Many art lovers are surprised to learn that there is an earlier Mona Lisa. Leonardo da Vinci created both paintings in the early sixteenth century, using as his model a Florentine lady named Lisa del Giocondo. People who are unfamiliar with Leonardo’s work may be surprised that the Isleworth Mona Lisa, as the earlier work has been called, appears to be significantly younger than the Louvre Mona Lisa that everyone is familiar with.
The explanation can be found by creating a historic context around the two paintings, understanding the different circumstances surrounding their creation.
The Earlier Mona Lisa
In or around 1503, Francesco del Giocondo commissioned a portrait of his wife, the former Lisa Camilla Gherardini of Florence. The Giocondos were becoming increasingly influential in Florence, and Francesco no doubt wanted a portrait by Leonardo to increase his family’s fame and reputation.
Lisa del Giocondo most likely sat for the painting in 1503. She was in her mid-twenties at the time of this painting and had a youthful appearance even though she already had several children. Her smile in the Isleworth Mona Lisa brings out a new dimension of personality compared to that of the Louvre Mona Lisa, where her facial expression is stylized to the point of mystery.
Leonardo continued to work on this painting well into 1504. At that time, the famous painter Raphael produced a beautiful pen-and-ink copy of the earlier Mona Lisa. This copy had important features that distinguished it from the later Mona Lisa that would later be displayed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.
First, the copy included two flanking columns that are visible in the painted work by Leonardo. Second, the painting is shown to be unfinished in the background. The existence of the Raphael sketch is thought to be one of the prevailing arguments for the existence of two genuine Mona Lisa paintings.
(Source: Big Book, Page 17)
Another piece of the puzzle comes with the existence of historical documentation. In 2005, a document was discovered by researchers from Heidelberg University which stood to place a new historical context on the earlier Mona Lisa. The “Heidelberg Document” as it became known gave a contemporary account of the creation of the earlier painting through the eyes of one of Leonardo’s close associates.
The associate was Agostino Vespucci. Vespucci was secretary to Niccolo Machiavelli, one of Leonardo’s closest friends and a high-ranking member of Florence’s ruling elite.
Vespucci puts the artist’s activities in context by comparing his work to the ancient Greek painter Apelles. Apelles also made a practice of producing more than one work with the same subject, and also made a practice of leaving at least one of these works unfinished.
According to the Mona Lisa Foundation, it is likely that the Apelles analogy relates to Leonardo’s workshop system. In the workshop system, the face, and hands as well as the most important parts of the Earlier Mona Lisa would have been painted by the master himself, with backgrounds possibly left for a student to fill in.
(Source: Big Book, page 9)
The Louvre Mona Lisa
The primary difference between the Isleworth and Louvre Mona Lisa paintings is that the newer painting features an older version of Lisa herself. Her expression shows that she has lived and suffered, while her mischievous smile has turned enigmatic. While it may be unlikely that Lisa herself sat for the newer version of her portrait, it is generally accepted that Leonardo carried her earlier portrait with him to Rome, where he began work on the painting under the auspices of Giuliano de Medici.
The newer painting also takes advantage of some advanced glazing techniques that Leonardo did not have before 1513. The “veiled glazing” technique was introduced by Flemish painters. This technique helped to create a special appearance of realism. The glazing technique was one of the leading factors that set the newer Louvre Mona Lisa apart from its earlier counterpart.
(Source: Big Book, p. 27)
Further Historical Evidence for Two Paintings
Other contemporary sources pointing to the existence of two paintings include the works of Vasari, a famous architect and art historian, and Lomazzo, a fellow art historian. Both of these historical documents date from the mid-to-late sixteenth century, meaning that they were completed well in range of the date of each painting. Contemporary sources are important in establishing whether paintings have made an impact in their own time, and how they may fit into historical context.
(Source: Big Book, page 10-11)
Differences Between Both Versions of the Mona Lisa
While these two famous paintings have the same genesis, they share many differences. The first difference that immediately comes to mind is that the earlier Mona Lisa features a much younger subject. The expression on the subject’s face is different, and her aspect seems younger and more flexible to the eye.
Another difference between these paintings lies in the background elements. The earlier Mona Lisa features two flanking columns that do not appear in the Louvre version. These columns are part of the Raphael drawing, however.
History of the Isleworth Mona Lisa
Though the Louvre version of the Mona Lisa is traceable since its creation, the Isleworth Mona Lisa has experienced gaps in its historical record.
The Isleworth painting was rediscovered in the early 20th century. It had been languishing in a Somerset country house since the late 18th century. When the painting was first displayed as a true work of Leonardo, there was a great deal of historical interest and scholarship paid to its origins.
Many historical documents and monographs were written about the earlier painting in the 20th century. The painting moved between a few different private ownership situations, finally coming into the possession of the Mona Lisa Foundation. The Foundation dedicated itself to the preservation and historical background of the painting.
As today’s viewers look upon the Isleworth or Earlier Mona Lisa, they will see a genuine expression of the great master Leonardo’s vision. As time changed the Mona Lisa’s expression, it came to influence the art world as a whole. Art lovers should continue to pay close attention to the world of Leonardo scholarship as more details about the painting’s history are revealed.