An obscure, uninspiring painting, which has adorned the walls of the Prado Museum in Madrid for 300 years, has become the centre of interest of art experts and critics around the world, Peter Fieldman writes from the Spanish capital.
FOR the past four weeks the art world has been captivated by a mystery with all the secrets of the Da Vinci Code.
The portrait of a young girl with an enigmatic smile against a solid black background, whose appearance and pose bear a striking resemblance to Leonardo Da Vinci’s work of art in the Louvre, has been identified as a second Gioconda or Mona Lisa.
Art experts and critics gathered in the Prado Museum for a special presentation to see for the first time the extraordinary similarity between Leonardo Da Vinci’s original in the Louvre in Paris and its Spanish twin as well as to learn about the process and techniques used to restore the painting to its original state.
The Spanish Gioconda has actually been in the museum’s possession since the Prado first opened in 1819 when the royal collection was transferred to the new museum.
The portrait of a young lady against a black background on a wood panel was deemed to be a copy by an anonymous artist dating from the 18th century when this style was prevalent.
However, Miguel Falomir Faus, head of the Prado’s Italian department believes it has been in Spain since the early part of the 17th century.
“There is no firm evidence but according to one hypothesis it was brought from Milan by the Italian sculptor, Leoni, or his son Pompeo Leoni, who were commissioned to create busts of Emperor Charles 1 and his son Philip 11.”
Ironically its origin may never have been discovered if it had not been for the Louvre.
Two years ago the Paris museum curators asked for the painting to be cleaned in preparation for a special Leonardo exhibition which begins at the end of next month in Paris (29 March -25 June).
The task was given to Ana Gonzalez Mozo, head of the Prado’s Research and Study department in conjunction with the museums workshops.
“By using modern infra red technology, X rays, ultraviolet light and powerful magnifying glasses, signs of an original painting soon became apparent beneath the black surface,” she explained.
The photographic technology determined the existence of a landscaped background with mountains and lakes. Incredibly the black coating had actually helped preserve the original painting. Once the initial cleaning was completed, the delicate restoration process could begin.
First the black coating of oxidized varnish and pigments had to be carefully removed, a task which took nearly 5 months, using organic solvent to bring out the colour and detail of the landscaped background.
As work progressed the distinction between the original painting and the Spanish Gioconda became apparent. Some experts first thought the background had a Flemish style similar to the artist, Patinir.
To allay any doubt experts were called in, but it was evident that the landscaped background, pose and dress of the girl were almost identical to the original Gioconda.
The enigmatic smile is there but the Spanish Gioconda seems younger with a slighter thinner face. The colours are brighter, the folds of the dress and veil and braided hair are more detailed, her eyebrows more pronounced and the landscape visible through the transparent veil. Given the similarities and the materials the studies concluded that the painting was not just another reproduction but would have been undertaken about the same time as the original.
The wood support panel was in walnut not poplar and instead of plaster and linseed oil there was a double layer or thickness of white lead, typical of the materials used by Leonardo da Vinci in his portraits of women: ‘Lady with the Ermine’ in the Czartoryski museum in Kracow, ‘Ginevra de Benci’ in Washington’s National Gallery of Art and ‘La Belle Ferroniere’ in the Louvre.
The artists were probably pupils from Leonardo’s studio.
The two most likely are Andrea Salai 1480-1524 and Francesco Melzi 1493-1572, Leonardo’s closest pupils and companions who often travelled with him and inherited many of his works including the Mona Lisa.
The restoration process has taught experts a great deal about the techniques used by Leonardo in his studio. For this reason the work is considered to be the most important version of Leonardo’s school discovered until now.
The work was catalogued as “Portrait by anonymous artist, oil on wood panel early sixteenth century.”
It will be renamed as “The Gioconda, Leonardo da Vinci school, oil on walnut panel 1503-16.” The original Gioconda, arguably the world’s most famous and talked about painting, came to France when it was acquired by Francois 1 in the 16th century.
It went through an exhaustive cleaning process in 2004, the first for fifty years, and was only identified as a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of Florentine merchant Francesco Gioconda, in 2005,
The defining moment of truth will come in Paris when the two Giocondas are exhibited together for the first time. But if the Spanish Gioconda is not a copy then who is she? The enigma remains.
The Spanish Gioconda will be exhibited until March 13 in Room 49 in the Prado before its transfer to Paris and will return to its rightful place in the Prado from July.