The Prado’s Mona Lisa, the oldest replica of the Gioconda

It could be said that it is the most famous work in the world. It is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris and is visited by millions of people every year. The technique used by its creator, the famous Leonardo da Vinci, together with the mysteries surrounding it, make La Gioconda, also known as Mona Lisa, a unique painting of extraordinary value. Well, this painting has a sister, a replica whose latest research has turned it into an interesting specimen. This is the Mona Lisa of El Prado, the oldest reproduction of Da Vinci’s masterpiece, one that was made in parallel to the original and which is guarded by no less than the walls of the Prado Museum in Madrid.

Mona Lisa

The Mona Lisa at the Prado. | Wikimedia

The revival of a star

For many years the Prado’s Mona Lisa was underestimated. It was considered a piece of little importance, just another copy of the famous Mona Lisa. But 2012 came along. At that time, the Louvre Museum was preparing an exhibition on Da Vinci and asked the Madrid institution for its reviled replica to be included in it. Vicent Delieuvin, curator of Italian painting at the Louvre, then asked the senior museums technician in the Prado’s Technical Documentation Office, Ana González Mozo, whether the replica had been investigated. Motivated by this doubt, González Mozo began to investigate the mysterious reproduction. The seed of suspicion had already been planted.

At that moment, the Mona Lisa in the Prado had no background. That is to say, it did, but it was not a landscape as it is now, but a black background. This, in fact, was one of the reasons for the little importance given to that reproduction. Fortunately, thanks to skilled restoration techniques, researchers discovered that there was something behind the blackness. The same landscape that can be seen in the original Mona Lisa. That was the real background hidden behind a shadowy curtain.

This discovery changed everything. From then on it was possible to know that this was not just any copy, but the oldest and only one that was made at the same time as the original.

Unsolved questions

Prado Museum

Interior of the Prado Museum. | Shutterstock

This article will answer some, but not all, of the questions raised by this unusual copy, as even the replica has reproduced some of the mysteries of the original painting. Firstly, how long has the Prado kept this duplicate of Da Vinci’s painting and why is it in Spain?

The first reference to the Mona Lisa in the Prado is in the 17th century, at least 100 years after Da Vinci painted his Mona Lisa. Specifically, it was 1666 when a painting was inventoried with the number 588 in the Galería del Mediodía of the Real Alcázar in Madrid with the caption mujer de la mano de Leonardo Abince‘ (woman in the hand of Leonardo Abince). As early as 1819, when the Prado Museum was founded, this work became part of its collection until the present day. The Prado’s Mona Lisa has been exhibited on numerous occasions in the museum’s galleries and has attracted many curious visitors, although it has never been given the importance it now has.

As for the second question, why the painting is in Spain, the answer is more inaccurate and mysterious. One of the circulating theories, which is not proven, suggests that it was the sculptor Pompeo Leoni who introduced the copy into Spain. This hypothesis is based on the fact that Leoni owned several works by Da Vinci. The most notable of these are the Madrid I and II codices, now in the custody of the Biblioteca Nacional de España. In short: it is known that the Prado’s Mona Lisa entered Spain before 1666, but not exactly when, nor is it known with certainty who introduced it and why.

Similarities and differences between replicas and originals

Mona Lisa

On the left, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. On the right, the Prado’s Mona Lisa. | Wikimedia

The Prado’s Mona Lisa is easily distinguishable from its sister. In fact, it is striking to some experts in the field that, of all the replicas, it is the one that bears the least resemblance to the original. The most notable difference lies in the lack of the famous sfumato technique that characterises Da Vinci’s works. This pictorial procedure is obtained by giving the compositions a diffuse outline, which integrates the background with the main element. This technique is at its best in Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. In contrast, the Prado’s Mona Lisa is fully defined. It is like an HD copy of its sister, a reproduction in which the Mona Lisa is separated from the background.

Another difference from the original, which is more difficult to see, is the woman’s breast. Experts point out that the reproduction clearly reveals a deficient knowledge of human anatomy. Likewise, the Prado curator Miguel Falomir Faus pointed out that all these disparities can be seen in ‘the way the colour is applied, without nuances and on surfaces limited by thick black lines’. However, the same curator pointed out that it is precisely these differences that reveal details that could not be seen in the original painting.

On the other hand, the similarities can be seen, firstly, in the identical dimensions and shapes of the copy and the original. This singularity suggests that both paintings were made from the same cardboard. Furthermore, the original and the replica also have the distinctive red line with which Da Vinci outlined the eyes of the faces in his drawings. But the evidence that the two works were made at the same time lies in the strikingly similar drawings underneath the painting. Furthermore, the corrections that appear in the original painting are repeated one by one in the copy, as the Museo Nacional del Prado points out.

The mysterious painter of the Prado’s Mona Lisa

Salvator Mundi

Ganay version of Da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi. | Wikimedia

Another of the questions surrounding this reproduction is the identity of its author. It is not known for certain who the author might have been, but some questions are certain. Firstly, it must have been someone very close to the artist, someone with whom he must have worked closely. Specifically, one of the pupils in his own workshop. Secondly, it is also known that this same artist made two other copies of Da Vinci’s paintings: one of the Salvator Mundi, known as the Ganay version, and another of the work known as Saint Anne.

Of all the candidates, historians have chosen two: Andrea Salai and Francesco Melzi. Both were very close disciples of Leonardo. Melzi was also the last heir to his master’s paintings and was responsible for their safekeeping. In the case of Salai, he was also Da Vinci’s model and lover. Both hypotheses have been put forward by the Prado and the Centre de Recherche et de Restauration des Musées de France. But it is all conjecture.

An unfinished version of the Gioconda

Prado Museum

Prado Museum, Madrid. | Shutterstock

For Louvre curator Vicent Delieuvin, the Prado’s replica is only an unfinished version of the Mona Lisa. It is, as he pointed out in an interview with, a Spanish magazine, an intermediate state of creation: ‘like a photograph of the one in the Louvre before it is finished’.

Be that as it may, the recent discoveries made about the Prado’s Mona Lisa and the suppression of the black background in favour of the original, have been the reason for organising a new exhibition. Leonardo and the copy of the Mona Lisa, new approaches to the practice of the Vinci workshop opened to the public on 28 September and will be on display at the Prado Museum until 23 January.

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