The Mona Lisa is one of the most enigmatic and iconic pieces of Western art. It has inspired countless copies, but one replica at the Madrid's Museo del Prado is generating its own buzz: conservators say that it was painted at the same time as the original — and possibly by one of the master's pupils, perhaps even a lover.
Juxtaposing the two paintings — and using infrared technology which works like an x-ray, allowing one to see beneath the paint to see previous, obscured versions — conservators say that Leonardo and the painter of the replica made exactly the same changes at the same time.
"The changes mirrored the changes which Leonardo made on the original," Martin Bailey, correspondent with The Art Newspaper in London, tells NPR's Melissa Block. "[Conservators] concluded that the two pictures had been done side-by-side in the studio, and it was probably on easels which were two or three yards away from each other."
The copy brings da Vinci's studio to life — and stirs up questions. Who was this mystery painter? According to Bailey, the artist is likely to have been one of Leonardo's main assistants: Melzi or Salai (who was rumored to have been da Vinci's lover).
Side by side, the pictures look noticeably different: the copy is significantly brighter and more colorful, even Mona Lisa's famously coy smile takes on a new cast.
"The original Mona Lisa in the Louvre is difficult to see – it's covered with layers of varnish which has darkened over the decades and the centuries, and even cracked," Bailey says. "What is wonderful about the copy is how vivid it is, and you see Lisa in a quite different light. I thought her eyes are enticing. And you see her enigmatic smile in a way that you don't quite get in the original."
Bailey says that the find will be relevant to historians and laypeople, that paradoxically a copy might bring viewers to the original with fresh eyes.
"It is after all the world's most famous painting, but people don't look at it fresh," he says. "They look at it almost as an icon. If you go to the Louvre, people aren't actually really looking at the painting; they just want to be in the same room with it. For me, the beauty of the copy is that it actually makes us look at the painting as a painting, and I hope it will have that effect on other people, too."
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And I'm Melissa Block with big news from the art world that's transforming our understanding of the "Mona Lisa."
There are many replicas of Leonardo da Vinci's painting. But conservators in Madrid have examined one of them and discovered something new. This replica was created at the same time Leonardo was painting his Florentine lady with her famously enigmatic smile. The "Mona Lisa" copy belongs to the Prado Museum in Madrid. And Martin Bailey, correspondent with The Art Newspaper in London, joins us to explain.
And, Martin, how did the conservators do this? How did they figure out that they were looking at a copy that was painted at the same time as Leonardo's?
MARTIN BAILEY: Well, last year, they began investigating the painting because they thought it might be interesting, and they used modern technology, which wasn't available decades ago, something called infrared reflectography. One's able to look beneath the surface of the paint. It's not exactly like an X-ray, but it's similar process. So they use this process, and the first discovery was there was a landscape which is on the original, which had been covered with black paint probably in the 18th century.
So they then began work, very painstakingly stripping away the black overpaint. And that process has been going on in the last few weeks. And the face of Lisa and the rest of the painting has been cleaned, and therefore, we see the vivid colors, which would have been used 500 years ago on this work.
BLOCK: And the reason that they knew these two images were done at the same time is that they could see in Leonardo's painting that he had changed the landscape over time, painting over things, and the same exact changes were made in the copy, right?
BAILEY: Yes. The changes actually mirrored the changes which Leonardo made on the original. So they concluded that the two pictures had been done side-by-side in the studio, and it was probably on easels which were two or three yards away from each other. And it's for this reason that we know the picture was done at the same time, so it's the only copy of the "Mona Lisa" which was done whilst Leonardo was alive.
BLOCK: So as Leonardo was tweaking the background, for example, the person standing next to him was doing the same thing, painting over, doing it - doing another version, and all of those layers are there on both paintings.
BAILEY: Exactly. And it is even possible that Lisa, who is the sitter in the portrait, may have come to the studio, and the copyist may have actually met Lisa and seen her. So that gives an added twist to it.
BLOCK: What's the thinking on who would have been painting the "Mona Lisa" copy alongside Leonardo?
BAILEY: Probably one of Leonardo's main assistants, and the two possible names that have been suggested one is Salai, who is a young man and who's thought of probably being Leonardo's lover, and the second possible artist who could have done it is someone called Melzi. And there's going to be a lot of discussion among the Leonardo scholars as to who actually did this picture.
BLOCK: You know, I'm looking at side-by-side images of the two works, Leonardo's from the Louvre and the other, the copy. The copy is much brighter, and she looks much the same but also quite a bit different. How do you think it changes what we understand about the original?
BAILEY: Well, it is astonishing because, first of all, you see a much brighter and much more colorful image. The original "Mona Lisa" in the Louvre is difficult to see. It's covered with layers of varnish which has darkened over the decades and the centuries and even cracked. And what is wonderful about the copy is how vivid it is, and you see Lisa in a quite different light. I mean, I thought her eyes are enticing, and you see her enigmatic smile in a way that you don't quite get in the original.
BLOCK: Hmm. You know, I have to say, Martin, that I'm - maybe it's just because it's - the image is engrained in our mind, but I think all the mystery is in the original when I look at the brighter...
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
BLOCK: ...fresher copy that mystery is gone somehow.
BAILEY: Well, I think maybe too much mystique has built up about this picture, the "Mona Lisa." I mean, it is after all the world's most famous painting. But people don't look at it fresh. They look at it almost as an icon. And if you go to the Louvre, people aren't actually really looking at the painting. They just want to sort of be in the same room with it. And for me, the beauty of the copy is that it actually makes us look at the painting as a painting, and I hope it will have that effect on other people too.
BLOCK: Martin Bailey, thank you so much.
BAILEY: Thank you.
BLOCK: Martin Bailey is a correspondent with The Art Newspaper in London. Next month, more than 500 years after they were painted, the original "Mona Lisa" and her copy will be temporarily reunited at the Louvre in Paris. And you can see the two side by side at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.