Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Photos supplied.
How many new Leonardos can there be?
I have previously discussed various recent claims that a
formerly unknown work by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) has
been discovered. Another was announced on September 27.
People may think they should turn out the attic.
There's a long history of "finding" Leonardos but many were
not accepted and the last to make it through to general
acceptance, the Benois Madonna, was proposed in 1909. Or at
least, it was the last until the Salvator Mundi, proposed in
2005, won general acceptance in 2011.
The fake Isleworth Mona Lisa.
What are the chances of others in the queue?
Also in 2005, a Madonna and Child with St Joseph, owned by
the Galleria Borghese, was proposed. In 2008, so was the
Lucan Portrait of Leonardo, privately owned in Italy.
In 2010, La Bella Principessa, also known as Portrait of a
Young Fiancee, discovered in New York but in private Swiss
ownership, was proposed by Martin Kemp. Now, the Isleworth
Mona Lisa has been announced. The property of anonymous
owners, it's been proposed before but hasn't been seen for 40
years and it's said there's new evidence.
The cases are different.
They're worth reviewing to see what makes acceptance more or
The Salvator Mundi which progressed so rapidly has long been
known but was thought a copy of a work there is clear, early
evidence Leonardo painted. This one's history is known since
1650 but it had been badly treated and considered a poor
When it was cleaned and examined pentimenti were found -
alterations during the course of making - some seen under
infrared light, which was telling. The work also withstood
scholarly examination and publication of detailed evidence.
Its media and support are characteristic.
The Borghese Madonna was long known but thought to be by
another artist. It isn't claimed there is any old record of
such a work but it is like known paintings of Leonardo's
youth and a fingerprint has been found on it similar to one
on his undoubted Lady with the Ermine. The media and support
are typical but the investigations have not been published
and people remain sceptical.
The Lucan self-portrait, long-known, without historical
reference, with characteristic media and support has also
been said to have the master's fingerprint. There's been
little study or publication and doubt remains.
Portrait of a Young Fiancee faced a very steep hill. Its
history was only known since the 1990s. There's no historical
reference to such a work.
Its media and support, chalk on vellum, were otherwise
unknown in Leonardo's output. It had been seriously examined
by Prof Martin Kemp, and the findings published. But it
didn't help that a claim it bore a Leonardo fingerprint was
soon thoroughly discredited.
The latest discovery, the Isleworth Mona Lisa, has been known
since the early 20th-century when an Englishman, Hugh Blaker,
claimed it was another autograph version of the Louvre Mona
Lisa but made 12 years earlier. It's an oil on canvas, not
usual for Leonardo. Its sitter looks younger than the
Louvre's and lacks the latter's sfumato - special shading
effects - responsible for much of the mysterious appearance
of the famous lady. There have been no claims about
fingerprints but an attempt has been made to give it
Vasari, the renaissance historian of renaissance painting,
said Leonardo started a portrait of Mona Lisa in 1503 which
he left unfinished. He also referred to a painting of a
"certain Florentine Lady" Leonardo had with him near the end
of his life.
It is usually supposed there is just one work, that in the
Louvre today. The Isleworth's protagonists say there were two
and this is the 1503 one. There have been laboratory studies
but their detail is unpublished. Prof Kemp has dismissed
Isleworth as an honest but unsophisticated copy of the Louvre
What this shows is that it helps if the proposed work has a
long history, also if there's a historical reference to such
an image, that the media and support have precedent in
Leonardo's output and that scientific and other scholarly
work is helpful, if it is published and withstands wider
I am not a Leonardo specialist but on broad grounds, I think
the Isleworth painting faces an uphill battle. It looks like
Looks aren't everything as the Salvator case shows. But by
contrast Kemp's Fiancee's prospects seem better.
Despite the misadventure with the fingerprint, other things
have worked for her.
There's a record Leonardo wanted to get chalks. A book has
been found from which it seems the Fiancee was cut which
places it in the Milanese court when Leonardo was there. More
study and publication are needed but she seems better placed
than the latest discovery.
But this is all a work in progress.
• Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian