Why Is the Isleworth Mona Lisa So Much Younger?
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Why Is the Isleworth Mona Lisa So Much Younger?

While most art lovers know the story of the Mona Lisa, there is another painting by Leonardo that is just as impressive. The Isleworth Mona Lisa is an earlier painting by the great master. Both paintings show dark-haired women with mysterious smiles in corresponding settings. The paintings have enough similarities to show that they are definitively done by the same hand.

Some art connoisseurs wonder why the Isleworth Mona Lisa seems so much younger than the Louvre Mona Lisa. The answer can be found in a historical study of both paintings and how they fit into Leonardo’s canon.

Lisa del Giocondo
The model for both paintings is Lisa del Giocondo, born Lisa Camilla Gherardini in 1479. Lisa’s husband, Francesco del Giocondo, commissioned the earlier portrait from Leonardo in or around 1503. At the time, Giocondo was an increasingly influential force in Florentine city affairs, and the added prestige of a portrait by Leonardo would bring notoriety to his household.

In the earlier Mona Lisa, Lisa herself is a young woman. At the time of the painting in 1503, she was only 24 years old. Compared to the later Mona Lisa, her features are clearer and less lined, and she has a brighter look to her smile. Lisa del Giocondo became an enduring source of inspiration for Leonardo, and he may have carried her painting with him to Rome when he began to work on the Mona Lisa under the patronage of Giuliano de Medici.

Two Paintings
The existence of a second Mona Lisa has been documented since the early sixteenth century. Contemporary accounts were written during the time of the original painting’s creation, placing the painting between 1503 and 1506.

These contemporary accounts include a note written by Agostino Vespucci in the “Heidelberg Document.” This document is a curious marginal notation written in Latin, the common written language of the day. The words appear in a 1477 edition of the letters of Cicero.

In a note dated October 1503, Vespucci writes: “The painter Apelles. In this way Leonardo da Vinci makes it in all his paintings, for example the head of Lisa del Giocondo and of Anne, the mother of the Virgin. We will see what he is doing to do with regard to the hall of the Great Council about which he has just agreed with the Gonfalionere.”

Vespucci’s reference to the ancient Greek painter Apelles mentioned in the Cicero letters is meant to draw a parallel between the ancient painter’s work and that of Leonardo. Leonardo also had a habit of producing multiple works on the same theme, leaving some unfinished.

In their book The Earlier Mona Lisa, the Mona Lisa foundation explains the Apelles remark where it pertains to Leonardo’s painting. “With this remark, Vespucci is likely telling us in effect that in his Mona Lisa, Leonardo certainly painted all the details of the face - subsequently the hands and other parts also; and typically left other sections either unfinished or to his assistants to finish.”

(Source: Big Book, page 9)

Other sixteenth-century sources that definitively point to the existence of two paintings include the works of famous architect and art historian Giorgio Vasari and fellow art historian Gian Paolo Tomazzo. While these works were published in the decades following the paintings’ creation, they are considered to be reliable indicators of the existence of two paintings.

Differences Between the Two Mona Lisa Paintings
While the two famous paintings are clearly related, there are many differences that are apparent to the eye. The first item that comes to mind for most casual viewers is that the earlier Mona Lisa is a painting of a much younger woman.

Another difference between the two paintings is that the initial painting contains two flanking columns. The Louvre version has no columns. The Louvre version has a finished background, where the Earlier Mona Lisa has a background that is simply roughed in on canvas.

History of the Earlier Mona Lisa
While the Louvre Mona Lisa can be traced for its entire existence, the earlier painting went down a more difficult road through the centuries and passed through private ownership many times. The painting was brought back to England in the 1770s and belonged to a wealthy family in Somerset. The painting was rediscovered there in the early 20th century and brought to London as the Isleworth Mona Lisa.

Since the painting’s rediscovery, many art experts have come forward to definitively attribute the earlier Mona Lisa to Leonardo. The scientific and artistic study leads to the examination of brushstrokes and shadows, all of which point to a Leonardo attribution for the Isleworth painting.

Leonardo’s Canon
The earlier Mona Lisa takes a well-deserved place in Leonardo’s canon, supported by many historical and contemporary sources. When art lovers understand the history of the two Mona Lisa paintings, they will appreciate the fact that the subject of the Isleworth painting is a younger version of her famous counterpart.

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