Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa gives up more of her secrets
The work is now fully restored and on view in Spain, and gives fresh insight into the most famous painting in the world
By Martin Bailey. Web only
Published online: 23 February 2012
The Prado’s copy of the Mona Lisa, unveiled in Madrid on 21 February, has produced a series of surprises. Painted in Leonardo’s studio, it was made with high quality materials, suggesting it was an important work, probably a commission. When the copy was begun, the outline of Leonardo’s original composition was traced directly onto the assistant’s panel. The two works were then developed side by side, with the copyist following the master as he worked for years to complete the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo. Although remarkably similar, there are also fascinating differences between Leonardo’s original in the Louvre and the copy in the Prado.
The Art Newspaper revealed in its February issue that the Prado’s version of the Mona Lisa was not, as had been assumed, a later copy by a northern European artist. The dramatic discovery was that the copy had been done in Leonardo’s studio and painted alongside the original (see related story).
Black overpaint added in the late 18th century had obscured the landscape background, and until recently, no one had any idea of what lay hidden beneath. This was revealed by infra-red reflectography, done last summer by the Prado’s technical specialist Ana González Mozo. After further investigations, a full restoration was begun.
The first stage was to remove the old, yellowed varnish from the portrait area, restoring the original tones of the flesh. The next step was to deal with the black overpaint which obscured the landscape. Originally, it had been feared that that black had been applied to disguise damage to the landscape, but fortunately this was not the case. Earlier this year, the overpaint was painstakingly removed with solvents, revealing the Tuscan landscape beneath.
The final work, completed in the past few weeks, was retouching to fill in small paint losses and blend in the colours. The resulting restoration, by Almudena Sánchez, means the portrait now looks much closer to how it left Leonardo’s studio over 500 years ago. It also gives us a much better impression of the early appearance of the Louvre’s version, which is covered in layers of darkened varnish. Because of its importance, the original will not be cleaned by the Louvre in the foreseeable future.
The greatest surprise about the Prado copy is that it was worked on alongside the original, giving us a greater insight into the Louvre’s version. It would have been very unusual for a copyist to have laboriously worked in this way, since copies were normally done from completed pictures.
Two explanations have been proposed to explain why the Prado copy was done alongside Leonardo’s original. Perhaps the copyist wanted to learn how the master worked, and following the development of the composition would have been excellent practice. But if so, it is surprising that a pupil would have used expensive materials, such as a walnut panel and lapis lazuli blue pigment.
Another suggestion is that Leonardo wanted a studio copy as soon as possible for an important client, and did not realise it would take him so long to complete the original. Using the side-by-side copying method might have seemed quicker, because the studio version would be ready at the same time as the original—whereas making a copy after completion of the final painting would have taken a few more weeks.
Whatever the reason, Leonardo and the unidentified assistant must have worked within a few yards from each other in the studio. Although they began in 1503, the two versions were not completed until 1506—and possibly years later. It was these subtle changes introduced by Leonardo that turned the Mona Lisa into a masterpiece.
Making the copy
Italian panel paintings of the time were normally done on a gesso ground, but the Prado copy is now shown to have been painted on a double layer of lead white and linseed oil, a technique usually adopted by Leonardo on finely-grained woods. This further confirms that the copy is from his studio.
The technical examination revealed that the copy evolved as Leonardo developed the original. After the portrait had initially been traced, the most important changes were to the shape of Lisa’s waist, the position of her fingers and the outline of her head and veil.
The landscape is very close to Leonardo’s design, although there are some differences, so it may not have been done with a tracing. The dimensions of the panels in the Louvre and the Prado are similar, but the copy is slightly wider (57cm, compared with just over 53cm).
Until its public unveiling in Madrid this month, the work was examined mainly by Prado and Louvre specialists. “Scholars will now have the chance to compare the two works,” explained the head of the Prado’s collection, Gabriele Finaldi.
Martin Kemp, from Oxford University, is one of the top Leonardo specialists, and he has not yet seen the restored Prado copy, although he has studied high-quality images. His initial impression, he told The Art Newspaper, is that “the head is very pretty, but speaks of a careful pedantry which only hints at Leonardo’s melting ambiguity”.
Kemp suggests that “the details of the hair and dress are based on close observation of Leonardo, but exhibit a certain niggling exactitude that comes from careful emulation”. The sketchiness of the landscape “seems to speak of a different artist from that responsible for the head.”
The Madrid copy is now on view in the Prado until 13 March. It will then go to the Louvre in Paris, for its exhibition on “Leonardo’s last Masterpiece: The St Anne” (29 March-25 June).
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