The Spanish 'Mona Lisa' goes to Paris

'La Gioconda', the lady with the enigmatic smile in the painting known as the 'Mona Lisa', must be one of the world's best-known faces and there are countless copies and reproductions across the planet. Recently, though, a real twin sister has been discovered, in Madrid's Prado Museum, and this painting is about to go on display alongside the original in France's famous Louvre.

This 'twin' of the Mona Lisa comes from the former Royal Collection and has been in Spain since the seventeenth century, and in the possession of the Prado Museum for the last fourteen years. It's only recently, though, that she has attracted very much attention.

In Paris, the Louvre is all set to host an exhibition where Leonardo da Vinci’s recently restored masterpiece The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne is the centrepiece of an exceptional display that reunites all surviving related works for the first time. The magnificent work, left unfinished on the death of the master in 1519, was first mentioned in correspondence dating from 1501. Now, a collection of compositional sketches, preparatory drawings and landscape studies are being brought together in Paris to provide an insight into the scope of this ambitious composition. Alongside them, other works by da Vinci will be on display adding breadth and depth to the understanding of the artist and his work.

This, then, was the reason that the Prado decided to carry out a technical study before shipping their own Mona Lisa to join her sister in Paris. The figure in the painting in Spain had clearly been recognised and identified as a replica of La Gioconda (believed to be a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo) but at some point in the past a black surround had been added to around the figure. The painting's true importance was only revealed after this black paint was removed.

Beneath the dark layer was a landscape very similar to the background in the original painting, and this and other clues have led researchers to conclude that the 'Spanish' Mona Lisa was actually painted in the studio of the Italian master at around the same time as the original. What was previously considered one of countless copies, has suddenly become the centre of attention.

According to some critics and art historians, this replica of Leonardo da Vinci's best known work is the most important of all the many copies and was actually painted under the guidance of the master, following his 'corrections' and brushstrokes. The artist who worked so closely with da Vinci must have been a pupil or apprentice of the Italian master, working with him in his workshop, perhaps Francesco Melzi, who later inherited the artistic and scientific works of the multifaceted genius.

Although the two works are very similar, there are small but noticeable differences: in addition to her inscrutable smile, one of the most commented characteristics of the Mona Lisa is her lack of eyebrows. The Spanish twin is not so hairless. The colours, too, are brighter and more vivid and some people have said the French painting will be cast into the shade when viewed alongside her twin. Even if this is the case, La Gioconda will no doubt continue to smile.

The exhibition Saint Anne, Leonardo da Vinci’s ultimate masterpiece runs at the Louvre, Paris, from March 29th to June 25th 2012, after which the twin is expected to return to her Spanish home in Madrid and go on display as part of the permanent collection of the Prado.

Learn more:
The Louvre, Paris
Museo del Prado, Madrid