If Da Vinci created a nude sketch of the Mona Lisa, does this change how we view his most famous painting?
A 16th century charcoal drawing of a topless woman, known as the Monna Vanna, bears a strong resemblance to Leonardo da Vinci’s preeminent oil painting, the Mona Lisa: the ‘most famous painting’ in the world today. The Condé Museum in Chantilly, France, has retained the sketch since 1862, when the Duc d’Amale, son of Louis-Philippe I, bought it for what was then the relatively large sum of 7000 francs. Though, upon purchase, the Duc was under the impression that the drawing was Da Vinci’s, modern researchers have refuted this claim until now, insisting that it is far more likely to be the work of a member of the Florentine master’s studio.
However, experts are now trying to ascertain whether the piece can, in fact, be at least partly attributed to Da Vinci. Matthieu Deldicque, Deputy Curator of the Condé told the New York Times that it is unclear whether the Renaissance master contributed to the piece. In anticipation of the 500-year anniversary of the universally esteemed savant’s death, the drawing has been sent to the Louvre Gallery in Paris for further analysis. A team of scientists are currently working to establish its origins, citing as evidence of a direct relationship between the two portraits: the practically identical location of the hands and body to the that of the Mona Lisa, the artworks’ similar size, and the small holes visible around the edges of the Monna Vanna, which suggest that the figure may have been traced onto a canvas.
Bruno Mottin, of the Louvre team of specialists, told Le Parisien that he held reservations about the possibility of Da Vinci’s direct input. “The hatching on the top of the drawing near the head was done by a right-handed person,” he said, in consideration of the fact that Da Vinci, despite possessing a degree of being ambidextrous, always drew with his left hand. Awaiting further results, the current consensus is that the piece may be the collaborative work of the master and one or a number of his students.
Some art historians go so far as to suggest that the Mona Lisa is a feminized image of his student and lover, Andrea Salaì
But what could this mean for our understanding of the Mona Lisa? It is unlikely that its painter engaged in any sort of sexual relationship with Lisa del Giocondo, the wife of a Florentine cloth merchant and widely presumed to be the painting’s subject. It is equally unlikely that, her husband having commissioned a portrait, the young wife and mother posed semi-nude for Da Vinci or any member of his studio. However, art historian Renzo Manetti suggests that, influenced by the Neoplatonic philosophy popular with Renaissance artists and the conventions of his contemporaries, Da Vinci may have created two opposing portraits: complementary ‘heavenly’ (clothed) and ‘vulgar’ (nude) images, representing the ‘two sides’ of Venus, Roman goddess of love. In his book, The Mona Lisa’s Veil, Manetti argues that although “the [vulgar/nude] painting has been lost”, “reproductions… painted by pupils or disciples” exist.
A professional nude model may have been used for the more profane image, but the rounded shoulders suggest a masculine form – with an incongruous pair of breasts. Da Vinci is believed to have predominantly been homosexual, and some art historians go so far as to suggest that the Mona Lisa is a feminized image of his student and lover, Andrea Salaì, to whom he left the painting upon his death. Lisa del Giocondo and her husband never received a painting.
One of the aforementioned ‘reproductions’ is almost identical in form to the Monna Vanna sketch: the Monna Vanna oil painting, currently attributed to that same Salaì. Foreshadowing current events, this oil painting made the news in 2009, foreshadowing the current furore with talk of the ‘nude Mona Lisa’. The subject’s curly hair and facial features do resemble Salaì,who is immortalised in many of Da Vinci’s works, most notably with a visibly erect phallus in the sketch Angel Incarnate. If Da Vinci contributed to the Monna Vanna drawing in question, then perhaps Salaì’s painting is, in fact, a reproduction of his master’s work, which would support the idea that he himself was the original subject.
(Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)