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Are There Two Mona Lisas?

Some argue that the so called Isleworth Mona Lisa depicts Leonardo da Vinci's subject in her younger years and is the first version of his famous work that now hangs in the Louvre. Others are less convinced.

The Isleworth Mona Lisa is now on view in Turin and, much to the surprise of many experts, the Mona Lisa Foundation in Zurich is championing the painting on behalf of its anonymous owners, and is suggesting that it is the original Mona Lisa. It argues that it’s the first version of the famous painting, depicting a younger Lisa than the one Leonardo worked on all his life and which now attracts an unending selfie-snatching crowd in the Louvre.

What a sensation! The. Original. Mona. Lisa.

The Isleworth Mona Lisa (left) with the world-famous Mona Lisa (right)
The Mona Lisa Foundation's new exhibition in Turin aims to convince viewers that the Isleworth Mona Lisa (left) is an early version of the world-famous Mona Lisa (right) | The Mona Lisa Foundation

“It’s junk, a wind-up,” Vittorio Sgarbi, Italy’s junior arts minister, tells the London Times. “It lacks the soul of Leonardo, and I don’t know why anyone believes it.”

The Isleworth painting - named for the Isleworth, London, studio of the dealer who bought it in 1913 - isn’t an exact copy of the masterpiece hanging in the Louvre. Both paintings depict a subject in the same position, but the woman in the Isleworth version is much younger. She’s also flanked by two columns and an unfinished landscape in the background. The foundation claims Leonardo made this version around 1503 and painted the now-famous version a decade later.

In the foundation’s account, Florentine merchant Francesco del Giocondo, husband of the painting’s subject, Lisa Gherardini, commissioned the 1503 copy, while Giuliano de’ Medici, Leonardo’s patron, commissioned the later piece, as Alastair Sooke of BBC Culture wrote in 2022.

The foundation points to a number of pieces of evidence, such as a 1503 note from a Florentine government employee, who wrote that Leonardo was working on a portrait of Lisa del Giocondo at that time.

Others argue, however, that this note refers to the Mona Lisa that hangs in Paris. “The Mona Lisa Foundation’s argument omits something crucial about this source,” writes Jonathan Jones in the Guardian. “It specifically emphasizes that Leonardo’s portrait of Lisa is unfinished - and doesn’t look like being finished any time soon.”

Additionally, experts note that the Isleworth portrait is on canvas. While Leonardo occasionally painted on canvas, the “general rule” is that his “mature oil paintings, including the Louvre’s Mona Lisa, were executed on wood,” wrote BBC Culture.

The style of the painting is also a point of contention. Leonardo is famous for his use of sfumato, a technique that uses layering to make smooth transitions between colours and tones. The Isleworth version “does not have the magic Leonardo achieved through his many translucent layers of painting,” Martin Kemp, an art historian at the University of Oxford and an expert on Leonardo’s work, tells the London Times.

For centuries, the sole method of telling whether a work of art was real or fake was that of a curator’s judgement. This encounter - one person, in front of a canvas, forming an opinion - was all we had to go on. Now, X-ray, forensic pigment analysis, catalogue histories and provenance enquiries can all be brought to bear, reports The Telegraph. Yet still, to a rather surprising extent, the question of authenticity is still largely decided by that old-fashioned method - an expert, poring over a painting, then straightening up, clearing their throat. And trying to upend art history. As regards the Isleworth Mona Lisa, the jury is clearly still out.

“Ultimately, authentication is a human emotional response - and like all human responses, there’s an element of subjectivity,” Philip Mould, an art dealer, told The Telegraph. “It’s never as cut and dry as one would hope.”

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