Last updated: February 1, 2012 5:50 pm

Museum finds ‘stunning’ Mona Lisa copy

The Prado Museum in Madrid has discovered the earliest copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” which it believes was painted by one of his key pupils in the same studio at the same time as the original.

The find, which has been called “stunning” by art historians, was made as restorers were carrying out conservation work. The restored painting will give experts new insights into the most famous work of art as it shows how the subject would have actually looked at the time.

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Art authorities at both the Louvre and the Prado have accepted that the picture is not merely a copy but was painted by a key pupil in the same studio. Its composition, they say, developed alongside Da Vinci’s original painting.

The Prado painting was originally thought to have been one of several copies of the “Mona Lisa” which were made after Leonardo da Vinci’s death. There are dozens of surviving replicas from the 16th and 17th centuries

Museum experts are in the process of stripping away a cover of black over-paint which, when fully removed, will reveal the youthfulness of the subject they say. The final area of over-paint will come off in the next few days.

The original “Mona Lisa” hangs in the Louvre but the sitter looks older than her years as the varnish is cracked. The painting is so fragile that restoration or cleaning is deemed too risky. The Prado version, however, will show the sitter as she was: a young woman in her early 20s.

“The final traces of overpaint are now being removed by Prado conservators, revealing the fine details of the delicate Tuscan landscape, which mirrors the background of Leonardo’s masterpiece,” said Art Newspaper, which published the museum’s findings.

Mona Lisa

Complex: Leonardo da Vinci’s painting ’Mona Lisa’

“Darkened varnish is also being painstakingly stripped away from the face of the “Mona Lisa”, giving a much more vivid impression of her enticing eyes and enigmatic smile.”

The “Mona Lisa” is widely believed to be a Florentine woman called Lisa Gherardini who was married to Francesco del Giocondo, a cloth merchant. She is believed to have been painted at the beginning of the 16th century.

The Prado believes that Da Vinci’s pupil could have actually met Lisa Gherardini and could have been present when she sat for the master.

The fully conserved replica will be unveiled at the museum in Madrid in the middle of the this month and will then be loaned to the Louvre as an addition to its exhibition on “Leonardo’s Last Masterpiece: The Sainte Anne”, which begins in March.

The National Gallery in London has received unprecedented demand for tickets to see its current Leonardo da Vinci exhibition, which is the most complete display of the Italian master’s surviving paintings ever.

“Leonardo da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan” focuses on the artist’s 18-year career as a court painter to Ludovico Maria Sforza, the duke of Milan, during the 1480s and 1490s.

Only 20 known paintings by Da Vinci – who was also an engineer, inventor and architect – survive and the National Gallery has brought together nine of these paintings for the exhibition.

Described by art historians as “historic”, it includes the two versions of the “Virgin of the Rocks”, which will hang side by side for the first time. The National Gallery bought one version of the painting in 1880, which is too fragile to travel. The other is on loan from the Louvre in Paris. Many of the paintings in the exhibition have not been seen in the UK before.

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