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Ocean Critchley-Clark
Upper Sixth
Oakeley's House

The Discovered Mona Lisa

The Discovered Mona Lisa

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the most famous paintings in the world. It is a portrait of a Florentine lady painted probably between 1502 and 1506. The lady is commonly accepted as Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant. This great painting, like every other, is surrounded by ghost paintings and replicas — copies, lost paintings, sketches and fakes all give extra understanding of original pieces.

A recently discovered painting found in Madrid’s Prado museum is now thought to be the earliest copy of the Mona Lisa and was possibly painted alongside the original by one of Da Vinci’s key pupils.

It gives a new insight as to the real appearance of the model and is arguably the most remarkable discovery in recent times. It is believed that this new painting reveals how the most famous sitter would have really looked. Art Newspaper said that “this sensation will transform our understanding of the world’s most famous picture”, and it may well do — by clearing up some of the mysteries of the Mona Lisa, but these mysteries may have been left unsolved as it was Da Vinci’s belief that a painter must leave something to guess. It was found during conservation work, thought to be one of many replicas of the Mona Lisa made after Da Vinci’s death, until now.

The Mona Lisa in The Louvre. Ocean’s own photo

The original, which is permanently on display behind glass in the Louvre, Paris, is obscured by cracked darkened varnish which causes the woman to look old — older than her true age. This original cannot be restored because of the risk due to its frailty, but the newly found Mona Lisa may reveal the model’s true appearance much clearer once the process of painstakingly stripping off the dark over-paint has been completed. The restoration so far has revealed that the Prado version gives a much more vivid impression of her enticing eyes and enigmatic smile.

Ana Gonzalez Mozo is a technical specialist at the Prado museum, she presented these findings at a conference on Leonardo da Vinci at London’s National Gallery last month. She said that “what was most exciting about the Prado replica is what it reveals about Leonardo’s original. In the Madrid copy there are areas that are better preserved than in the Louvre painting.”

The replica, with its dark, dingy background, was long regarded as one of multiple 16th or 17th century copies of the Mona Lisa. But now the background has been delicately removed by restorers to reveal a landscape almost exactly the same as in Da Vinci’s version, the painting has suddenly been promoted from the 10th division of the Old Master League, into our principal source of understanding of the world’s most famous painting.

Infrared reflectographical tests have shown us that the underdrawing in the newly found Prado painting is very similar to that in the Louvre original, suggesting perhaps that whoever painted it was witness to Leonardo Da Vinci’s painting in its early stages, and could even have painted their version ‘at the master’s shoulder’ as the Prado curators claim. It has been concluded that the painter was present when the subject, Lisa Gerardhini, sat for Da Vinci. Suddenly the genesis of a work that has attained near sacred status, that has been so extensively reproduced and parodied it is almost impossible to imagine it being physically painted, feels once again alive.

However, we have only a vague idea of who the painter was. He (probably a “he” as women were not artists in those days) was certainly one of Da Vinci’s assistants: either Francsco Melzi, who arrived in Leonardo Da Vinci’s studio in 1506, which would date the original slightly later than is generally supposed, or Andrea Salai, who later became Leonardo’s lover.

More will be apparent when the painting is unveiled in the Prado in mid-February this year. What has been allowed to be seen so far is a small detail which appears to show a fresher, cleaner-lined version of the original painting, which gives an idea of what the original would look like if it were cleaned — which certainly won’t happen any time soon — and hence our clearest idea of the effect that the great Leonardo Da Vinci originally may have intended. On the other hand, it is often thought that today’s modern cleaning techniques are unreliable, if not destructive. It is speculated that as well dirt and discoloured varnish, of the sort covering the Louvre Mona Lisa, the cleaning process removes critical layers of the original paint.

The Mona Lisa in The Louvre. Ocean’s own photo

The Prado painting is undoubtedly a very good copy, but I wonder whether it really will make a massive difference to the way people — art historian and the general public alike — think and feel about the original. The Mona Lisa is arguably over-rated and some even find it underwhelming — as my own photograph from the Louvre here shows, it is small and masses crowd around it, greatly restricting the view, but it does have a certain quality which have caused people to talk and speculate about it for centuries, a quality I doubt that is present in the Prado painting, but I’ll have to wait and see.

Images taken from:
The photo of the Mona Lisa at The Louvre is Ocean’s own photo.

13 February 2012

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