MADRID — The lady with the most famous smirk is back, but with a blue background and thicker eyebrows. After taking a trip to visit her more famous image at the Louvre, the “Mona Lisa del Prado” is gathering much smaller crowds here in Madrid.
Last year, while Madrid’s Prado Museum — which touts the most extensive portrait and painting collection in the world — was cleaning and preparing what they thought was a 17th century “Mona Lisa” copy to loan out for an exhibit at Paris’ the Louvre, they got a big surprise. They discovered that their “Mona Lisa del Prado” was not a copy, but painted at the same time as Leonardo’s masterpiece. Using popular art restoration and investigation technology to examine the provenance, they discovered their version had been painted over about 250 years after she was first painted, but they were able to clean that off to uncover much more about the painting and Leonardo himself.
Infrared reflectography and radiation are used to reveal layers that a zoomed-in camera or microscope cannot. Painters typically under-draw or sketch before they paint. Infrared radiation sees beyond the exposed oil or water paint layers until the radiation is absorbed by something. With paintings, the process often absorbs and reveals the carbon of the charcoal or pencil used in the artist’s rough sketch. Cameras using infrared reflectography, like used with the “Mona Lisa del Prado,” must take smaller zoomed in photographs that are then “mosaic-ed” back together.
When the Prado was using this technology to better place their “Mona Lisa del Prado” — they had thought she was painted some 250 years after her more famous portrait — they discovered that her black background was merely a cover that was painted on over the original.The infrared radiation and subsequent careful cleaning of the black paint that was the visible backdrop unveiled a blue Tuscan mountain scene behind the famous lady. The staff of the Prado compared the reflectographical images of the original Gioconda that were taken in 2004 with Madrid’s lady. The underdrawings of both versions of Lisa Gherardini match as having been sketched at the same time. “La Gioconda” was painted between 1503 and 1506, while the Prado one is dated between 1503 and 1516. The similarities of the pre-sketches and the complimentary dating are enough to prove that they were created at the same time, in the same workshop, not a replica created in around 1750, as the Prado thought up until a year ago.
It is up for interpretation whether Leonardo was having his students paint his famous lady to better learn — noted in the similar re-sketches under both paintings — or to sign and sell. If nothing else, it offers art geeks a little more inside knowledge into the first Renaissance man’s workshop practices and gives them a new mystery to figure out: which of Leonardo’s students might’ve painted it.
These underdrawings and the painting on top also rule out that it could have been another by Leonardo himself. Admittedly, the Leonardo has survived being stolen, an acid spill and millions of camera flashes, making its color much less vibrant. However, it’s very clear that the newly-discovered work by an unknown contemporary is brighter, with a vibrant blue backdrop, more pronounced eyebrows and a redder gown with more detailed lace. Prado’s Lisa even seems to be smiling even less. In addition, there is a lower quality of the drawing that is more linear and rudimentary. There is a clear absence of the characteristic Leonardo-esque sfumato — Italian for “up in smoke,” referring to painting, drawing or even thinking outside the box and lines, looking past the main point of focus. This version also fills in the blanks that have been yellowed and faded out over time, painting a better picture of what Leonardo’s work looked like when the paint was still wet, five hundred years ago.
The Prado is especially known for using infrared reflectography not only to authenticate the author of the painting, but also to educate its patrons. For example, in the 1980s, there was a scientific examination of a Rogier van der Weyden painting, using x-radiographic imaging to separate the underdrawing and then underpainting under the painting that is visible to the naked eye. Nowadays, it is common for the Prado to create a small exhibit surrounding one painting, like the “Mona Lisa del Prado,” focusing on the technology and research that went into discovering the history and process of a piece.
When University of Salamanca Art History graduate and high school art and music teacher David Estévez Sanz was asked which Lisa he prefers, there wasn’t a moment to think. “No doubt in Madrid. It is true that after a restoration, a painting will always looks better, but (the ‘Mona Lisa’) in Paris has some very unnatural-looking yellow tones,” Estévez says. “What was he (Leonardo) thinking? Perhaps, in all, it was an excuse to use one set of lights and shadows and to create ambiguity in the expression.”
Whether you prefer Leonardo’s or the one done by one of his lesser-known students, technology can help close the distance of half of century.
Caricature: Luis Gonzalez