Leonardo da Vinci died in 1519 but he is still one of the world’s great celebrities. The recent Leonardo retrospective at the National Gallery in London attracted the longest queues ever seen in Britain. Mention his name and reporters come running, as if the latest Hollywood starlet just flew into town. Add a reference to one Lisa Gherardini – subject of the Mona Lisa, and the excitement becomes palpable.
This is precisely what occurred in February this year when Madrid’s legendary art museum, the Prado, held a press conference to announce the “discovery” of a portrait that had been on full view for almost 300 years.
For many, the cliché of a masterpiece found in an attic was irresistible, and this is what they hastened to write. Yet those who listened attentively heard an even more remarkable story: a painting transformed by restoration, offering up secrets that had been concealed for centuries.
The second Mona Lisa entered the Spanish Royal collection some time in the 1600s and has been shown at the Prado since the day the museum opened in 1819. It was known to be a copy – one of dozens made throughout the 16th and 17th centuries. Such copies were popular among museums and private collectors up to the beginning of the twentieth century, but modern taste put a premium on the master’s hand. Soon even the most skillful copies were viewed as curiosities rather than significant works of art.
And so it was that the so-called Prado Giaconda languished on the wall alongside more prestigious works by artists of the Italian Renaissance. It would still be there today if the Louvre had not decided to hold an exhibition around the restoration of its own painting of Saint Anne (c. 1503-19), which they dubbed “the final masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci.”
In preparation for the conservation checks that attend any loan, Prado technical researcher, Ana González Mozo took an infra-red photograph. Almost immediately she made an extraordinary discovery. The corrections made to the composition beneath the surface of the paint – what art historians called the pentimenti – were exactly identical to the Mona Lisa itself. This could mean only one thing: that the artist had sat alongside Leonardo copying his alterations to the image as they were made. No later artist could have done this as these traces were concealed from the naked eye.
González Mozo dismissed any thought that the work was by Leonardo himself, as the lines an artist makes act as a distinctive form of ‘handwriting’, and the Prado work did not correspond to the master’s style. It is possible, she admits, that Leonardo may have done something to the picture, however miniscule.
An analysis of the wooden panel upon which the work was painted revealed it to be walnut, not oak as had previously been assumed. This was yet another confirmation that the painting originated in Leonardo’s studio, as this is the same wood used for paintings such as The Lady with the Ermine and Saint John the Baptist. The Mona Lisa is painted on poplar.
Most exciting of all was the realisation that beneath a layer of black paint surrounding the figure, there was an exact duplicate of the Tuscan landscape featured in the original work. It had been painted out to suit the taste of a later owner, who preferred to see the figure against a plain backdrop. It was decided to do a complete restoration – a painstaking process that occupied the following two years. The results were spectacular, not only because of the unsuspected beauty of the painting, but because of the insights it offers into the Mona Lisa and Leonardo’s studio practice.
In the Louvre one can hardly distinguish the delicate veil on top of the subject’s head, but it is clearly displayed in the Prado work. We see a little more of the armrest of the chair, and Lisa Gherardini seems marginally more slender than in the original. Most striking of all are her red sleeves, which add a vivid splash of colour. There are also slight differences in the background landscape.
The Prado work suggests that the Mona Lisa would come up looking just as fresh if a similar restoration was undertaken. It is a tantalising idea for González Mozo, who admits she is curious and would like to see it happen. At the moment any restoration is highly unlikely, given the exalted status of the Mona Lisa, and the storm of controversy generated when the conservators get to work on any acknowledged masterwork. Debates are still raging over the restoration of Michelangelo’s frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, completed in 1999.
The Prado Giaconda is on display in the Louvre’s Leonardo exhibition until 24 June. When it returns to Madrid it will almost certainly be displayed in the same room of Italian Renaissance art, but henceforth as the centre of attention. It is already taking on iconic status, having been translated into a best-selling postcard and fridge magnet. The director of the Prado, Miguel Zugaza, has said he believes the rediscovery of the work will be seen as the defining event of his term of office.
Beyond all the fanfare, the mystery remains: if Leonardo didn’t paint the portrait, who did? And why?
The Art Newspaper has already told its readers that the painter was Leonardo’s lover, Salaì, the “limb of Satan” who entered the studio at the age of ten and seems to have given the master no end of trouble. The curators of the Prado have offered another apprentice, Francesco Melzi, as a “best guess” but they admit there is really no way of knowing without further evidence or documentation. González Mozo says that at present the search for names is mere speculation.
The circumstances under which the copy was made are equally obscure. While it is obvious why someone would want a copy of the painting a century or so later, the Mona Lisa began life as a private commission from Lisa Gheradini’s husband, the Florentine silk merchant, Francesco del Giacondo. Was the commission for two paintings instead of one? Was it a gift for another branch of the family? Was it simply a pedagogical exercise on Leonardo’s behalf? Surely not, considering the quality and expense of the materials. Once again, we are only guessing.
The key to Leonardo’s enduring popularity is the combination of genius and mystery. Vasari called him “il Divino”, and modern writers have confirmed that holy status. The historian, Roger Shattuck has noted that between 1869 and 1919 an average of one full-length biography appeared every year, making him second only to Jesus Christ as a subject for scholars, yet he remains an enigma. While we are perpetually amazed by the way Leonardo combined the roles of artist, scientist and engineer, the historical accounts of his life are full of gaps and speculation. A typical instance is Sigmund Freud’s claim that the smile of the Mona Lisa duplicated the smile of the artist’s mother.
In an entry in his Notebooks, Leonardo wrote: “A work of art should always teach us that we had not seen what we see.” What he is saying is that looking is easy but seeing is hard. In the Prado Giaconda we have been given the opportunity to make a fresh study of the most famous, most reproduced face in the history of art. We can see those features like never before, but the smile continues to tease us with all the things about the artist and his subject that we may never know.
Published in Australian Financial Review, May 19, 2012