(...who was younger, prettier and happier)
Painted by the greatest ever artist, it is the world’s most famous picture, with the most famous smile. The painting has been imitated a thousand times, satirised, stolen and vandalised with acid, red paint, stones and even a teacup.
And now, it seems, there might be a second Mona Lisa — a bigger Mona, with a less enigmatic, slightly jollier smile, and a pair of new classical columns on either side of her mysterious, beguiling face.
On Friday in Geneva, the Isleworth Mona Lisa is to be revealed by its owners — a Swiss consortium, who argue that their version is Leonardo’s first stab at the painting; and that the famous version, held in the Louvre in Paris, was his second bite of the cherry. Anatoly Karpov, the chess grandmaster and member of the Mona Lisa Foundation, will unveil the painting.
Opinion within the art world is split over whether it is a real Leonardo or a later copy, painted in the late 16th century, long after the original was executed, between 1503 and 1519.
Among those backing the theory that it is genuine are Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci in Vinci, the artist’s birthplace on the edge of Florence.
On Friday, he will present the reasons for his conclusion, alongside Carlo Pedretti, of the University of California. A spokesman for the Mona Lisa Foundation has promised that, on Friday, the foundation will produce ‘historical, comparative and scientific evidence’ that the painting ‘was indeed executed by Leonardo’.
Not everyone is so convinced.
‘I would have to be deeply sceptical,’ says Philip Mould, the portrait expert, Antiques Roadshow presenter and host of Fake Or Fortune? ‘It would be an extraordinary find, the ultimate prize. Leonardo did do variants [different versions of the same picture], like his Madonna Of The Rocks in last year’s National Gallery show. So it wouldn’t be unheard of for him to do another Mona Lisa.
‘Still, you must remember that about one new supposed Mona Lisa turns up on the market every year. You’d have to look at the provenance and history of this one very, very carefully.’
The known history of this second Mona goes back to 1914, when it was bought by a critic and artist called Hugh Blaker, from Isleworth, West London — hence the name.
Blaker bought the picture from a grand collection in Somerset, where it had apparently hung on the walls for a century.
In 1962, an American art collector, Henry F. Pulitzer, bought the painting and devoted much of his life to proving it was an original. He even wrote a book backing his claim, Where Is The Mona Lisa?, published by the Pulitzer Press, his own company.
Pulitzer — and other defenders of the Isleworth Mona Lisa — depend for their attribution on Leonardo’s 16th-century biographer, Giorgio Vasari, himself a painter. Vasari said that Leonardo started the Mona Lisa in 1503 and ‘left it unfinished’.
But then, in 1517, said Vasari, a completed picture of a ‘certain Florentine lady’ popped up in Leonardo’s collection. This picture is the Louvre version, while the unfinished earlier version was the Isleworth Leonardo, or so the theory goes.
That order of events would explain why the Isleworth Mona Lisa looks younger than the famous version — because it was, theoretically, painted years before the famous version.
Pulitzer also depended for his theory on Raphael, the painter and contemporary of Da Vinci, who sketched a version of the Mona Lisa in 1504. His sketch included the columns that are found in the Isleworth version.
The final big piece in the jigsaw, said Pulitzer, was a 1584 art history book, Trattato dell’arte della Pittura Scultura ed Architettura, by Giovanni Lomazzo, which refers to ‘della Gioconda, e di Mona Lisa’ — ‘the Gioconda, and the Mona Lisa’ — suggesting there were two pictures.
The Gioconda is an alternative title for the Mona Lisa; Mona is an abbreviation of ‘Ma donna’, or My Lady, while Gioconda is Italian for the jocund, or happy, one.
The sitter’s real name is in fact thought to be Lisa Gherardini, wife of a rich Florence silk merchant, Francesco del Giocondo.
On Leonardo’s death in 1519, the picture — the Louvre’s version, that is! — was left to his assistant, Salai, who in turn sold it to King Francis I of France. The painting remained in the royal collection until the French Revolution in 1789, when it was moved to the Louvre.
There it has remained ever since, with a few notable absences. Napoleon kept it in his bedroom in the Tuileries Palace and, during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1, it was transferred for safekeeping to the Arsenal in Brest.
During World War II, it migrated all over France to avoid damage. It has also been on tour to New York and Washington, Tokyo and Moscow.
But the picture’s biggest excursion was in 1911, when it was stolen by an Italian Louvre worker, called Vincenzo Peruggia, who wanted it returned to Italy.
He pulled off the biggest art theft in history in the simplest way: hiding in a broom cupboard during the day, then slipping out after closing time, the Mona Lisa stuffed under his coat.
He kept it in his flat for two years and was only discovered when he brazenly tried to flog the picture to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
That wasn’t the end of Mona Lisa’s troubles. In 1956, the poor old girl was first scarred with acid, and then attacked with a rock.
Bulletproof glass protected it when, in 1974, a disabled woman, protesting against the Louvre’s policy on handicapped visitors, threw red paint at the picture.
The glass again saved the picture only three years ago, when an angry Russian woman, denied French citizenship, threw a teacup at the painting.
Meanwhile, the other supposed Mona Lisa gathered dust in a Swiss bank vault, where it has rested for 40 years. After Pulitzer’s death, he left the picture to his girlfriend and, on her death, the Swiss consortium bought it.
This Friday, the art world will examine it in the flesh for the first time since Pulitzer briefly exhibited it in an American show half-a-century ago. Many art historians remain doubtful. ‘So much is wrong,’ says the Leonardo expert and emeritus professor of art at Oxford University, Martin Kemp. ‘The dress, the hair and background landscape. This one is also painted on canvas, which Leonardo rarely did.’
The famous Mona Lisa is painted on wood, as are practically all of his paintings.
‘She might look younger,’ says Professor Kemp, ‘but this is probably because the copyist — and I believe it is a copy done a few years after the Mona Lisa — just painted it that way.’
The theory used to go that, because the Isleworth picture was done earlier in Leonardo’s career, he had not matured in style when he painted it.
That theory was blown out of the water last year at the National Gallery exhibition, when his exceptional Lady With An Ermine was shown. That picture was painted in around 1490, nearly 15 years before the Louvre’s Mona Lisa; and already it displays Leonardo’s supreme talent.
‘That show confirmed his extraordinary skill in the way he expressed skin and modelling,’ says Philip Mould. ‘You’d have to have a dispassionate look at the technique in the Isleworth picture, and do lots of forensics. But still, nothing is impossible.’
And so the art world will wait with bated breath until Friday, when the door of that Swiss bank vault creaks open, to see if lightning really did strike twice for the world’s greatest artist.