If you came across the Mona Lisa on the street, it would never be the Louvre, because it doesn’t exist. The one at the Prado, on the other hand, is real. This is how Enrique Quintana, the head of the museum’s restoration workshops, explained the difference between the most popular portrait in the history of painting and its version. According to this interpretation, Leonardo da Vinci carried out an endless experiment that ended up turning the portrayed person, Lisa Gherardini, into another being, while one of his collaborators in the workshop attended to the order of Francesco del Giocondo and portrayed his wife. She is the one who rests in the Prado, surrounded by onlookers who cannot photograph her and by a mystery that, a decade after its rediscovery, the Spanish museum has not solved: who painted the painting?
The question is not going to be revealed in the humble shows that the Prado opens this Monday, curated by Ana González Mozo, focused on the creative processes of Leonardo’s workshop. Works from the museum’s own wardrobe and a loan will be exhibited, with a double intention: “On the one hand, to delve into the new approaches and investigations of the latest scientific studies carried out and, on the other, to determine the various types of versions made in Leonardo’s workshop “, according to the Prado. Ten years later, the traced version —which does not copy— will continue to be a mystery, but it will attend to two economic emergencies that condition the museum’s programming: a very cheap assembly with a strong public appeal, that of Leonardo da Vinci.
Miguel Falomir, director of the Prado Museum, has already advanced that they will not launch a hypothesis about the signing of the version of La Gioconda. So the painting will continue to play in the crazy league of attributions, where the eye is the top scorer of the arguments. It has been said about this painting that it could have been made by the German Hans Holbein, although when the painting was presented to the public in 2012, already without the black background that had covered the landscape for at least two and a half centuries, they signed up the names of Francesco Melzi and Andrea Salai. Fernando Yáñez de la Almedina, Leonardo’s Spanish disciple, was immediately ruled out.
Exquisite or insignificant?
Falomir was among the first researchers to get close to the truth of the picture years before the discovery. In 1999 he published that the Prado “should have been done in front of” the Louvre painting. What he did not imagine then is that it was in the same workshop. There was no evidence yet to show that they were painted simultaneously, before Leonardo set sail for France. The rubbings with which the image was transported from one table to another demonstrate this. Ana González Mozo discovered a drawing that corrected the same thing that Leonardo corrected. Its author is with him while he works.
Before these extraordinary investigations of the Prado workers, for some it was an exquisite portrait, and vulgar and insignificant for others. “Whoever he is, he is a discreet painter responsible for the anatomical imperfections of the model’s chest. Furthermore, he is a technically and aesthetically distant painter from Leonardo, which makes it difficult to identify him with any of his disciples. Possessor of meticulous calligraphy , does not know the sfumato leonardesco, as perceived in the way of applying color, without nuances and on surfaces limited by thick black lines “, wrote Miguel Falomir, who has never shown enthusiasm for this painting, before the discovery of the background.
The author of the copy, as Falomir said, did not respect the mandate of the master Da Vinci, who demanded to eliminate the net profiles to maintain the link of the figure with his environment. He abused a very pronounced line, in such a way that the figure of the woman stands out against the landscape and detaches itself from it, like a chrome in an album. The version we see today of La Gioconda del Louvre, dirty and rusty, blends in perfectly with the background. The Prado is a version with as much definition as the HD of current televisions. He also followed the code of elegance of the time: plucking his eyebrows. Not only the ladies, but also the gentlemen, as Baltasar Castiglione wrote in his Courtier.
Hence another unsolved riddle. If Leonardo da Vinci wanted to do away with underlined silhouettes and wrote about it so that his own workshop would not put it into practice, why did he allow this work? The sfumato it is one of the resources of his uncompromising naturalist program, such as aerial perspective and the revolutionary use of lights and shadows, qualities in which the author of La Gioconda del Prado has a lower fortune than that of the Louvre. It is very strange that this formula from the teacher has not passed on to his disciples.
The stepsister in the most famous painting in the world had a black cape that hid the truth and, attached to it, another thick curtain of suppositions that distorted the portrait. So many centuries looking at her and so wrongly ended when Vincent Delieuvin looked at her. The curator of Italian painting at the Louvre Museum and an expert on Leonardo da Vinci was struck by the fact that it was the only copy of La Gioconda of all those that are preserved that did not resemble La Gioconda. He asked the Prado for a study to include it in the temporary exhibition Saint Anne, the last masterpiece of Leonardo da Vinci. It was then, mobilized by the Louvre’s request, when Ana González Mozo discovered in that dark background, thanks to reflectographs, profiles that could be mountains.
It was paradoxical: if the copyist’s work must be as faithful as possible to the original, why is it so different in its face and so similar in its proportions? For Delieuvin when there are changes in a copy it is suspicious, it can mean something. He had a “hunch”. The French conservative then indicated to this journalist that the Prado version does not show the final state that Leonardo executed in the Louvre. It is an intermediate stage of creation, “like a photograph of the one in the Louvre before finishing it.” “They both use the same materials, but Leonardo’s is poetry,” according to Delieuvin, who ventured the date of completion between 1508 and 1513. Leonardo continued to tweak and refine his in France and obsessively. He gave every detail an essential note in the final composition and from that long process of creation arises that myth of perfection that surrounds that of the Louvre.
And the mourning?
Another of the unresolved questions after the investigation of the painting was parked is why and when that dark curtain was extended between the landscape and the protagonist. The approximate date is 250 years after its creation. Everything points to the fact that the black repaint was a reaction of fashion on an appreciated painting that dances between two opposing worlds: the Renaissance and the neoclassical. The 18th century turns the portrait of a woman in the world into another locked in a room. From naturalness to austerity. The decision was blunt: it had to be disconnected from the past to include it in modernity.
Mona Lisa appears in the inventory of the Alcazar of Madrid in 1666, drawn up on the death of Felipe IV: “A woman at the hand of Leonardo Abince 100 ds (doubloons)”. Nothing is said about the fund and when he arrived at the Prado Museum he was already in mourning. The most faithful to the recreations on neoclassical sobriety and serenity was Antonio Rafael Mengs, Carlos III’s chamber painter. The museum specialists do not have an opinion formed on the possibility that Mengs – trained to alter, order and redecorate the Royal Palace – was responsible for this decision, but they do not rule it out either.
In Mengs’ limited appreciation for Leonardo may be the answer: “All those who lived before Raphael … did not seek more than painting by imitation, without knowing what taste was; and thus his paintings are in a certain way a true chaos, “he wrote. Thus was charged half of the Renaissance and the painter who most influenced Raphael, Leonardo. It does not seem strange that whoever imposed a change of taste and stopped the baroque machinery, who forced the artists to study austere and hasty forms, ordered the creation of a gallery of sober portraits. The Prado will have to launch its hypothesis at some point. While we wait, the inventory of 1747 offers a very interesting clue to the change in the trend in the valuation of this Gioconda: after a century it is no longer one of the most expensive in the royal collection. The black veil denied its value and that was until ten years ago, although the Prado does not consider it a masterpiece.