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The two Mona Lisas debate – Everybody take a breath now.

The two Mona Lisas: Left: the putative young upstart. Right: The Louvre Classic. Credit: Mona Lisa Foundation

The two Mona Lisas: Left: the putative young upstart. Right: The Louvre Classic. Credit: Mona Lisa Foundation

“The Mona Lisa Foundation’s mission is to make Leonardo’s ‘Earlier Mona Lisa’ known and loved in its own right, as much as the version that hangs in the Louvre Museum.”

This quote comes from the website of a Swiss organization that sent out a press release yesterday announcing it had new scientific proof that a painting of a younger looking Mona Lisa is the first portrait da Vinci made of the famous muse.

And a maelstrom of news followed.

But let’s just be clear about this new scientific proof: It’s the radiocarbon dating of a piece of cloth canvas.

New tests at the Swiss Institute for Technology in Zurich (ETH) suggest the canvas cloth was made between 1410 and 1455. Previous dating experiments at Oxford pointed toward the 17th century, which implied the painting was not made by da Vinci, who lived between 1452 and 1519.

Since the canvas cloth date just needs to fall before the production of the painting, the new carbon dating does lend credence to the claims that the artwork could have also been made by da Vinci.

But it’s JUST the dating of the cloth, folks: There’s no proof in the current study that da Vinci actually made the painting.

I found it a bit odd that the Mona Lisa Foundation didn’t name the scientist involved in the carbon dating or include him or her in the press material.

So I called ETH’s media relations folks and was told that Hans-Arno Synal from the Laboratory of Ion Beam Physics had done the work based on an “unattributed sample without information of the origin of the material or the object where this sample came from.” The institute has now emailed reporters a statement that notes: “Conclusions on origin or authenticity on the object from which this sample may originate cannot be drawn from this result only.”

Of course, the Swiss Mona Lisa Foundation claims that there is other scientific evidence to support the idea that the young version of the portrait was made by da Vinci.

For example, in a press release they note: “Previously, four tests undertaken by Prof. John Asmus, nuclear physicist, who digitised the brushstrokes of both paintings, established scientifically that both the ‘Earlier Version’ and the ‘Mona Lisa’ in the Louvre would have been executed by the same artist. This brushstroke analysis identifies conclusively an artist in the same way that DNA or fingerprints identify criminals.”

This is a rather breathless claim too. I mean, the brush stroke research certainly suggests that the artwork is consistent

with being da Vinci’s–or somebody who used his brushes, and liked his style so much that they copied it.

In fact it’s actually really hard to prove a piece of artwork is authentic because doubters always want more evidence. It’s much easier to prove something is a fake because the presence of modern or geographically incongruous materials is pretty damning.

So the new carbon dating is very interesting, but it’s not a smoking gun. Let’s all take a deep breath.


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  • Feb 14th 201314:02
    by Carmen Drahl


    How does brushstroke analysis compare to, say, handwriting analysis in terms of reliability? This reminds me of the stuff I hear about in forensic sciences…

  • Feb 14th 201320:02
    by Sarah Everts


    Yeah, that was my question exactly. I had to shake my head when I read the words “fingerprint” and “identifies conclusively” and “criminal” together in a sentence. I mean fingerprints have long been eyed suspiciously (http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2002/05/27/020527fa_FACT) and you’ve aptly described the problems with shoddy forensic science (http://cen.acs.org/articles/90/i37/Forensic-Science-Innocence-Project.html). Sigh.

  • Feb 18th 201318:02
    by stephen marx


    The owners of the young Mona Lisa want to sell that one for $1.5 million or more. What is the owners’ relationship to the Swiss Foundation?

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