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Del Prado's secret lady
01 August 2020 @ 05:00

 In 2011 restorers began work on a painting that had been hanging in the Museo Del Prado in Madrid for just over 180 years. During all this time, it had been considered one of many copies of a much more famous painting hanging in the Louvre; La Gioconda. Preliminary infra-red photos and X-rays of the copy revealed that they were dealing with something more than just a copy. The background to the painting in the Prado was black, but the infra-red photos revealed a landscape just like the da Vinci painting. Not unsurprising in a suspected copy, but when the restorers compared the x-ray photos with the existing ones for the da Vinci original, they discovered that the charcoal drawings beneath the two paintings were identical, including parts where Leonardo had erased and started again.

The painting in Del Prado before restoration.

A radiocarbon test was carried out on the walnut panel that the copy was painted on and it was discovered that the dates were the same as the original in the Louvre, which was also painted on a walnut panel. A chemical analysis on the pigments of the two paintings showed close similarities, and the restorers came to the conclusion that whoever painted the copy had been looking over Leonardo’s shoulder when he painted the original. Other clues confirmed the similarities. The frames of both paintings were also made from walnut, a very expensive material at that time, but one favoured by da Vinci.

Leonardo is believed to have started the Gioconda in October 1503 in Florence, and was the portrait of a Florentine lady by the name of Lisa del Giocondo, who was a member of the Gherardini family of Florence and Tuscany, and the wife of wealthy Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo.  The painting is thought to have been commissioned for their new home, and to celebrate the birth of their second son, Andrea. La Gioconda (the Italian name for the painting) means 'jocund' ('happy' or 'jovial') or, literally, 'the jocund one', a pun on the feminine form of Lisa's married name, Giocondo.

Although Leonardo began painting the Mona Lisa in 1503, experts on his work have suggested that the style is more representative of the later years of his life. He seems to have been working on the portrait for 4 years, and it is possible that he did not finish the painting in Florence. Thirteen years after he started the Mona Lisa, he was invited by King Francis I to paint at Clos Lucé near the Château d'Amboise in France. It seems that he took the painting with him and continued working on it until 1516 when Leonardo lost the use of his right arm. He died in 1519 leaving the painting unfinished.

The restored Gioconda with the black layer removed.

Meanwhile, the fate of the Prado Mona Lisa is less clear. The first record of the painting was when it appeared in the 1666 inventory of in the Galleria del Mediodia of the Alcazar in Madrid as Mujer de mano de Leonardo Abince (Woman by Leonardo da Vinci's hand). The black layer covering the landscape background was added sometime after 1750. It is still unknown when the painting entered the Spanish Royal Collection, but it could have already been in Spain from the early 17th century, and when the Prado was founded in 1819, the painting was already listed in its collection.

The big question now is who painted it?

When Leonardo was working in Florence he had several pupils.  Salaì or Francesco Melzi are the most plausible authors of the Prado’s version, though other experts are of the opinion that the painting could have been executed by one of Leonardo’s Spanish students.

Let’s take a look at the two most likely culprits.

Salaì was taken into Leonardo’s studio in 1480 at the age of 10. He was the son of Pietro di Giovanni, a tenant of Leonardo’s vineyard near the Porta Vercellina, Milan. He was described at the time as “a graceful and beautiful youth with curly hair, in which Leonardo greatly delighted.”

Sali, as sketched by Leonardo.

Leonardo himself described the boy as “A liar, a thief, stubborn and a glutton.” He stole from Leonardo several times, but Leonardo kept him in his household for more than 25 years. Da Vinci is thought to have used Salaì as the model for several of his works, specifically St. John the Baptist and Bacchus. Leonardo’s sexual orientation is still unclear, but it seems that Salaì got away with many things that would have resulted in dismissal for others. For instance, Salaì was responsible for Monna Vanna, a nude version of the Mona Lisa which may be based on a charcoal sketch by Leonardo.

Mona Vanna

The other candidate is much more plausible than Salaì. During Leonardo's second stay in Milan, he took another young pupil, Francesco Melzi. Unlike Salaì, Francesco was a son of a nobleman. When Leonardo travelled to Rome in 1513 and to France in 1516, Salaì and Melzi both accompanied him. As an adult, Melzi became secretary and main assistant of Leonardo, and undertook to prepare Leonardo’s writings for publication. Vasari says that Melzi "at the time of Leonardo was a very beautiful and very much loved young man".

In France, Francesco Melzi was greeted as "Italian gentleman living with master Leonardo" and granted donation of 400 ecus, while Salaì, 36 years old, was described as "servant" and granted a one-time donation of 100 ecus. Salaì left Leonardo and France in 1518, and later returned to Milan to work on Leonardo's vineyard, previously worked by Salaì's father, half of which was granted to him by Leonardo’s will. Leonardo left all personal belongings, paintings, drawings and notes to Francesco Melzi in his will, but it is unclear whether this included the Mona Lisa.

Whoever did paint it has left us with a beautiful duplicate of one of the most famous paintings in the world, and greatly increased the value of the Prado collection.

To see more on the art and history of Spain go to For this story go to the bottom of page 15



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