Copy of Mona Lisa by one of Leonardo’s pupil discovered in better condition than the original, giving insight to how masterpiece would have originally looked
Our understanding of the Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – arguably the most famous painting of all time – is to be radically transformed by the discovery of a contemporary copy.
Owned by Madrid’s Prado museum, the newly-discovered painting was initially believed it to be an inferior copy from a much later date – until it underwent routine restoration, that revealed it to be the earliest copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, being created alongside, and simultaneous to, the original by a pupil!
The significance of this discovery is that it gives a remarkable insight into what Leonardo’s work would have originally looked like. The original, in pride of place behind bullet-proof glass at the Louvre in Paris, is obscured by cracked darkened varnish, but restoration efforts have been dismissed as too risky on account of the fragility of the work. The Prado replica, however, is in much better condition, and provides clearer details of features obscured in the original – notably the frilly edging on the neckline of Mona Lisa’s garment, a sheer veil draped across her left shoulder, arm and elbow, and a sharper depiction of the spindles of the chair in which she is seated.
This condition can be attributed to the bizarre history of the work. At some point in the late 18th century, the background of the painting had been painted over in black for some unknown reason; this had the initial effect of disguising the work’s importance, but also incidentally provided protection against damage. As the later paint layers were stripped away during its recent restoration, the appearance of a Tuscan landscape in remarkable condition and of such striking resemblance to the original led to further investigations being made.
The provenance was confirmed through comparison of infrared reflectography on the two paintings, which revealed similar sketching beneath the paint on both. This suggests that the original and the copy were begun at the same time and painted next to each other, as the work evolved – probably while the model was present!
Experts have now concluded that it was probably painted by one of Da Vinci’s two favourite pupils – either Andrea Salai, who originally joined Leonardo’s studio in 1490 or Francesco Melzi, who joined around 1506.
Follow ArtLyst on Twitter for breaking art news and latest exhibition reviews