Mona Lisa - Getty Images
The orignial 'Mona Lisa.' Photo by Getty Images
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A copy of 'Mona Lisa' by Leonardo's apprentice. Photo by Bloomberg

I still remember the odd feeling I had when she looked at me. It was like encountering a woman one had met before, years earlier, who suddenly appeared opposite you on the street. Is it her? Maybe not? Should I stop? Look? Say something? I stopped, even though I was certain it was not her but only someone who reminded me of her. Such encounters are fraught with a sense of something missed, of being almost the real thing. A number of years went by, and suddenly she was making headlines in the international press: a double of the “Mona Lisa” had been discovered in Madrid.

In our first intimate meeting, almost a decade ago, she was hanging in a fairly nondescript corner of the magnificent Prado Museum in Spain’s capital. That was before, in 2011, a curious curator decided to clean the painting and display its beauty to the world. In the “dirty” ? that is, the unrestored ? version, the painting consisted of a portrait of the ultra-familiar Lisa del Giocondo, against a black background. I remember thinking, when I viewed it, that it was the work of an artist, although the dark background completely distorted the composition. A small note next to the picture stated, “Copy of Leonardo da Vinci, first quarter of 16th century.” But even more than the note, the location the museum had chosen for the work made it clear that experts considered it of no real importance. The public, as usual, heeded the hierarchy set by the cognoscenti. Groups of tourists passed her on their way to Vel?zquez’s “Las Meninas” or Goya’s nude and clothed women. In the quarter of an hour I spent in front of the local Mona Lisa no one stopped to cast a glance at the blackened version of the world’s most famous painting.

The successful restoration changed the painting’s location ? and the attitude toward it. Last February, the Prado announced a sensational finding: the neglected painting is a copy of the “Mona Lisa,” probably done by one of Leonardo’s apprentices at exactly the same time the master painted his version. It is, then, as close to the original as possible. The spectacular landscape that was uncovered beneath the black paint was a later addition and is now visible to both the experts and the museum’s visitors. Indeed, the painting earned a trip to Paris, where it was on show in a blockbuster exhibition devoted to Leonardo at the Louvre. Now it is securely ensconced in the large gallery on the entry level of the Prado, and no one would think of skipping it. In terms of color, at least, the Spanish Mona Lisa is a fresher version, compared with the yellowing grime on the original painting in the Louvre, which for obvious reasons ‏(fear of failure‏) no one would dare to clean. An ageing original vies with a younger, more colorful copy.

What, exactly, changed in the black “Mona Lisa” I saw a decade ago? What accounts for the fact that almost the same copy can enthrall us in one instance, but seem totally mundane in another? The question goes far beyond art. The point of departure is of course scholarly. Historians of the Renaissance will research, hurl invective, debate and finally reach one conclusion or another concerning the acclaimed original and the less acclaimed copy. That’s exactly what happened in the past few weeks in regard to a Swiss association headed by a lawyer that is trying to market “its” Mona Lisa. The picture, which lay in a bank safe for many years, is now being touted by its owners as the most original copy possible ? one that was painted even before the original. At the press conference held about a copy of the painting, which is known as the “Isleworth Mona Lisa,” the sensational claim was made that this painting was done some 20 years before the one on display at the Louvre. It out-originals the original.

Historians of Renaissance art, led by Emeritus Prof. Martin Kemp from Oxford, a world-renowned authority on Leonardo, rejected these claims, which were accompanied by a sumptuous book ‏($99 from Amazon‏). But the battle for the consciousness of art lovers declared by the lawyer-led Swiss association has not yet been decided. The reward is too great for the Swiss group to give up without a fight. To induce the public to value their picture more than dozens of other copies of the “Mona Lisa” from the 16th and 17th centuries, they will try to prove definitively to scholars that this is not just another pale copy. Nevertheless, the reproductions that have been made available suggest a rigid, lifeless copy, compared with the original or the high-quality Spanish work. Moreover, the fact that the Swiss painting was done on canvas, whereas all Leonardo’s paintings were done on wood, does nothing to further their authenticity claim.

Others abandoned a claim to originality from the outset. A case in point is an unimportant copy of “Mona Lisa” from the beginning of the last century, which is kept in Australia. It was painted in a period when it was a little more complicated to get from Oceania to Europe than it is now. Still, at the beginning of this month it was exhibited in the National Library in Canberra to the fanfare of the local media as “the Australian ‘Mona Lisa,’” as though to say: We too have our own Renaissance icon, modest but at least down under.

Power of attraction

At the same time, there is a marvelous way to transform a copy into an object as venerated as the original, even without geographical distance between the two. The method is simple: don’t say explicitly that it’s a copy. A prime example of this approach occurred a few weeks ago, in the city where Leonardo started to paint the “Mona Lisa”: Florence, capital of the Renaissance. One stop no tourist in the city misses, along with the statue of David and Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” is the “Gates of Paradise.” The splendid gates lie exactly halfway between the Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece is housed and the Uffizi Gallery, which contains the iconic representation of the goddess of love.

The gates are two vast bronze and gilt doors that lie in the southern section of the Florence Baptistery, directly opposite the facade of the entrance to the city’s central church. They are adorned with 10 relief sculptures depicting biblical stories, made in the first half of the 15th century by Lorenzo Ghiberti, one of the giants of Italian Renaissance sculpture. So beautiful were the gates, whose construction was completed in 1452, that Michelangelo is quoted as saying that they were “worthy to be the Gates of Paradise.”

This monumental work ‏(over five meters high‏) suffered from the ravages of time, weather and pollution. Finally, in 1990 the doors were removed in a complex operation and taken away for restoration. They were replaced by a fine copy, which to this day ornaments the facade of the Baptistery. The intricate restoration work took almost a quarter of a century, until its conclusion was triumphantly announced last September. Now, Ghiberti’s original doors are on display in the museum of the Duomo, a few steps from their original location.

The hordes of tourists who flood into Florence are not aware that the monumental gold doors they are viewing, photographing and having themselves photographed next to are copies. Well done, certainly, but still copies. In certain weeks of the year the crowds at the Gates of Paradise are so dense that only great determination and sharp elbows will get you close enough to get a good look at Adam and Eve, Moses or Solomon and Bathsheba, all of them so vivid that they seem about to leap out of the door panels. The well-executed copy has its own power of attraction, while the original, which is incalculably more beautiful, stands rather desolate in the lovely museum right behind the church.

The question of location in this sense is critical. When the copy is installed in the place where the original once was, its chances of success are greater. There is another case in which Florence and its tourists make it possible to examine viewers’ attitudes toward a non-original work which stands at an original location. This test case involves one of the most famous sculptures in the world, Michelangelo’s “David.” In 1504, when the master completed his giant sculpture, a public meeting of experts decided where it would be installed. Michelangelo wanted it to stand in the Piazza della Signoria, in front of the Palazzo Vecchio. The members of a committee, among them Leonardo, wanted to move it a few dozen meters from there, more to the side and beneath a nearby arcade. The supporters of the central location won the day, and for almost 400 years the sculpture stood at the entrance to the palace, which is now the Town Hall.

But in 1873, when fears for the work’s safety increased, it was moved to the Accademia Gallery, where it still stands. At the beginning of the 20th century, a copy ? not a very good one ? was placed at the original location. Despite everything, it preserves the visual experience of visitors to the plaza from Renaissance times until the sculpture was relocated. Most visitors today know that the “David” they are looking at is not the real one, but still have their pictures taken next to it. On the other side of the palace door is a sculpture of Hercules vanquishing the monster Cacus. Made by Baccio Bandinelli, a less gifted sculptor than Michelangelo, this work was dedicated in 1534, exactly 30 years after “David” was completed. A quick comparison between the original “Hercules,” which still stands at the palace entrance, and the copy of “David” is enough to understand why ridicule was heaped on the work by the Florentines from the very outset, in the 16th century. The exaggerated muscles, the stiff posture, the awkward composition are only compounded in the face of the elegance and splendor of “David.” Further inflaming the situation was the political abhorrence Florentines felt at the time for the Medici family, which commissioned the work as a token of their renewed rule in the city. David, in contrast, was commissioned in the period when the Medicis were in exile and was perceived as a symbol of Florentine republicanism and the victory of the weak citizenry over the powerful Medici aristocrats.

The attempt to counterbalance this by a “politically correct” sculpture was doomed to failure, not least because the new work paled in the face of the revered original. So great was the scorn for Bandinelli that the authorities were compelled to use threats to prohibit the writing of vicious sonnets about “Hercules.” In our time, 500 years after that artistic-political tempest, the original “Hercules and Cacus” still stands in relative desolation, while “David’s” double continues to be favored by visitors. Sometimes a lackluster copy is preferable to a lame original.