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Image: Nude Mona Lisa?
Museo Ideale Leonardo Da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci may have painted his famous Mona Lisa in a number of styles — including nude. This painting, which features many parallels to the original Mona Lisa, was attributed to Leonardo da Vinci at purchase in 1845. But it may just be based on one of the artist's now-lost works.
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updated 6/12/2009 12:52:31 PM ET 2009-06-12T16:52:31

Leonardo da Vinci, in a Renaissance version of Mad Magazine, may have painted his famous Mona Lisa in a number of ways, including nude. Now, a painting has surfaced that looks much like the original, sparking debate over just how far the master took his iconic painting.

The newly revealed painting, hidden for almost a century within the wood wall of a private library, shows a portrait of a half-naked woman with clear links to the famous (and clothed) Mona Lisa.

The work, which documents suggest was at least based on never-seen similar work by da Vinci, is now on exhibit at the Museo Ideale in the Tuscan town of Vinci, where da Vinci was born in 1452.

The lady in the portrait does not exactly resemble the original Mona Lisa, but there is little doubt it has parallels with the painting hanging at the Louvre museum in Paris.

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"The frontal look, the position of the hands, the spatial conception of the landscape, with columns at the sides, show a clear link with the Mona Lisa's iconographic theme," Alessandro Vezzosi, director of the museum, told Discovery News.

The naked portrait once belonged to Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch (1763-1839) and was ensconced within the wood walls of Fesch's private library for nearly a century, before trading more hands within the Napoleon family.

An art lover, the Cardinal owned an impressive collection of artworks, including da Vinci's "St. Jerome" (now in the Vatican gallery), which he discovered in pieces in the Roman shops of a second-hand dealer.

A note dating to 1845 records that the Cardinal bought "the portrait of the Mona Lisa, mistress of Francis I, by Leonardo da Vinci," from the Rospigliosis, a rich aristocratic Roman family.

After changing hands at the death of the Cardinal, the portrait was possibly bought by Napoleon III, and finally landed in the private collection of Count Giuseppe Primoli, a descendant of Luciano Bonaparte, Napoleon's brother.

The documentation from the painting's original purchase is not enough to verify the work is by da Vinci, himself. The nude portrait will now undergo scientific and artistic investigations in an attempt to date the work and determine its author. Even if it is not by da Vinci (and it likely isn't, experts say), it may be based on a lost original by the artist himself.

"I think it is very likely that Leonardo da Vinci conceived a naked Mona Lisa," leading da Vinci scholar Carlo Pedretti, director of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California at Los Angeles, told Discovery News.

Indeed, several other claims of unclothed Mona Lisa's have been made over the years, pointing to the theory that da Vinci might have had fun with the famous image he had created around 1503-1506.

"There are at least six nude versions which are very close to da Vinci's hand. All are attributed to the da Vinci school. The most likely scenario is that his followers got inspired by a now-lost original," Vezzosi said.

According to Vezzosi, the original naked Mona might have been part of a series of erotic portraits by da Vinci and his pupils, which were never really shown because they were considered inappropriate.

Called "Monna Vanna," the topless versions of the Mona Lisa are indeed often considered the portraits of a court mistress or prostitute.

Nevertheless, these paintings inspired nudes by other artists, including Raphaello's 1518 portrait of his mistress, "The Baker Girl."

"Our quest for naked Mona Lisa's continues. We are now on the tracks of another interesting version in Las Vegas," Vezzosi said.

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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