Is This an Early Draft of the ‘Mona Lisa’?

The “Isleworth Mona Lisa” is now on view in Turin—but many experts aren’t convinced it’s the work of Leonardo da Vinci

Mona Lisa comparison
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

An earlier copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is currently hanging in a gallery in Turin—or so insists Joël Feldman.

Feldman is the general secretary of the Swiss Mona Lisa Foundation, which promotes the piece, known as the Isleworth Mona Lisa, on behalf of its private owners and investigates evidence related to its origins. “We have proved beyond reasonable doubt that Leonardo painted two Mona Lisas, and this is the only candidate to be the second,” Feldman tells the London Times’ Tom Kington.

The Mona Lisa Foundation is now displaying the painting (which it also calls the Earlier Mona Lisa) as part of a new exhibition, “The First Mona Lisa,” at Turin’s Promotrice delle Belle Arti gallery.

“This exhibition gives us the opportunity to also present the massive strides that have been made in the past few years to cement the attribution of the work to Leonardo,” says Feldman in a statement.

However, these “massive strides” don’t have everyone convinced.

“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.”

Isleworth Mona Lisa
The Isleworth Mona Lisa, also called the Earlier Mona Lisa by the Mona Lisa Foundation Fine Art Images / Heritage Images / Getty Images

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 BBC Culture’s Alastair Sooke 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 the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones. “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 foundation also cites a 1525 estate inventory by Leonardo’s servant that records a Mona Lisa in the artist’s collection—even though the original had entered the French royal art collection eight years earlier, per the London Times.

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 colors 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. “Leonardo believed the eye did not give a scientific rendering of an object; it did not know the edge of anything, and from the Mona Lisa onwards, his edges are elusive. Artists copying him do not know what to do with that lack of edge. As in this painting, the edges are soft but lack that strange elusiveness.”

Philip Mould, an art dealer and expert on Fake or Fortune?, a BBC series that authenticates artworks, tells the Telegraph’s Alex Diggins that the authentication process involves a number of complex questions: What is the work’s provenance? What do stylistic and scientific analyses show? Who is claiming the work is authentic, and do those parties have a stake in the matter?

“Ultimately, authentication is a human emotional response—and like all human responses, there’s an element of subjectivity,” says Mould. “It’s never as cut and dry as one would hope.”

The First Mona Lisa” is on view at the Promotrice delle Belle Arti in Turin through May 26, 2024.

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