Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa was copied by other artists and his students starting almost as soon as it was made in the first decades of the 16th century. Some of them have been advanced as Leonardo originals, at least in part (see the Isleworth Mona Lisa, for example), and others have always been known to be copies. One of these known copies is in the Prado Museum in Madrid.
Prado experts thought it was painted relatively early in the 16th century by an anonymous artist, but with its black painted background, bright red sleeves, and relatively flat shadowing compared to the velvety depth of da Vinci’s original, the Prado’s Mona Lisa didn’t get much attention. They also thought the wood was oak, which was used by northern European artists.
Last year curators took a closer look in anticipation of an upcoming loan to the Louvre. They found that the panel was actually walnut, a commonly used wood for oil paintings in 16th century Italy. Using infrared reflectography, they then found that underneath that dull black background was a beautiful Tuscan landscape almost identical to the one behind Leonardo’s Mona Lisa.
IR also revealed the copy’s underdrawings, sketches that painters make before they start with the paint. The Louvre took IR images of the Mona Lisa in 2004. When the Prado curators compared the two sets of underdrawings, they found that they matched, suggesting that the copy was made contemporaneously with the original, following the changes to the composition as the master drew them before the final version was painted. There are documentary sources that attest to Leonardo having his students paint alongside him in the studio, but this is the first time we have IR evidence that strongly indicates contemporaneous painting.
Conservators have spent the past year removing the black overpaint — probably added in the 18th century to make it match other pieces with a black background in a gallery setting — and revealed the refreshed Mona Lisa copy in a presentation two weeks ago at London’s National Gallery.
The Prado’s technical specialist Ana González Mozo describes the Madrid replica as “a high quality work,” and in the paper she presented at the London conference, she provided evidence that the picture was done in Leonardo’s studio. The precise date of the original is uncertain, although the Louvre states it was between 1503 and 1506.
Bruno Mottin, the head conservator at the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France, believes that the most likely painter of the Prado copy was one of Leonardo’s two favourite pupils.
Mottin proposes that it was either Andrea Salai, who originally joined Leonardo’s studio in 1490 and probably became his lover, or Francesco Melzi, who joined around 1506. If the Prado replica is eventually attributed to Melzi, it suggests a late date for the original.
There is at least one other copy of Mona Lisa attributed to Salai and it doesn’t look as good as the Prado’s copy to my eye, although that could be the picture. He also painted Monna Vanna, a nude parody of Mona Lisa.
Salai’s reputation was more about his bad boy living than about the skill of his painting. Leonardo complained about Salai all the time in his notebooks, describing him as a “ladro, bugiardo, ostinato, ghiotto” (thief, liar, obstinate, glutton) whom Leonardo had to bail out of scrape after scrape. Still, he must have had something going for him since da Vinci lived with the youth from the time he was 10 years old until he was 35. Leonardo even left his enfant terrible property and paintings after his death in 1519, including the real Mona Lisa which Salai sold to King Francis I of France.
The Prado’s discovery might shed some light on details of the original. There are areas of the Prado Mona Lisa that are in much better condition than on the original — the spindles of the chair, for example, and the veil around her left arm — and Lisa herself looks considerably younger without that yellow cracked varnish that darkens and muddies her facial features in the original.
The copy is in the final stages of conservation. It will be displayed at the Prado in a few weeks, then it will go on loan to the Louvre for its exhibition with Leonardo’s Saint Anne (March 19 – June 25) where it will be back in the same room with Leonardo’s Mona Lisa for the first time in 500 years or so.