Is it possible that Mona Lisa we know from Le Louvre Museum in Paris is not painted from life at all, but from Leonardo da Vinci’s memory of a youngerwoman, painted 10-12 years before, and his thoughts about how she would look, how she would reflect on her life as an older woman?
This means that an earlier Mona Lisa – a portrait of Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, who was a younger woman when she sat for theportrait believed to be commissioned by her husband, Francesco del Giocondo– was an unfinished painting lost to time… though apparently mentioned invarious historical documents.
A painting that bears striking resemblance to the famous “Mona Lisa” of theLouvre – the pose, the hands, the setting, but of a younger woman, is now in thehands of a mysterious consortium and kept by the Mona Lisa Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Zurich, Switzerland that was established to consult with art historians, scholars, curators, scientists and technicians to authenticate the painting as an earlier version of Leonardo’s famous painting, previously referred to as the “Isleworth Mona Lisa”
The painting, hidden away in a vault in Switzerland for four decades, has passed all sorts of dating tests to show it is of that period, has the technique of Leonardo (the way he calculated the proportional space of eyes, nose, etc.) and has also been referenced in documents of the time, Rafael Feldman said during a Q&A that followed the screening of the documentary at the festival.
This is the subject of a documentary, “Mona Lisa: Leonardo’s Earlier Version,”previewed at the Gold Coast International Film Festival, North Hempstead, Long Island, directed by brothers Rafael Feldman and Yan Feldman, based on the research of their father, Stanley B Feldman, a prize-winning painter and photographer and the main author of the book, “Mona Lisa, Leonardo’s Earlier Version,” upon which the film is based. Rafael and Yan’s uncle David is a cofounder of the Mona Lisa Foundation.
“The first time I saw the painting was with my wife [singer-songwriter Consuelo Vanderbilt Costin], on our honeymoon. We were honeymooning around the south of France and my uncle invited us to Geneva. We were only there for two days. That’s when I first heard about the painting. After dinner, around midnight, my uncle whisked us away to an office in Geneva. It was a clandestine experience.
At one time, he owned the third largest auction company in the world – they handled everything from a Faberge egg collection to King Arthur’s sword, and all kinds of objects of great value.
He took us to the office in midnight – to a vault within a vault within a vault – where there was a screening room, chairs and stage with special lighting. He turned on the light and there was this painting. From that moment, I was blown away.
“Since then we have watched other people’s experience seeing the ‘Mona Lisa’ for the first time, grown men cry in front of it.
“It was truly a moving experience – you have to see in the flesh. Being theskeptic, I have been looking for years for a reason to doubt it. I still haven’t found one.”
The painting, he believes, is still in Geneva, but kept in secret. Its ownership is another mystery, he says, “a collective of European businessmen, but theyhaven’t released names to press.”
They are currently organizing an exhibition in Singapore next year and a tour of Asia and Europe; Rafael will be producing the audio/visual content for theexhibition.
Why Singapore? “I’m not sure – I don’t know if got something to do with contacts within consortium of owners – with strong ties to Asia. There is an obsession with Leonardo in the Far East, Singapore and Japan.”
In fact, the painting was included in an exhibition in Japan a year ago, he said.
“It was very successful. It was only there for two months and brought in a couple hundred thousand people.”
In this earlier version, what appears most obviously to viewers is that portions of the painting, such as the background, have been left unfinished. “A clump of trees is poorly executed. A lot of the great masters worked with apprentices in their studios. They would work on important details like the face and bust and students worked on the rest.
I ask why Leonardo wouldn’t have finished the painting if it were a commission.
“Leonardo was infamous for not finishing works – he abandoned many works like the Battle of Anghiari, for example … He was in poor favor in Florence, kicked out of accommodations at a monestary because he didn’t finish a painting they commissioned.
As for the skeptics, he says, one of the arguments used against the painting being by Leonardo is that this earlier painting is on canvas and not wood. “Only about 17 paintings attributed to Leonardo exist today, most of which are on wood, and for such a prolific painter, that is a small amount.”
Critics went as far as to state that Leonardo never used canvas, which is strange because all his drapery studies, hanging on the Louvre, are all on canvas – so he had decades of experience working on canvas. In his own treatise on painting, he describes how to prepare canvas for painting and how to paint on it, and it matches up with how this painting was prepared and painted.
But one of the toughest critics against the painting based on it being on canvas, Martin Kemp, gave attribution to ‘La Bella Principessa’ as being painted by Leonardo da Vinci, which is on vellum (animal skin).
“There are of course other things that people say against the painting – such as the hair or the veil is not perfect – but what is undeniable is Leonardo’s sfumato technique, particularly around eyes and mouth – a technique which many have tried to imitate, but no one could do at the level of Leonardo.” Leonardo defined the sfumato technique as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane” – essentially no harsh outlines and areas where different colors are blended together.
Rafael doubles down raising the question of whether the Mona Lisa that is in Louvre is definitely Leonardo’s. He says that after the painting was stolen in 1911, there could be some doubt “that what came back is not by Leonardo. The Louvre has never published results of carbon dating. There will always will be skeptics.”
On the other hand, analysis by Professor John Asmus, a nuclear physicist who pioneered a technique of digitizing art work in order to compare brushstrokes – seemed to establish scientifically that both the Earlier versions and the Mona Lisa in the Louvre were made by the same artist.
“When he digitized the art, he broke it down to billions of pixels, creatinghistograms – to come up with something akin to a fingerprint to identify the artist,” Rafael said. “He experimented with Rembrandt self-portraits, where he showed conclusive evidence that the distinctive patterns when compared to paintings not painted by Rembrandt, didn’t match up, whereas those painted by same artist matched.
Rafael Feldman believes that much of the controversy is over a turf fight between “connoisseurship” and scientific analysis. “There is tremendous amount of arrogance within the community of experts who still believe that ‘connoisseurship’ is only way to authenticate… Their opinion is above science.”
But Rafael notes that a document discovered in Heidelberg University in Germany “names the sitter as Lisa del Giocondo, but still people question who the sitter was. That document is from the time Leonardo was working on the portrait for Francesco del Giocondo.” Yet another document from 14 years later clearly indicates that the portrait (believed to be the Mona Lisa in Louvre) was commissioned by Giuliano de Medici.
“Leonardo painted multiple versions of many of his paintings.”
Rafael offers one theory that the younger model is the original, and then 10-12 years later, when he had the Medici commission, he “aged progressed” the model, which Leonardo, a genius with photographic memory and a unique understanding of anatomy from his studies, could likely do in his mind.
The later Mona Lisa is more contemplative, there is more mystery to her expression. It is more of a painting about her thoughts than it is a description of what she looked like, and it seems it is more of a reflection of a more matured artist, himself.
“Leonardo had photographic memory,” Rafael reflects. “He may have had her sit for him more than once, or simply imagined what she would look like older. Others theorize that he might have built the theme of his mother into it. The memory of his mother haunted him – he was an illegitimate child. There isspeculation that later in his life, he had her working in his employ – her name appears in his notebooks, so there is a question as to whether it was just a woman with same name or he actually found her.”
But a key reason the Mona Lisa is so important, besides the enigmatic expression that seems to provide a path into her mind, is that it changed the way portraits were done. Instead of a full-figured portrait, this painting is from a sitting position from the waist up. “It became the norm afterwards, but it was Leonardo, with this painting, who began doing portraits this way.”
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Karen Rubin, Eclectic Travel Examiner
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