One from the road: Mona Lisa Overdrive

This past week saw Leonardo da Vinci in the news again, this time popping up in the dusty farmhouse of some unbelievably lucky Scots. Poking around our own version of a dusty farmhouse while on vacation this summer, we were not so lucky. However we did manage to dust off another sort of Leonardo-based fascination, buried in a barely cracked edition of Time-Life’s populist Library of Art book series from 1971 (click image to enlarge).

Published in a lavishly illustrated volume titled The World of Leonardo (and authored with help from H.W. Janson of Art History 101 fame), this strangely engaging spread depicts eight early copies of da Vinci’s masterpiece, variously attributed and painted between the early 1500s and the 17th century.

Our interest lies not so much in the mere existence of so many Monas – indeed since the original, enshrined in the Louvre, was created in 1503, copies of widely varying quality have proliferated to such an extent that the painting has become the most recognizable (and most parodied) work of art in the world. However to our eyes this particular selection (of contemporaneous and early copies), and presentation (a typological treatment, encouraging close comparison), so effectively defamiliarizes the world’s most famous painting, that it allows viewers a new way into that old familiar face.

The captions are equally interesting, both for what they include and what they don’t. Infrared technologies have improved vastly over the years, and art historians have made some surprising discoveries since this book was published. For instance, the 1971 caption for the Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid (top row, third from left) states that it is the work of an unknown 16th century artist who chose to omit the background imagery. However, just this year art historians discovered that the painting was actually created by one of Leonardo’s own students at precisely the same time that the master was completing the original. That black Flemish-style varnish? Probably added in the 18th century. It once obscured a lush Tuscan landscape nearly identical to Leonardo’s; see the newly restored painting as it was reintroduced by the Prado earlier this year.


Although Time-Life’s book division was closed in 2003, Time online continues to mine the mystery that is Mona with this recent slideshow featuring contemporary copies from cool to kitsch. See below for the complete captions to all the images shown above, and visit our Pinterest page to see larger versions of the images, as well as the original, on our Mona Lisa Overdrive pinboard.

captions: top row, left to right

  1. The most controversial version of the Mona Lisa is in the Vernon collection in the US. Its owners consider it authentic and value it at $2.5 million.
  2. This copy in The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, like the Vernon version, shows the flanking colonnettes that were later cut from the original.
  3. The Mona Lisa in the Prado, Madrid, is the work of an unknown 16th century artist who chose to omit Leonardo’s background.
  4. A copy in the collection of Dr. Carl Muller, of Thalwil, Switzerland, was painted by Leonardo’s untalented pupil and companion Salai.

captions: bottom row, left to right

  1. The version which hangs in the Chamber of Deputies in Rome has been attributed to one of Leonardo’s pupils, Bernardino Luini.
  2. The National Gallery in Oslo owns this copy, signed “Bernardino Luini. MDXXV” but possibly painted by Philippe de Champaigne.
  3. “La Belle Gabrielle,” a nude version, probably of the 16th century, is in the collection of the Earl of Spencer at Northampton, England.
  4. A 17th century nude version is in the Carrara Academy in Bergamo. The Mona Lisa has also been copied in sculpture and often caricatured.

top image and captions from
The World of Leonardo, 1452–1519, by Robert Wallace and the Editors of
Time-Life Books, published in 1971 by Time Incorporated, New York and widely available used, often for less than $2 (if it isn’t already on your grandma’s bookshelf), due to the enormous quantities that were printed and distributed. 

images of the Mona Lisa, Prado link to their sources on the web*

Note: We are indebted to William Gibson for our post title, which we borrowed from his cyberpunk novel of the same name. Perhaps not coincidentally, it too deals in simulacra, mutable faces, and multiple identities; find it at

We’ll be on and off the road over the next few weeks and will post whenever we can. Thanks for reading, and we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled program soon!

*Update, November 7, 2016: the image of the Prado restoration (above right) has been replaced with an image by Liu Bolin in anticipation of his upcoming exhibition at Klein Sun Gallery, NY. Link to the exhibition page soon; see the artist’s page for more images of his fantastic artworks (courtesy of the artist and Klein Sun Gallery @ Liu Bolin)

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