embellishments of ‘Alpine’ mountains, or numerous water details. This would not have originated from the ‘Louvre Version’.
Tests have shown that some elements were painted with quite different pigments than the rest of the composition. These were possibly added later by a different artist or artists. A version of the original composition is seen in a 17th Century copy in the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo.
Details of the embroidery on the blouse are unique, different from those in the ‘Louvre Version’, and from any copy of either.
Due to the larger ‘canvas’ size, there is more detail at the bottom of the picture than can be seen in others: a prime example being the chair. Therefore other Mona Lisa paintings, without that extra detail, would hardly have pre-dated the ‘Earlier Version’.
Pascal Cotte has confirmed (January, 2011), the following statement: (the painting) has some clear underdrawings (by the columns and maybe elsewhere) signifying that it is not a direct copy.
A copy would likely have been painted by one artist, and at the same time. The ‘Earlier Version’ shows elements that were likely added to Leonardo’s work, by another artist or artists; as well as evidence that this occurred over an extended period of time.
A critic recently gave the following explanation to explain why the painting has features different to that in the Louvre: “This is probably because the copyist … just painted it that way”.
The foundation’s stance is that this is a tautological argument: to imply that a painting is a copy because that is the way a copyist painted it does not hold much credence and ignores the possible reasons for all the highlighted differences.
Q. How much of a painting needs to be by the hand of Leonardo, for it to be considered a “Leonardo”?
A. This is a matter of opinion. A leading Leonardo expert recently stated that if just the conception of a work was by Leonardo, then it could be attributed to him. Additionally, in a portrait one could opine that the head is the most important feature.
Q. Are you planning to exhibit the painting publicly?
A. Yes, the foundation is planning to commence a series of exhibitions around the world, beginning in Asia in 2013.
Q. Why do you not go the museum route?
A. This painting has been locked away and out of sight for over 40 years. It is a complex painting that needs to be well explained and its prominence as the earlier version of the great Mona Lisa icon. Therefore the Foundation believes that the best route at this stage is a single-painting exhibition. The foundation does not however, exclude the possibility of exhibiting it in museums in the future.
Q: Who owns the painting? Does the foundation own the painting?
A: The painting is owned by an international consortium, which wishes to remain private. It has entrusted the foundation to execute all necessary investigations to assess whether it is in fact Leonardo’s ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’, and to divulge the results of these investigations to the greatest population. The foundation and the consortium are distinct and separate entities.
Q: Are any foundation members owners of the painting?
A. The foundation has no equity stake in the painting. The painting was entrusted by the consortium of owners to the foundation. One of the conditions of this mandate was that the identity of the owners would remain private.