Few are aware that one of the best and earliest copies of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is right here in Baltimore at the Walters. The painting is on display in the the museum’s 16th-century art galleries.
Recent excitement surrounding the technical examination of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa prompted a re-examination in late September of the x-ray of the Walters’ copy. This is one of the finest of the nine good, early known copies of Leonardo’s famous painting (ca. 1630-60) and is almost identical in size (31 ¼ x 20 in.). The artist carefully reproduced Leondardo’s sfumato (smoke-like) technique, blurring the contours of the woman and landscape as if seen through an atmospheric haze. In the original, this technique contributes to the woman’s enigmatic smile.
Leonardo (1452-1519) began the Mona Lisa in Florence around 1503, perhaps working on it for another decade. In 1516 he took it to France and sold it to the king. The subject is believed to be Lisa Gherardini, the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a wealthy Florentine businessman. “Mona” is an Italian contraction for “madonna,” meaning “my lady.”
An X-ray of the painting shows that the Walters’ Mona Lisa was copied over a painting of St. Veronica. She holds the veil with which she wiped Christ’s face on his way to Calvary and upon which his face was said to be miraculously imprinted. Before copying the Mona Lisa, the painter turned the image of St. Veronica upside down. Christ’s face is just visible to the left of Mona Lisa’s head. At some point the canvas was cut down on the sides and bottom. Working together, curator Joaneath Spicer recognized the shadowy image as likely related to a painting of the 1630s by the French artist Simon Vouet and director Gary Vikan identified the specific painting.