Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Unveiling of alternate 'Mona Lisa' raises questions

By Ben Brumfield, CNN
December 2, 2013 -- Updated 1254 GMT (2054 HKT)
Did Leonardo da Vinci preface the legendary
Did Leonardo da Vinci preface the legendary "Mona Lisa," left, with another version?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: A Leonardo da Vinci expert says the claim is worth further research
  • Swiss foundation unveils what it claims is a predecessor to "Mona Lisa"
  • An Oxford University professor cast doubt on its authenticity
  • The Mona Lisa Foundation exists solely to research this one painting

CNN takes you "Inside the Louvre," building an intimate portrait of a museum like no other. From the handler who looks after the Mona Lisa's famous smile, to the new director, host Nick Glass meets the people at the heart of Paris' most renowned institution. Watch the 30-minute special show from Dec 2-4.

(CNN) -- Leonardo da Vinci painted an earlier version of his famed masterpiece "Mona Lisa," claims a private Swiss art foundation dedicated solely to the alternate painting, which it unveiled Thursday.

But an expert on da Vinci in Britain says there is evidence that the Renaissance master may not have been behind the picture presented as the "Earlier Mona Lisa" but known more commonly as the "Isleworth Mona Lisa."

The Mona Lisa Foundation, based in Zurich, offers a wealth of documentation to support its argument that the painting it represents is a predecessor -- from the master's own hand -- to the world's most famous portrait hanging in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Martin Kemp, professor emeritus at Oxford University, who has examined the arguments, says the "reliable primary evidence provides no basis for thinking that there was 'an earlier' portrait of Lisa del Giocondo."

Da Vinci's lost masterpiece may be found

In addition to a 320-page art book titled "Mona Lisa: Leonardo's Earlier Version," the foundation's website makes its case using visual widgets of painstaking side-by-side comparisons of the "Isleworth" with "Mona Lisa," magnifying their similarities down to the small details.

The obvious resemblance, easily visible to the untrained eye, could be evidence that the work is just another copy of the portrait of Lisa del Giocondo that was painted after da Vinci's masterpiece was completed -- and probably by someone else, Kemp said in a news release.

The "Mona Lisa" that millions of art lovers flock to gaze upon behind its protective case in the Paris museum was altered from a previous state.

"The Isleworth picture follows the final state of the Louvre painting," Kemp said. "It does not therefore precede the Louvre painting."

The foundation and Kemp also disagree on the results of modern technical examinations of the "Isleworth," which the foundation has invested in.

"The images produced by infrared reflectography and X-ray are not at all characteristic (of) what lies below Leonardo's autograph paintings," Kemp says.

Museum displays earliest known Mona Lisa copy

The Mona Lisa Foundation presents historical notations by artists and intellectuals in the 16th century and beyond to back up the possible existence of a second portrait, but Kemp finds it inconclusive.

In a 20-minute art history video, its own in-house expert Stanley Feldman, main author of the book, presents the foundation's detailed arguments.

The video also includes sound bites from the director of an Italian museum dedicated to Leonardo da Vinci.

"I believe it is more than possible that there existed two pieces of art," said professor Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the Museo Ideale Leonardo da Vinci, pointing to features that could tie the painting to historical references to an earlier work of art.

What the brain draws from: Art and how we see it

But Vezzosi does not say directly that he believes the "Isleworth" is the predecessor of the world-renowned coyly grinning "Gioconda."

In a speech in Geneva on Thursday, Vezzosi again hedged his bets, not backing the foundation's claim outright but saying it had presented a "fascinating possibility" that merited further study.

"The 'Isleworth Mona Lisa' is an important work of art deserving respect and strong consideration as well as a scientific, historic and artistic debate among specialists rather than a purely media interest," he said.

He is conducting parallel research in conjunction with another expert, Carlo Pedretti of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies of the University of California in Los Angeles, Vezzosi said.

Meanwhile, Kemp recommends "that questions are asked about the relationship of the Foundation to the current owners."

The Swiss nonprofit was established by bank chairman Markus Frey, financier Daniel Kohler and auctioneer David Feldman, who shares his last name and hometown of Dublin with the foundation's art historian.

It does not divulge who owns the "Isleworth" on its website but explains that "the owners of the painting have endowed The Mona Lisa Foundation with exclusive rights to carry out its objectives."

If the "Isleworth" is not a da Vinci original, as the foundation claims, but a copy, which Kemp thinks is more likely, then it's not a great one, he says.

It doesn't quite have that Mona Lisa smile.

Scientists unlock secret of Mona Lisa's face

CNN's Alex Felton and Hada Messia contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Advocates say the exam includes unnecessarily invasive and irrelevant procedures -- like a so-called "two finger" test.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0009 GMT (0809 HKT)
Supplies of food, clothing and fuel are running short in Damascus and people are going hungry as the civil war drags on.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1801 GMT (0201 HKT)
Supporters of Richard III want a reconstruction of his head to bring a human aspect to a leader portrayed as a murderous villain.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1548 GMT (2348 HKT)
Robert Fowler spent 130 days held hostage by the same al Qaeda group that was behind the Algeria massacre. He shares his experience.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0507 GMT (1307 HKT)
As "We are the World" plays, a video shows what looks like a nuclear attack on the U.S. Jim Clancy reports on a bizarre video from North Korea.
The relationship is, once again, cold enough to make Obama's much-trumpeted "reset" in Russian-U.S. relations seem thoroughly off the rails.
Ten years on, what do you think the Iraq war has changed in you, and in your country? Send us your thoughts and experiences.
February 5, 2013 -- Updated 1215 GMT (2015 HKT)
Musician Daniela Mercury has sold more than 12 million albums worldwide over a career span of nearly 30 years.
Photojournalist Alison Wright travelled the world to capture its many faces in her latest book, "Face to Face: Portraits of the Human Spirit."
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 0006 GMT (0806 HKT)
Europol claims 380 soccer matches, including top level ones, were fixed - as the scandal widens, CNN's Dan Rivers looks at how it's done.
February 6, 2013 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
That galaxy far, far away is apparently bigger than first thought. The "Star Wars" franchise will get two spinoff movies, Disney announced.
July 25, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
It's an essential part of any trip, an activity we all take part in. Yet almost none of us are any good at it. Souvenir buying is too often an obligatory slog.
ADVERTISEMENT