UCSD professor delves into mystery of dual Mona Lisas during Torrey Pines of La Jolla Rotary meeting

Torrey Pines of La Jolla Rotary Club


11 a.m. Wednesdays, Rock Bottom Brewery, 8980 La Jolla Village Drive


By Pat Sherman

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.

Early Work

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.

Clark had repeatedly requested that the Louvre remove layers of varnish from the Mona Lisa that had discolored it over the years, so he could gaze upon the ‘real Mona Lisa’ before he died. He eventually asked Asmus and Pedretti if they could use their techniques to create an unvarnished image of the Mona Lisa.

To accomplish this, they first needed a high-quality archival photograph of the work. However, after tapping Pedretti’s contacts at the Louvre for three years, no such image was forthcoming.

Enter Cronkite

In the early 1980s, retired CBS anchor Walter Cronkite visited the campus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography (where Asmus’ laboratory was then located) to film research there for his TV show, “Universe.”

The show’s producer told Asmus Cronkite was disappointed because he had heard that the Mona Lisa had been restored, though Asmus and Pedretti still needed the archival photograph to begin the work.

“She said, ‘Is that all? We’ll have Walter call the Louvre,’ ” Asmus recalled.

The following Friday, Asmus’ mailbox at UCSD began filling up with archival prints and transparencies of the Mona Lisa.

“Even the Egyptology department (at the Louvre) sent me an archival photograph,” he said.

CBS still didn’t believe they had an image of the Mona Lisa that was of sufficient quality, so they rented the Mona Lisa for a day.

“I had the Mona Lisa to myself in the basement of the Louvre, for one day — and I could do anything I wanted with it, as long as I didn’t touch it,” Asmus said.

Asmus returned to California with samples of varnish from the edge of the Mona Lisa, as well as large format photographs, which they scanned using technology available then at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena.

Once they removed the distractions from the painting, all sorts of details began to emerge, including the possibility that a necklace or mountains once existed in the painting that had possibly been removed by a restorer.

“I spent several years of my life gazing at the dirty Mona Lisa and the clean Mona Lisa and one of the things that really caught my attention was a bridge off her left shoulder,” said Asmus, who would travel to Italy several times searching for that bridge, to no avail. He would eventually find it in Balboa Park (in a painting by an American artist on display at the Timken Museum).

The bridge is located near Perugia, Italy, where it is believed da Vinci spent some time working for Caesar Borgia, an ally of Princess Constanza d’Avalos (believed to be one of three potential women to have posed for the Mona Lisa, which also includes da Vinci’s mother and Princess Isabella of Naples).

After consulting art historians, nobody would validate or refute Asmus’ theory that Constanza d’Avalos had posed for the Mona Lisa. However, based on his theories, Asmus was invited to give a lecture in Rome about the lost attributes of the Mona Lisa.

His notoriety on the subject led him to receive some 50 inquiries from people claiming to be in possession of the “real Mona Lisa,” with explanations as to why the one in the Louvre was a fake.

“Most of these I either ignored or found some fairly straightforward reason for discounting,” he said.

However, several calls were from attorneys representing the estate of art collector and media mogul Henry Pulitzer, which included a version of the Mona Lisa. They wanted the painting authenticated, to determine how much it was worth when the estate was divided.

Asmus agreed to meet with Pulitzer’s people in Geneva, Switzerland, where he was driven in a black limousine to the lowest level of a bank’s underground parking garage.

“I started feeling like I was in the middle of the ‘Bourne Identity,’ ” Asmus said. “I kept waiting for the guys with machine guns to come out.”

The trunk of another limousine popped open and inside was a painting of what is now believed to be da Vinci’s original Mona Lisa (what would come to be known as the “Isleworth Mona Lisa,” named for the London suburb where it was kept early in the last century).

Lineage of the Isleworth Mona Lisa

Pulitzer had purchased the painting from the late English art connoisseur Hugh Blaker, who acquired it from an English Lord who had gone bankrupt. In 1914, an art critic for the

New York Times

said Blaker’s Mona Lisa, thought to be a younger version of the woman who posed for the one at the Louvre, was “more delicate, pleasing and beautiful,” Asmus said. The Isleworth also has columns not found in the Louvre version, but which appear in a sketch of the Mona Lisa by da Vinci contemporary, Raphael.

Since da Vinci painted duplicates of many of his works, Asmus said it was “not outlandish to suggest that there might be two Mona Lisas,” and “not outlandish to suggest that what became known as the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ may be the other one.”

Armed with only photographs he took of the Mona Lisa in the trunk of the black limo, and using geometric principals and shading and brush stroke analysis, Asmus was able to discern that the same construction principles were used in the design of both Mona Lisas, though applied in different ways.

“That suggests that whoever painted the ‘Isleworth Mona Lisa’ was using the same principles, rather than just copying the Louvre one,” he said.

Asmus eventually helped broker a deal to have the Isleworth Mona Lisa shipped to the Louvre, so that both versions could be viewed side-by-side, where spectral and infrared imaging, as well as radio carbon dating, was used to confirm they were both created by the same hand.

Several years ago, at Asmus’ suggestion, the Pulitzer Foundation also had the FBI use its age regression software to confirm that the face in the Isleworth painting was indeed a younger version of the Louvre Mona Lisa.

Additional tests conducted a year ago, including one by a specialist in “sacred geometry,” and one by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, also confirmed that both the Louvre and Isleworth versions were painted by da Vinci.

“The majority of the Leonardo scholars — looking at publications from the past and interviews from the present — feel that Leonardo most likely painted two Mona Lisas,” Asmus said. “I would say at this point there’s vastly more data supporting the contention of the Pulitzer Foundation (for the Arts) that this is the other Mona Lisa that people have been searching for.”