On October 26, 2007 in our WordPunk blog, I wrote an article — Is Stealing Ever Good? — advocating the theft of inspiration as a qualified original intent:

Some call stealing inspiration, but if you see or experience something and then change or employ those experiences in your life — you have effectively borrowed and stolen the thoughts of others and I wholly encourage that effort.

I am not condoning plagiarism, but I am supporting the opportunity to consider and use ideas that are not your own because there are no original thoughts left in the world.

Over the weekend, I read a fascinating article in the New York Times indicating that the world-famous “copy” of the Mona Lisa was probably actually sanctioned by the great Leonardo da Vinci himself:

It turns out that the Prado’s Mona Lisa is not just any 500-year-old copy. It was most likely painted by someone who was sitting right next to Leonardo da Vinci, trying to duplicate his every brush stroke, as he produced his famous lady with the enigmatic smile.

When Leonardo adjusted the size of the Mona Lisa’s head or corrected her hands or slimmed her bosom or lowered her bodice, so did whoever was painting the Prado’s Mona Lisa.

“It had to be painted at the same time,” Ms. González said. “Someone who copies doesn’t make corrections because they haven’t ever seen the changes. They can see only the surface of the painting.”

That Mona Lisa discovery now necessarily leads us into a grander conversation about Art and Inspiration and how we come to create original works.

Direct stealing is much harder to defend because the evidence is there in the duplicate, the copy, the fake.  There is a fake Mona Lisa and there is a real Mona Lisa and the fake can never become the inspiration for the original work.

When we move inspiration from the hard canvas and into swirls of light on a stage, or in a certain cut of fabric on the runway, or a catchy turn of phrase wending its way from the hard page to the empty stage, what is real and what is right and what has been copied is harder to determine because there are additional layers of human intervention entwined in the erstwhile effort to bring new life out of old compunctions.

When it comes to film — the hard standard for copying is much easier to prove — either you have copied the shot and the sequence or you have not, and the effort is there and recorded in still frames from now until forever.  I am reminded of director Gus Van Sant’s horrible 1998 cut-by-cut “remake” of Hitchcock’s Psycho — intended as a “tribute” to the great master — that was not only a purposeful copy of the original, but a pale resemblance when compared against the masterpiece. Copies are lifeless and uninspired and that remake proved that hard and uncomfortable point, not matter the overlaying intention of goodness.

We need to be carefully aware of history and our inspirations and if we choose to create Art from those native human impulses, we must better align the original work by changing its temperature and tuning to fit our own unique worldview or we, by default, become the copy and never the conduit for inspiring others to take our influences and run with them anew.


  1. I wonder if the artist copying the Mona Lisa was, so to speak, learning how to paint by making this copy? Seems like a reasonable reason for Da Vinci to allow him to do it.

    1. That’s one interesting possibility, Gordon. That sort of mentoring is the right way to product a talent — but why would da Vinci want that sort of confusion left in the marketplace? Why not have the student imitate the master on something less important and of clearer intent?

  2. Why would Leonardo arrange to have a copy made simultaneously with the original? Read the article, “Leonardo’s Val di Chiana Map in the Mona Lisa”, in Cartographica, 46:3, 2011. A preview is available at http://digital.utpjournals.com/issue/43517/6 .
    If two copies were aligned, the image from one edge would continue onto the other, forming a newly reconstituted landscape that would match an actual place, namely the Val di Chiana, as mapped by Leonardo, which he completed just before starting the Mona Lisa. So it is more than likely that the two copies and the map were present, simultaneously, in his workshop.
    Two such juxtaposed copies would also form a stereoscopic arrangement. This would be a painterly example of what Leonardo was discussing in his Notebooks under “Differences of perception of one eye and both eyes”. The Mona Lisa and copy could be part of Leonardo’s investigations in stereopsis. Donato Pezzutto.

    1. Thanks for the excellent comment, Donato! The link you provide requires a subscription to read.

      So you are saying that Leonardo painted both the original Mona Lisa and the copy? The NYTimes article argued the copy was definitely not painted by Leonardo. Why would he want a copy that he didn’t paint?

      1. The link does provide a free preview to the beginning of my article. Bendor Grosvenor in his blog, Art History News, has reviewed the article and provides an idea of what I am saying. As I wrote, it would appear that Leonardo “arranged” to have the copy made simultaneously with the original. I do agree with the Prado experts that the evidence supports the notion that a pupil started the copy alongside the master. But I doubt that this continued for sixteen years. Leonardo purposely composed the work so that the image on one edge would continue onto another copy that was juxtaposed to the original. This might explain the reason for Leonardo to have had a simultaneously created copy (or copies?) made. If this is the case, then the composition of both the original and the copy would have been in mind from the outset. That would fit with my hypothesis that the reconstituted landscape, half from the original and half from a copy, represent an actual place, namely the Val di Chiana, as mapped by Leonardo. He had just completed the map in 1502, just before starting the Mona Lisa in 1503. Thus it is highly likely that Leonardo had the Val di Chiana map, the original Mona Lisa and the Prado Mona Lisa in his studio at the same time. Donato.

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