The Mona Lisa Echo by Jeannine Cook

Leading the news on this morning's Radio Nacional de España bulletin was an item much more uplifting than the usual recitals of violence, disaster and unemployment. Madrid's Prado Museum has announced that it has on its walls a Mona Lisa - La Gioconda in Spanish - painted at the same time, between 1503-06, as Leonardo da Vinci was painting the original Mona Lisa, the iconic portrait of Lisa Gherardini, wife of a Florentine cloth merchant.

This announcement is, understandably, of huge interest to the Spanish, at a time when everything seems to be going wrong for them. The story has fascination for everyone who has fallen under the spell of Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile as she gazes from the walls of the Louvre, now sadly rather hidden behind layers of bullet-proof protection. There have been a number of copies of this famous painting which are distributed around the world. However, the discovery of the Prado "twin" is full of interesting insights, although the experts are trying to play down the public excitement.

La Gioconda at the Prado, (courtesy of the Prado Museum)

La Gioconda at the Prado, (courtesy of the Prado Museum)

This twin portrait, of very similar dimensions to the Louvre version, has actually belonged to the Prado Museum for a long time; it was first recorded in 1666 as part of the Royal Collection. However, as has now been discovered, it was then considered an interesting but unexciting portrait, mainly because the figure was set in a black background as can be seen in the image above prior to restoration.. It was also thought to have been painted on an oak panel, which implied that an artist working in the Low Country (today's Holland and Belgium) painted it. Florentine artists used poplar or walnut panels for their paintings.

However, the spur for further investigation was an upcoming exhibition about Sainte Anne, Leonardo's last great painting,opening in March at the Louvre. The Prado experts first found that the wooden panel was indeed walnut, which meant that it was painted in Florence. Then infrared reflectography revealed that there was a landscape painted behind the lady, which echoed the landscape behind the Louvre's Mona Lisa. The removal of the black background confirmed a luminous Tuscan landscape, with the river Adda, a favourite of Leonardo. Crisper and with no sfumato, the scene helps confirm details on Leonardo's version. Apparently, the black ground was added about two centuries after the painting was executed, probably following current fashion.

A detail of the nearly conserved Leonardo da Vinci pupil's take of the Mona Lisa. The Prado has yet to finish conservation work on the whole painting. Photograph: Museo Nacional del Pradio

A detail of the nearly conserved Leonardo da Vinci pupil's take of the Mona Lisa. The Prado has yet to finish conservation work on the whole painting. Photograph: Museo Nacional del Pradio

Not only is the background a luminous echo of the original, but the lady herself has a few interesting details which supplement those of the Louvre's Mona Lisa. Eyebrows, a frilly dress neckline, a sheer veil draped across her left shoulder and elbow, and even clearer details of the spindles of the chair in which the lady is seated - these are seen as clarifying details. All this information has led to the conclusion that this version of the Mona Lisa was painted at the same time that Leonardo da Vinci was working on his portrait of Lisa Gherardini, but that he himself did not work on this copy. Possibly the two paintings were done side by side, using the same model, maybe as a teaching exercise or maybe to duplicate a good painting for money. Indeed, Leonardo still possessed his portrait of Lisa Gherardini at his death, so he did not give the work to her husband, despite it being commissioned to celebrate the birth of her second child.

There are three names being mentioned in the press - the Spanish are talking of Francesco Melzi, a star apprentice from 1506 in Leonardo's studio, or else Andrea Salai, who joined Leonardo in 1490 and became a favoured pupil and possibly his lover. The Italians are talking of contemporaneous documents talking of a Fernando Spagnolo who was working with Leonardo in 1505 on the huge mural, the Batalla de Anghiari.

Whoever created this portrait of a young, vibrant woman in her twenties, it is intimately linked to Leonardo da Vinci and his iconic Mona Lisa.

It would, I am sure, amuse and interest Leonardo to know that over 500 years later, these two paintings are to be reunited temporarily at the Louvre later this year.

Art as Magic Glue by Jeannine Cook

Christmas Eve is one of those moments in the calendar when each of us stops and thinks of family and friends, an important milepost as each year turns to a new one. As I write holiday messages and receive lovely cards of greeting, I am struck ever more forcibly by the realisation that art has been the magic which has created so many of these friendships.

If one ever doubted the universality of the power of art to communicate and celebrate, then it is at times like this holiday season that that doubt should be dissipated. From the beauty of music, choral or orchestral, to productions of the Nutcracker delighting audiences all over the world at this time, to exhibitions of beautiful art on the walls of museums and - in my personal case - to the sharing of the love of art, the links become a sparkling, complex yet elastic web. Diverse optics and backgrounds, languages and ages can all find common ground in enjoyment of art and - more generally - the arts.

The creation of art takes an interesting trajectory. Most times, the work of art is created as a private, personal expression of one person, a work often created in solitude and thought and often, flat-out hard work. But once created, that work takes wing and is launched into the wider world, where it can find an audience that ranges from totally indifferent to highly receptive and appreciative. Art is defined in Britannica Online as "the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments and experiences that can be shared with others." Man has been creating art in one form or another since time immemorial, with a diversity of goals that range from self-expression to pure creativity. Art can be used to express ideas, be they political, philosophical or spiritual, to evoke a sense of beauty, to explore perceptions, to generate a variety of emotions from pleasure to solemnity, awe or grief - or none of the above. Art for art's sake is a well-known concept in our times. Art, in any form, is nonetheless a form of communication that everyone can understand.

Today we all regard art as a universal language, irrespective of who exactly has ownership of the actual work of art. Copyright ownership is indeed important, for that forms part of the earning capacity of an artist, but nonetheless, there is a wider philosophical consideration that has been around for many centuries. Who truly "owns" a work of art, once it has reached the level of widespread recognition and appreciation? Many people consider art as an essential ingredient for human life, vital for a quality of life that is uplifting and beneficial. Thus, it is reasoned, art cannot just belong to a privileged few.

The first public museum was founded in 1753, in England, when Sir Hans Soane bequeathed a huge art collection to King George II for the benefit of the nation, a bequest which was ratified by an Act of Parliament for the creation of the British Museum.

Hans Sloane, Stephen Slaughter, 1736, (Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

Hans Sloane, Stephen Slaughter, 1736, (Image courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London)

Another early manifestation of this idea of art belonging to everyone was the creation, in 1793, of the first French public art museum, the Louvre. The King of France's magnificent collection of paintings, drawings, sculpture and other objects became the people's collection of art, housed in the Louvre and available to all for enjoyment and inspiration. Throughout the world, this lofty idea of art as a universal form of enriching communication was adopted. Thus, the great museums we know today, from Madrid's El Prado, (created in 1819), Berlin's Altes Museum, built in 1830 as the first of the collection of art and archaeological museums on Berlin's Museum Island , to the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870) in New York, came into existence. By the 20th century, the idea that art is an essential ingredient of human society was so widely accepted that Diego Rivera could declare categorically, "Art is the universal language. It belongs to all mankind."

Small wonder that on a personal basis, each of us artists find that the art we create proves to be a magical glue that unites us with a wide, diverse and wondrous community of friends, all sharing a love of art. What richness - and what a renewed gift at this time of seasonal celebrations. Happy holidays to you all, my friends and fellow art-lovers!