Prado reveals evidence behind 'earliest Mona Lisa copy' claim

February 22 2012

Image of Prado reveals evidence behind 'earliest Mona Lisa copy' claim

Picture: Museo Prado

A few weeks ago the Prado unveiled a newly-cleaned copy of the Mona Lisa, and claimed that not only was it the earliest known copy of the original, but that it was made in Leonardo's studio alongside the master by one of his pupils. And today they released an excellent series of images and videos setting out the evidence behind the claim, in a first-class presentation that should be the model for all future museum discoveries.

The main evidence behind the claim is the infra-red imagery. Briefly, the Prado say that the infra-red image of their picture matches the infra-red image of the original, including in areas where Leonardo subsequently changed his mind. So, for example, in the infra-red images of both the original and the Prado copy we can see a line of under-drawing to the right of the Mona Lisa's veil at about the level of her neck. But in both the finished original and the copy this change is not visible on the final painted surface. This must mean, say the Prado, that the copy was drawn alongside the original, and when Leonardo made a change, so did the copyist. There is other quite convincing evidence to put the picture in Leonardo's studio, such as the walnut panel, and the type of ground layer used.

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So that's pretty conclusive then. Or perhaps not. If only to prompt a debate about the picture, let me say that I have one main question over the Prado's thesis, and several smaller ones. Here's the biggie: surely one of Leonardo's pupils - one who, if he really did paint it alongside the master must have been with him a very long time (remember, Leonardo took many years to complete the Mona Lisa, and did so in two different countries) - would be unlikely have produced something so curiously feeble. I know I'm veering into subjectivity here, but how, to take just one area, could such a closely supervised pupil of Leonardo's end up painting drapery that looks like strands of thick spaghetti, devoid of form, and so unlike the delicate folds seen in the original? And those ever so slightly bonkers eyes - really?

Here are the smaller questions. If the copyist followed Leonardo so closely in the under-drawing, why, in some key areas, does the finished picture appear to be quite different from the original? Why, for example, do the sitter's eyes slant downwards from left to right in the copy, but vice-versa in the original? Why is the angle of the upper part of her left arm different? Why is the top red part of her right sleeve covered to a greater extent in the copy than in the original? I don't immediately see why apparently small similarities in under-drawing details between the copy and the original are evidence of simultaneous creation, while the bigger differences on the painted surface are not. 

The video presentation of the infra-red comparisons is well worth a look. But I wonder if in some areas the infra-red has been overly interpreted, and too selectively (readers may remember another example of over-optimistic infra-red interpretation in the Staedel museum's copy of Raphael's Portrait of Pope Julius II). For example, the under-drawing in the Prado copy is very free and spontaneous. It is not all directly copied from, say, a cartoon of the original. This is most clearly seen in the sitter's right hand, where some of the drawing lines vary quite significantly from the outlines of the actual painted fingers. They have simply been freely drawn onto the ground layer, only loosely mapping out the direction of the original. This may suggest, along with the more substantive changes in the picture listed above, that the picture was not slavishly copied stage by stage from Leonardo's original, but copied instead from the finished article.

How, then, do we account for the apparent similarities between the under-drawing in the copy and that in the original, which are so crucial to the Prado's case? Here we need to go into a little more detail. Now, in some areas, such as the top of the sitter's head, the Prado say that a line of under-drawing above the veil is proof that the copyist followed Leonardo's original under-drawing, where a similar line can be seen. But they make no mention of the under-drawing line seen in the copy beneath the sitter's hairline, which has no correlation in the original. So where does it come from? Is it instead simply the copyist's own loosely applied drawing of the original? There are other similar examples around the picture. Could it be, therefore, that in some areas, the loose under-drawing has been seen to match apparent changes by Leonardo in his original, almost by coincidence. I don't immediately see, for example, that the single line of under-drawing in the sitter's left index finger in the copy equates to the very substantial pentimenti in the same place in Leonardo's original. And it is interesting that what appears to be the most obvious pentimenti in the original, to the sitter's right index finger, is not seen anywhere in the copy. 

Anyway, I am most likely barking up the wrong tree - and who am I to question the Prado's research. But it's always fun to ask questions and have a debate. Do look at the evidence yourself - and let me know what you think. For comparison, you can zoom in on the original here

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