Though many art scholars say their favorite painting by Leonardo da Vinci is of the 15th Century aristocrat, Ginevra de’ Benci (on display at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.), a more intriguing 16th century beauty named Mona Lisa has far surpassed that work’s popularity due to rumor and speculation ignited when she was stolen from the Louvre Museum, Aug. 22, 1911.
“It was returned to the Louvre a couple years later … (though that) two-year absence was all you needed to develop conspiracy theories that the Italians sent back a copy of the Mona Lisa, and that somebody kept the original,” said UC San Diego physics professor emeritus John Asmus during the Aug. 14 meeting of the Torrey Pines of La Jolla Rotary Club.
Asmus gave Rotarians and guests a dose of mystery and art history while discussing his work to help verify that da Vinci created an additional Mona Lisa a decade before he created the one on permanent display at the Louvre. He also discussed his work employing X-ray, infrared and computer technology to give the world a glimpse of what the Mona Lisa at the Louvre looked like before she was saddled with seven layers of cracking, yellow-brown varnish, and possibly nicked by the well meaning, albeit maligning hands of art restorers.
His work landed him a day alone with the Italian Renaissance painter’s woman of ambiguous expression, and a shadowy meeting deep in the bowels of a Swiss bank.
Asmus began his career at San Diego’s General Atomics in 1960, where the physics student got a summer job with a team working to send an astronaut to Saturn by 1970, via the nuclear-powered spacecraft, Orion (the program fizzled after 1963, when the Soviet Union, U.K. and U.S. signed a treaty banning nuclear weapons testing in outer space).
Asmus’ career at General Atomics shifted to working on what was, at the time, the world’s most powerful laser (located in Sorrento Valley). While working on the laser one day, he received a call from art collector and oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, who was transferring his collection from his Sutton Place manor in England to California. Getty needed help dating some of his paintings, including a Rembrandt.
Using X-ray examination techniques (commonly used by art authenticators), Asmus helped date the Rembrandt, and also obtained an untarnished image of the painting underneath (while bankrupt, Rembrandt frequently reused his panels).
When the economy and other factors put a damper on laser testing, Asmus decided to pursue a side career in art authentication.
At UCLA, where he had been a guest lecturer, Asmus met Carlo Pedretti, one of the world’s premier experts on da Vinci. The two began using computer imaging and other techniques to authenticate works by Rembrandt and other artists.
At one point Pedretti was helping Lord Kenneth Clark catalog Queen Elizabeth’s collection of da Vinci’s drawings at Windsor Castle.