Meeting Mona Lisa

Art & Design

December 17, 2014 | BY Grace Tay

Could the secret behind the smile be that the world’s most famous painting was not Leonardo da Vinci’s first portrait of Lisa del Giocondo? 

Cutlery and wineglasses were laid down, conversations—indeed, chewing even—ceased. Slowly, the hush of darkness was broken by a single spotlight: the countenance of a feminine figure luminesced, almost magically, against the darker background of this mystery painting we had been waiting for weeks to see. 

“A masterpiece will be revealed,” our friends at American Express had promised then, along with an invitation to the wine dinner we were now partway through. “You’ll be dining with a 16th century painting by one of the world’s greatest artists.”

Did any of us expect to see the Mona Lisa? My expectations had been not nearly as lofty, and that made the surprise even more magical. 

The growing spotlight unveiled an ethereal beauty—younger, and dare I say prettier, than the famed and enigmatic portrait by Leonardo da Vinci that sits in the Louvre Museum. Is she smiling or isn’t she? There was no doubting the “smize” in this version, which has softer facial features and a more radiant complexion that plays off her darker hair and dress. We had come face-to-face with what’s now claimed to be Da Vinci’s original Mona Lisa. 

Its last owner, Henry Pulitzer, reportedly sold a house in Kensington along with all its contents in order to purchase it in 1962. “He loved this Mona Lisa and must have spent many hours together with her. I believe he kept the painting over the mantelpiece in his Knightsbridge apartment,” says Joël Feldman, general secretary of the Zurich-based The Mona Lisa Foundation. “You are the first in 50 years to dine with her.” 

This privilege, that our small group of journalists enjoyed that night along with a six-course wine dinner, was a preview of what an exclusive group of American Express Centurion members would experience a month later. Within the confines of our hall in the Singapore FreePort secure storage facility where the painting has been housed since January, we could get as up close as we wanted to observe the fine work and take selfies, even. 

When the painting makes its world premier in Singapore at The Arts House on December 16, it will be safely ensconced in a 400kg case specially fitted with climate control and a full slew of security features. 

This painting has been dubbed quite literally the “Earlier Mona Lisa”, as experts have concluded that Da Vinci worked on it from 1503 to 1506—about 10 years before the Louvre version that millions each year jostle to cast their eyes on. It is said to be a portrait commissioned by prominent Florentine silk merchant Francesco del Giocondo of his beloved wife, Lisa, who was in her early 20s. 

Da Vinci, however, did not deliver on this commission for four years as he was occupied with a massive project, the Battle of Anghiari fresco. Only under duress did he finally rush its completion—it’s believed that Da Vinci’s  assistants painted the background landscape and parts of the dress, under his supervision—and hand it over to Giocondo. 

WORK OF A MASTER

Nonetheless, the lady’s face, torso and hands bear the finesse of a master’s hand; experts have even noted that the embroidery details on this painting shows more complexity than the Louvre version. “Da Vinci had a unique way of painstakingly applying and combining his paints with a distinctive chiaroscuro blending and his famous sfumato work,” Feldman says. “The luminosity and glow of the skin tones on the Earlier Mona Lisa are especially apparent when there is low lighting on the painting. No other artist achieved the same result, which helps point to the identity of the master.”

Some 35 years of examination by scientists, scholars and art experts have gone into authenticating this painting, and in 2012 The Mona Lisa Foundation released findings that supported the theory that it is the work by the Renaissance master himself. 

These findings will be presented at the Leonardo da Vinci’s Earlier Mona Lisa exhibition here via nine multimedia galleries and an audio-visual tablet guide. Visitors can also learn the chronology of the painting’s discovery in England in 1913 and its provenance—along with a few dissenting views of scholars such as Oxford University professor Martin Kemp. (Feldman points out that Kemp is one of only three out of 27 experts to deny that Da Vinci painted the Earlier Mona Lisa, but none have seen the painting in the flesh.)

Renowned art historian Jean-Pierre Isbouts, who flew in from California to join us for this dinner, cites what’s referred to as “the Heidelberg document”, discovered in 2005, as the most compelling evidence to the painting’s attribution: a comment dated October 1503, handwritten by Agostino Vespucci in the margin of a letter written by Cicero in 1 BC. 

“It states unequivocally that the portrait represents Lisa del Giocondo, and that the portrait was painted in 1503. That means the Louvre portrait can’t be the one, because it is painted in a much later style,” says Isbouts, who has spent 35 years studying Leonardo da Vinci, and wrote The Mona Lisa Myth and directed a docudrama of the same name. 

“What’s more, the delicate treatment of the face and hands in the earlier version, with their soft chiaroscuro, clearly indicate that this is an autograph work by Leonardo. No other artist was able to produce such delicate modelling as Leonardo did at that early a date, since he had developed it in Milan just a few years before.”

Adds Feldman, “Given that the Earlier Mona Lisa is making its public debut after almost 40 years, Singaporeans have the unique opportunity to be part of art history.”

The exhibition runs till February 11 before it continues its world tour. For more information, visit www.monalisaexhibition.com  

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