After a decade of work, French scientist Pascal Cotte claims there are hidden portraits underneath the Mona Lisa—including one of a distinctly different woman. Art experts are skeptical.
As the BBC reports, Cotte used a technique called Layer Amplification Method (LAM) to analyze the da Vinci masterpiece, which was painted between 1503 and 1517. After “projecting a series of intense lights” onto the painting, a camera recorded measurements of the lights’ reflections, enabling Cotte to reconstruct hidden details.
“We can now analyze exactly what is happening inside the layers of the paint and we can peel like an onion all the layers of the painting,” explained Cotte in the BBC Two documentary, The Secrets of the Mona Lisa. “We can reconstruct all the chronology of the creation of the painting.”
Cotte’s reconstruction of the hidden portrait (Credit: BBC)
Instead of the front-on gaze of the Mona Lisa, the reconstruction shows a seated woman looking off to the side—without her iconic smile. Cotte also claims there are two more images under the surface of the painting, including the portrait of a woman with a larger head and nose, bigger hands, and smaller lips than those featured on the Mona Lisa.
“I was in front of the portrait and she is totally different to Mona Lisa today,” says Cotte. “This is not the same woman.”
Cotte’s extraordinary claim is fueling a longstanding debate about the Mona Lisa’s identity. The going theory is that she is Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a Florentine silk merchant. But Cotte thinks the hidden painting is Leonardo’s original, and that the portrait known as the Mona Lisa belongs to another woman.
Pascal Cotte (Credit: BBC/Brinkworth Films)
Needless to say, not everyone is buying this theory, or the suggestion that a hidden portrait even exists. The Louvre Museum, for example, has refused to comment on the claim. And here’s what BBC Arts Editor Will Gompertz had to say:
I’m skeptical. It’s perfectly common for an artist to overpaint an image as it is for a client who’s commissioned that artist to ask for changes. So it’s not surprising that there are those underpaintings on the Mona Lisa.
The data that the technology generates is open to interpretation, which needs to be analysed and corroborated by the academic and curatorial community, and not just an individual. I think the Louvre’s decision not to make a comment is telling.
This is the world’s most famous painting which, like a celebrity, always makes for a good story. But in this case I think caution is required.
Martin Kemp, Emeritus Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford, agrees with Gompertz, telling the BBC the the reconstruction is “ingenious in showing what Leonardo may have been thinking about. But the idea that there is that picture as it were hiding underneath the surface is untenable,” adding that “I do not think there are these discrete stages which represent different portraits. I see it as more or less a continuous process of evolution. I am absolutely convinced that the Mona Lisa is Lisa.”
Email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @dvorsky. Top image by Thomas Ricker/Flickr/CC-BY 2.0