There are relatively few known surviving paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. Only about 8 major works are universally attributed to him; there are some that are attributed to his workshop, assistants, and his brushstrokes. There are many incomplete works, and many whose attributions are quite complicated like the Salvator Mundi, which has made headlines in the last few years, first for its historic sale at auction, and then for the revelation that the buyer was Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman (see the post of December 9, 2021: “Salvator Mundi: The ongoing saga”).
Now a new story unfolds in Rome: It is the case of the Mona Lisa of Montecitorio. There are many copies of the masterpiece that today hangs in the Louvre, and this one had been known to exist in the collection of the Palazzo Montecitorio, the seat of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. It measures 70 cm x 50 cm (less than 28” by 20”), which is smaller than its sister in the Louvre. But when it was painted and by whom remains controversial as there are no documents to reconstruct the origins of the painting.
The painting was first mentioned in the Torlonia inventory in 1814 as “a copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa.’” Called the Torlonia Gioconda, it was owned by a noble Roman family (see the post of July1, 2021: The Torlonia Marbles). At some point, the painting was attributed to Bernardo Luini, who worked with Leonardo; in fact, some scholars believe that Luini created the Salvator Mundi. In 1892, the painting became part of the collection of the National Gallery of Ancient Art at Palazzo Barberini. The work was granted to the Chamber of Deputies in 1927 where it hung for many years in an office above a radiator. Today it is in the Aldo Moro room on the first floor of the Palazzo Montecitorio.
Today’s controversy started in 2019 when the restored Torlonia Gioconda was featured in an exhibition, Leonardo in Rome: Influences and Legacy at the Accademia dei Lincei to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. The exhibition’s curators claim that the Roman copy could have been created in da Vinci’s studio and that the glazes, the chiaroscuro effect and the refined painting technique suggest a possible intervention by the master himself.
Cinzia Pasquali, the painting’s restorer, is one of the most famous art restorers in the world. She has worked for 25 years at the Louvre and conducted the “restoration of the century” in Leonardo’s painting, The Virgin with Child and St. Anne. According to her, the painting dates from the first half of the 16th century and is not by Leonardo but it could have been created in his studio.
Art historians, art critics, and even parliamentarians had their strong opinions about the painting, from “modest” to “the decorative value of furniture” to “it takes my breath away how ugly this painting is. Not a drop of Leonardo.” A more measured expression came from a former superintendent of Rome: “it does not seem to have the imprint of an excellent hand like that of Leonardo.”
A member of the Italian Chamber of Deputies announced that a comprehensive study will be carried out on the painting.